Meet the Mackinac State Historic Parks Dray Team

One of the most magical noises on Mackinac Island is the morning *clip* *clop* of horse hooves on the pavement as the busy days come to life. Horses are a huge part of the island’s allure. Something a lot of people may not think about is the fact that the horses aren’t only here for show or tourist charm. In reality, a lot of what these horses do, specifically dray teams, is what allows the island to function as well as it does.

Mackinac State Historic Parks' dray horses, Holiday on the left and Dex on the right.

 Dex on the left, and Holiday.

 Mackinac State Historic Parks is no exception. The organization is a machine with many parts, and each position allows the park to function season to season. You have your interpreters, park operations, and even some interns in the mix, among others. But one position that can be overlooked is that of the “dray horse.” A dray is a four-wheeled flat cart that is pulled by a horse, sometimes multiple, depending on the load. The state park has its own dray team that works 5 days a week, 8 hours a day, just like the rest of the park employees.

The Mackinac State Historic Parks Dray horses in their pasture.

The team in their pasture.

 Meet Dex and Holiday. These two strong boys do a LOT for the parks. This is their first season working for MSHP, but they already know their way around the island, having been here in previous seasons. They are both Belgian Draught Horses, and as one of the most muscle-y breeds out there, they were built to work. They’re fueled by three cans of oats a day, and lots of treats (of course!).

 Just like people, the two of them have their own personalities. Holiday is a wise old man. He keeps the team calm. Dex is younger, and has a little bit more fire. Dex is the get-up-and-go type, while Holiday likes to take things a little easier. This was hard for them at first, but they have figured out how to balance each other out at the perfect pace to do their job.

Holiday with his human helper, Eric.

Holiday and Eric.

 Our brave steeds don’t work alone. Every team needs a coach, and this is where dray driver Luis comes in. Luis also has an assistant, Eric. These two men have a deep love and respect for Dex and Holiday. They spend hours a day not only driving the horses and doing their own jobs, but also caring for them, feeding them, and just giving them attention. Basically, Dex and Holiday are like their 1500 pound dogs.

Dex the horse with a special July 4 hat on his head.

Dex celebrating the Fourth of July.

 Dex and Holiday’s main job, along with their drivers, is to keep the park in top shape. This means picking up trash, delivering supplies, and other maintenance. On an island with no cars, this job becomes that much harder. The dray team makes it much more manageable for their human counterparts.

 They have day-to-day surprises, and have even survived a dray crash! Don’t worry, they handled it like champs, and weren’t even spooked. Luckily, there was no damage done to either dray. They are also natural models, as Luis and Eric explained that tourists take pictures of them throughout the day. The team is up for the challenge though, and they know how to pose for a camera. They have even been featured as special guests in some staff pictures at one of the Mackinac Island inns!

A picture of Doug the horse.

The third horse team member, Doug.

 We also can’t forget about Doug and his driver Juan. These two cover the off days for Dex and Holiday, because horses are human too! Wait…but anyways, these two contribute a lot to the park’s quality, doing the same job as Dex and Holiday.

The Mackinac State Historic Parks Dray team walking on M-185.

The Dray team at work.

 While the dray horses aren’t at the forefront of MSHP’s operation, they are so crucial to its upkeep. So next time you’re around, Dex, Holiday or Doug would never say no to an apple or carrot as a thank you for everything that they do for the parks and the island! They can be found in the pasture on their off-days, as long as it isn’t rainy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A logo for the 125th anniversary of the Mackinac Island Automobile Ban.

Celebrating 125 Years of Mackinac Island’s Automobile Ban

A logo for the 125th anniversary of the Mackinac Island Automobile Ban.

Celebrating 125 years!

There are so many things that make Mackinac Island special. A cannon blast coming from the Revolutionary War-era fort every morning to wake the island up. The smell of fudge tempting you as walk down Main Street. The natural beauty that is Arch Rock. Lilacs bursting throughout the island in early June.

 However, it’s the distinct lack of something that most people might point to as being the thing that makes the island special.

 “Mackinac Island is famous for many things, but the century and a quarter-old ban on motorized vehicles is truly at the top of why it is such a special place,” said Mackinac State Historic Parks Director Steve Brisson.

 2023 marks the 125th anniversary of the automobile ban on Mackinac Island. As the story goes, in 1898 the first horseless carriage made its way to Mackinac Island via ferry boat and the first encounter between horse and “horseless carriage” was said to be chaotic. In response, businessmen engaged in the carriage industry filed a formal petition with the Village Common Council. They stated that the use of automobiles on Mackinac Island would be a danger to “the lives and property of petitioners and their patrons and to all others who use the streets and roads of this village.” Protection of the island’s historic environment and the carriage businesses serving tourists were a priority for locals and business owners alike. A resolution was made the same day the petition was delivered, effectively banning all automobiles in the Village of Mackinac Island.

 The Mackinac Island State Park Commission followed suit in 1901, banning automobiles within Mackinac Island State Park.

 “The Mackinac Island State Park Commission has been honored to work with and partner with the City of Mackinac Island for more than a century on the ban on automobiles,” Brisson said. “We continue to partner with the city to enforce this ban that is crucial to maintaining the heritage of Mackinac Island.”

An 1886 Benz Motorwagen.

The 1886 Benz Motorwagen. Photo courtesy Gilmore Car Museum.

 Mackinac State Historic Parks is celebrating the occasion with special events the weekend of July 21, complete with an 1886 Benz Motorwagen on the island. It was a vehicle very similar to this that got the wheels in motion (no pun intended) for the ban on automobiles.

 The weekend will begin with a ceremonial “re-banning” of automobiles on Mackinac Island. The Motorwagen will take a short drive down Market Street to Mackinac Island City Council before Brisson and Mackinac Island Mayor Margaret Doud reaffirm the ban. This event will begin at 7:00 p.m.

 The “horseless vehicle” will also be on display outside Fort Mackinac at the Huron Road Pavilion from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, July 22, and Sunday, July 23. A member of the Gilmore Car Museum will provide interpretation and visitors will be able to take pictures. On the evening of July 22 an invite-only event, presented by Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, will take place at Fort Mackinac officially commemorating the ban on automobiles on Mackinac Island.

 Mackinac State Historic Parks has partnered with the Gilmore Car Museum, located outside Kalamazoo, to being the Motorwagen to the island.

Book cover for Phil Porter's book, "Where Horse is King."

Where Horse is King: Mackinac Island’s Automobile Ban, by Phil Porter.

 Former Mackinac State Historic Parks Director Phil Porter has written a new vignette on the automobile ban: Where Horse is King: Mackinac Island’s Automobile Ban. It provides the complete background on the restriction on automobiles, including efforts over the years to get around the ban or repeal it. The book is available at all Mackinac State Historic Parks museum stores.

 In addition, a special commemorative logo has been developed and can be found on merchandise at Mackinac State Historic Parks museum stores, as well as on the license plates found on carriages throughout the island.

 In addition to Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, the special weekend celebrating Mackinac Island’s ban on automobiles has been made possible by Mackinac Associates, friends preserving and sharing Mackinac’s heritage.

Herbert Benjamin examining a horse and carriage in the 1950s.

Herbert Benjamin and Blacksmithing on a Changing Island

Since Europeans settled on the Straits of Mackinac, a few distinct economic eras have affected people’s lives. Aside from the fur trade, tourism has had the most significant impact on Mackinac Island. Tourism affected the entire island, not just the hospitality industry. Islanders adapted to change as the busts and booms of the tourism industry affected their daily lives, and newcomers to the island would bring their skills to improve the community.

A portrait of Robert H. Benjamin.

Robert Benjamin, the founder of the Benjamin Blacksmith Shop.

 After buying the Star Blacksmith in 1885, Robert Benjamin brought his young family to the island for the first time—those first two seasons on the island were very difficult, with little financial gains. Blacksmithing was still a common occupation in the 1880s. Still, it was slowly beginning to decline with industrialization and cheaper, ready-made metal products. What saved Robert’s shop was one of the most ambitious construction projects on Mackinac Island to this day, the construction of Grand Hotel in 1887. Grand Hotel provided Robert with the work he needed to get his struggling shop off the ground and establish his family as a part of the wider island community.

Herbert Benjamin working at the blacksmith forge, taken in the 1950s.

Herbert at the forge, ca. 1950s.

 Robert’s son Herbert would take over the shop in 1900 after Robert was elected Sheriff of Mackinac County. Working in the blacksmith shop for the next 65 years, Herbert witnessed significant changes not only on the island he lived on but also in the kinds of work he did. A blacksmith in the 19th century could count on a steady stream of horses and farming equipment coming through their shop to make money. Working as a farrier, shoeing horses, or creating and repairing tools for everyday work, blacksmiths were common in any city or town. By the early 20th century, cars rapidly replaced horses, and mass-produced tools became the norm. Herbert remained one of the few full-time blacksmiths in the United States thanks to the auto ban on Mackinac Island in the late 1890s. Even on an island with an abundant supply of horses to shoe, it would not be enough to keep Herbert in business; he had to expand his range of work as new technologies and businesses came to the island.

Herbert Benjamin examining a horse and carriage in the 1950s.

Herbert examining a horse and carriage, ca. 1950s.

 Tourism on the island grew significantly following World War Two. The 1950s and ’60s brought even more people visiting the island every summer. New businesses and institutions became a part of the fabric of Mackinac Island, and Herbert would do business with nearly everyone. Herbert shoed horses from Carriage Tours, Gough Stables, the MRA, and many summer cottagers and islanders. He expanded his work to do carriage repair, patent leather work, small engine repair, and even sharpening lawn mower blades. When Mackinac State Historic Parks set about restoring the Biddle House in 1959, Herbert provided $95.00 worth of restoration work.

 Herbert occupied a rare position as a village blacksmith well into the 1960s, long after most blacksmiths had closed their doors and retired. He finally retired in 1965 at the age of 82. His retirement marked the end of a regular village blacksmith on Mackinac Island, though farriers still work there. Following his death in 1967, Herbert’s family donated the shop and its contents to Mackinac State Historic Parks. In addition, the shop was moved from its former location on Benjamin Hill, on the west end of Market Street, to its current location, next to the Biddle House.

A costumed interpreter working as a blacksmith talks with guests at the Benjamin Blacksmith Shop.

A Blacksmith Interpreter in the shop today.

 A blacksmith still works in the shop during the tourist season, from May to October. Though they aren’t shoeing horses, you can often see them working as Herbert did in the 1950s and ’60s on many projects. They use these projects to talk about the changing environment of blacksmithing in the mid-20th century and how Mackinac Island preserved an industry that had once been ubiquitous worldwide for thousands of years. So, on your next visit to Mackinac Island, be sure to stop in at the blacksmith shop, take in the sights and sounds, and learn even more about the changes in blacksmithing and the uniqueness of Mackinac Island. The Benjamin Blacksmith Shop is open from May 12 – October 8.