Island House History
From its beginning over 165 years ago as a waterfront beach house to the family-restored historic luxury hotel that it is today, the Island House has opened its doors to over a million tourists from around the world. With its handsome Victorian structure and family-operated intimacy, Mackinac Island’s oldest hotel offers an authentic Mackinac Island experience.
Initially constructed for Charles O’Malley in 1852 as a beachfront resort, the Island House was one of the first summer hotels on Mackinac Island. In 1865 Captain Henry Van Allen, a Great Lakes skipper, purchased the resort, thus beginning a family tradition that would last nearly 75 years. During this time, he moved the hotel about 300 feet off the shore to its present location to allow for future expansion. Under Captain Van Allen’s direction, visitors deemed the Island House the “best family hotel” as Mackinac Island becomes the most popular summer destination in America.
Upon his passing, Captain Van Allen bestowed the property to his daughter. Mrs. Rose Van Allen Webster became proprietor of the hotel in 1892. Together with her husband, whom she met while he was stationed at Fort Mackinac, the Webster’s added the distinctive looking East and West wings in 1895 and 1912. The Island House enjoyed the benefits of these additions for the next 25 years as Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and New York socialites enjoyed afternoon high teas and full orchestra ballroom dancing. Mrs. Webster retained ownership of the Island House until her passing in 1938.
After Mrs. Webster’s death, the hotel stood vacant for several years, as its maintenance and taxes were too burdensome for her heirs. The Island House was leased by the Moral Rearmament Association (MRA), an international peace organization, based in Switzerland, from the Mackinac Island State Park and served as the organization’s headquarters from 1942 until 1949. The group moved to Mission Point two years later, and the hotel again stood vacant until 1972.
The Island House had deteriorated so much during the vacant decades that the Chairman of the Mackinac Island State Park, W.F. Doyle, believed it would need to be torn down. It was at this time that three of Mackinac Island’s most familiar businessmen, Harry Ryba, son James, and son-in-law Victor Callewaert, recognized the Island House’s status as a Michigan landmark, leased the hotel from the Mackinac Island State Park in 1969.
Throughout its incredible restoration, every step was taken to preserve the striking architectural features of the hotel exterior, including its many columns, porch spindles, gables, windows, and door styles. During this two-year project, the Island House was closed to the general public but reopened with a spirited celebration on June 23, 1972. The final triumph came on August 11, 1973, the State of Michigan anointed the Island House as a Michigan Historic Landmark.
After widespread renovations during the 1980s, the next significant change for Island House came in 1995. The property underwent a thorough archeological dig to assure there were no burial grounds or fossils, clearing the way for the first addition to the hotel since 1912. The 5400 square foot addition included an indoor pool, hot tub, sauna, three suites, and the Ice House Bar & Grill, named after Mackinac Island’s oldest ice house located on the northwest corner of the property.
In this same year, the 1852 Grill Room was reconfigured, remodeled, and a lift was added to the veranda, making the main areas of the hotel barrier-free.
In 2013, the 1852 Grill Room once again was transformed by the addition of floor-to-ceiling windows giving way to a gorgeous bay view, along with updated seating in the dining room, lounge, and outdoor patio.
Two thousand nineteen marked the 50th anniversary of the Ryba-Callewaert family rescue of the Island House Hotel from impending demolition by leasing the historical estate from the Mackinac State Historic Parks. In celebration a $4 million multi-year renovation was completed including updates to the guest room amenities and decor, the expansion of the Ice House BBQ, as well as the addition of an outdoor hot tub on the deck of the annex and high-speed WIFI property-wide.
The Island House Hotel is named one of the top ten Midwest hotels by Condé Nast Traveler and receives an Award for Excellence by Historic Hotels of America naming the Callewaert family Legendary Family of the Year for their commitment to the preservation of the historic hotel. At any given time, you will find up to four generations of the Ryba- Callewaert family working inside the hotel as well as downtown Mackinac Island where the family owns Ryba’s Fudge Shops, Starbucks, Mary’s Bistro Draught House, Pancake House, Pine Cottage Bed & Breakfast, and Seabiscuit Café.
The Ice House
In the 1800s, ice from the Great Lakes was in high demand. By 1830, Americans had come to rely on foods that required refrigeration. Ice harvesting had become a way for farmers to supplement their income in the winter.
The job was a difficult and often daring task. Snow would be scraped off of the ice field and holes were made to measure ice thickness. Next, a grid would be marked for the ice plow to follow when cutting blocks two-thirds of the way and completed by the workers sawing to completion. Blocks could be up to 300 lbs. Ice would then be loaded onto horse-drawn flatbeds and transported to ice houses where it was stored until summer when it could be sold.
The ice was stacked and packed inside the ice house. Sawdust was used for insulation and placed in between layers of ice. Some ice houses stored over 1,600 tons of ice. The work these men did each long day was dangerous and cold. Once a luxury, ice became a common household and business commodity by 1900. The ice delivery man would weigh ice blocks and deliver ice by horse-drawn covered wagon to homes and businesses. Each order was carried into the home and placed on the top shelf of an icebox to keep food fresh.
Improved ice harvesting and storage techniques revolutionized American businesses and diets. For the first time, meatpackers, dairies, and produce growers could ship their products across great distances. Brewers could regulate the temperature of their facilities to produce beer year-round. And restaurant owners, shopkeepers, and home cooks could keep a variety of fresh ingredients on hand.
In 2019 Island House Hotel debuted our new logo, which is a nod to the history of the straits area and the importance the Mackinaw Boat had in the region. The common origin of all Mackinaw boats was the Native American canoe. With its lightness, speed, cargo capacity, and double-ended flexibility, the canoe delighted fur traders of European origin. However, the Indian canoe design was not stable with a mast and sail. By contrast, the Mackinaw boat held its own with superior sailing qualities in the more open water of the Great Lakes. The Mackinaw boat quickly became a favorite on the upper Great Lakes.
By the time of the dominance of the American Fur Company (located on Mackinac Island) in 1815-1836, the Mackinaw boat was almost the commodity vessel in this region. With the decline of the fur trade in the Upper Great Lakes in the late 1830s, the Mackinaw boats became traditional fishing boats. With its speed and cargo capacity, the boat was ideally suited for commercial fishing. Prior to refrigeration, it was necessary to haul a catch of cleaned fish rapidly to a fishing station where the catch could be plunged into brine and preserved with salt. James W. Milner in his 1872-1873 “Report U.S. Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries” wrote this tribute: “She . . .is fairly fast and the greatest surf-boat known, and with experienced boatman will ride out any storm, or if necessary beach with greater safety than any other boat. They have been longer and more extensively used on the upper lakes than any other boat with the less loss of life or accident.”
The Mackinaw boat hull’s relative flexibility and efficient movement through the water became less important in the 20th century with the invention of the outboard motor and other powerboat innovations, but not before making a lasting impression on the region. One of the last remaining Mackinaw boats, the Edith Jane, can be seen in St. Ignace.