Time Stands Still on North Manitou

Stacie Longwell Sadowski
First Published in the Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear Fall 2020 Newsletter.

South side porch

Stacie and Vince on the south side porch

This is the time of year when we would normally be celebrating progress on the Katie Shepard Hotel Project on North Manitou Island, sharing images and stories from what would have been our 12th consecutive year on the project.

Past years have seen progress toward our goal of preparing the once collapsing building for some limited public use. Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear (PHSB) sends a group of about a dozen volunteers for 10 days each August to continue working on the historic cottage. This requires intense year-round planning to coordinate with the NPS maintenance staff, historical experts, and project volunteers. Since the island is 11 miles from the mainland, we can’t run out to the hardware store for parts. It all has to be just right!

This year, concerns for public health amid Covid-19 were an obstacle for our volunteers to be gathering and working together on the project. Additionally, the Manitou Island Transit ferry was unable to bring guests to either the North or South Manitou Island. Dock conditions on both islands, due to high water and shifting sands, made public transportation impossible the first part of the season. While the dock on NMI was dredged in August, it came too late to resume ferry service. Visiting the island required a private boat or a charter service.

My husband Vince and I are regular participants in the annual island work project. We met on the project as volunteers in 2014, got engaged on the island in 2015, and were married in 2016. The Katie Shepard Hotel and the island are very special to us, and we normally visit several times a summer. We wouldn’t miss a year, if we could at all avoid it. Although the work project could not go on this year, we were able to charter a boat and spend two weeks backcountry camping there this summer.

The island enjoyed a year of peace and repose. The few visitors who came, by private boat or charter, were far less than in a normal year of over 4000. The maintenance staff and ranger were still present, keeping an eye on the properties and greeting guests. The village lawns and buildings were maintained as usual, and the island remained largely silent, except for the waves, wind in the trees, and thrum of occasional passing freighter engines. When we arrived, after a routine orientation and check in with the staff, we made our way down Cottage Row in the village to see our fair lady, the Katie Shepard.

Boardwalk to Katie Shepard Hotel

The view southward on the boardwalk to the hotel

Walking past all of the graceful cottages, their windows gazing east toward the Manitou Passage, it felt like coming home. Their cheerful and dignified silence greeted us again. We passed the Monte Carlo Cottage, the Shirley Foote Alford Cottage, the Riggs-Londergan Cottage; each one welcoming us with their time-weathered familiar faces. The grassy path, lined with stones from the original boardwalk, was less worn than usual. Past the Foote Cottage, the Trude Cottage, and finally passing the remains of the Blossom cottage near the end of the walk, the Katie came into view. I caught my breath as I always do at her beauty. Even when she was in decay a decade ago years back, she always has had a grace, a voice that speaks of summers past. The high shingled peak, expansive wrapping porch, beach stone foundation, and wide steps invited us forward. Touching the siding near the front door, I whispered “hello Katie.”

Last year, we had made such great progress in refinishing the floors and cleaning the wood planked walls. It felt like she may be finally ready to begin opening for limited indoor guests soon. The interior had gone from dark and lonely to bright and cheerful; doors and windows wide open, awake and part of the world again. As we walked up, seeing some windows shuttered still from last year, it was a sad reminder of how so much of 2020 has been lost. Time stands still on the project, but time continues to impact the house. We could see peeling paint on the exterior that means another painting is due. There will always be maintenance of one kind or another; old houses require that kind of love and care.

We desperately look forward to the day when we can throw open the doors and windows again, and invite you all to step back in time with us. Many of the volunteers who have worked on this project have a deep affection for the house and the island. As island historian and author Rita Hadra Rusco would have said, we’ve been claimed by the Spirit of the Manitou. The house carries the voices of the past; of Katie Shepard, her mother, their guests and island staff. It is truly a happy place, with a joyful energy that speaks of a bygone time.

Soon Katie, soon.

To learn more about the Katie Shepard Hotel Project, visit phsb.org. Stacie Longwell Sadowski is former Board Chair and current Special Projects Coordinator, volunteering with PHSB since 2010.

Roses flagged by the walkway

Heritage roses along the front walkway are flagged so that they are not mowed.

Apple tree from Katie front yard view

Looking out from the front yard of the hotel at a heritage apple tree towards the Manitou Passage