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History in a Box: Great-Grandson of John Plank, Builder of The Grand Hotel
on Mackinac Island, Michigan, Donates Invaluable Records of Hotel's History

By William F. Ast III, The Herald-Palladium, St. Joseph, Mich.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Sept. 07, 2010--ST. JOSEPH -- If there's an iconic image of Michigan, perhaps it's the majestic sight of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.

St. Joseph once had the Grand Hotel's sibling, Plank's Tavern, which was said to be grander than the Grand Hotel.

Located near where Tiscornia Park is today, the enormous three-story Plank's Tavern opened in 1889. It stretched 420 feet, had room for 750 guests, and had just about any amenity a world-class luxury hotel could have -- elevators, steam heat, electric lights, separate writing rooms for women and men, and a smoking and reading room for the gentlemen.

Both Plank's Tavern and the Grand Hotel were built by John Plank, one of America's top hotel builders and operators in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

John Owen of St. Joseph, Plank's great-grandson, inherited a box of Plank's memorabilia when his mother died in 1987. "For a while, it just sat in the basement in a box," he said.

Eventually Owen loaned the box to the hotel's resident historian, Bob Tagatz. Tagatz said the material is invaluable -- ledgers with newspaper articles, photos, correspondence, "hand-written accounts of (the) Grand Hotel's earliest days, and Mr. Plank's personal seasonal steamboat and railroad passes."

"It's one of the greatest donations we've ever had," Tagatz told The Herald-Palladium. He's been the hotel's historian for 15 years and spends time every week trying to collect material.

He said this is certainly the most significant contribution of material the hotel has ever received.

"It's mainly scrapbooks and correspondence ... an amazing record through newspaper articles and early photographs," Tagatz said. "It's invaluable ... We are very glad to have it."

The material includes a transcript of minutes from an investors' meeting that took place just before the Grand Hotel opened in 1887. Among the investors at the meeting were a number of prominent businessmen, including George Pullman and Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Tagatz said Vanderbilt had just purchased the Michigan Central Railroad.

"We were up there (at the Grand Hotel) in June, and I told Bob (Tagatz) the time had come to transfer the materials," Owen said. "He said that was wonderful and that I'd be hearing from a vice president very shortly."

And so he did. Kenneth Hayward, the hotel's vice president for sales and marketing, invited Owen and his wife, Jean, to the hotel's History Weekend on Sept. 17-19 for hotel officials to accept the collection.

Hayward in a letter to Owen said the Grand Hotel works with the University of Michigan's Bentley Museum, which archives the hotel's historical information. The Grand Hotel will retain some of Owen's material for display, "but the remainder of the collection will be added to that at the Bentley for safekeeping," he wrote in a letter to Owen.

Now that the time has come, Owen conceded it's a little hard to let the material go.

"I have some mixed feelings," Owen said. "I didn't do anything with it for so darn long. Now that I've started to scan it and prepare it to save a little bit for myself, I almost wish I had more time to work with it.

"But on the other hand, I'm very pleased that it's going to the hotel. It's sort of like going home, where it belongs."

The donation has renewed his interest in his ancestor, Owen said. He said he may "end up preparing a small book about John Oliver (Plank) because there's a great history there. This guy was quite phenomenal with what he accomplished, during his time, especially."

Owen said Plank, who was born in 1856 and died in 1946, grew up in a family of hoteliers and learned the business by doing every job imaginable, from cooking to cleaning rooms. Plank was a millionaire while still a young man, he said.

Plank's Tavern opened in 1893.

"It was built for a regular old 'gone-by-day' tavern, but it is arranged inside as modern and convenient as any hotel in the world that charges $4 to $20 per day," Plank described the building in an 1893 St. Joseph Saturday Herald article. "... For operation of a first-class hotel, it is furnished better than any summer resort on the lakes, and it is a positive fact that it is furnished better, is more substantial and is better equipped than Plank's Grand Hotel at Mackinac Island."

Unfortunately, the hotel's life was brief. Shortly after midnight July 10, 1898, fire broke out in the north end of the hotel. Spurred by a brisk northeast wind, the entire structure burned to the ground in about two hours.

"The spectacle was awfully grand," the Saturday Herald said. Only one person, a yard man from Indiana, was killed in the blaze.

Fortunately, the Grand Hotel has survived and thrived, a living reminder of an era of bygone elegance. Those who have never been to Mackinac Island may have seen the hotel as the main location in the 1980 movie "Somewhere In Time," starring Jane Seymour and the late Christopher Reeve.

Owen and his wife, Jean, moved to St. Joseph about five years ago. He said local historian Daryl Schlender used his material on Plank's Tavern in his book, "3 Tales of a City."


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