Power Island – Henry Ford’s Playground

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A favorite stop for many of our charter guests and sailing school students is Power Island, located just 5 miles from our main Traverse City charter base.  Recently the Traverse City Ticker published an interesting historical look at the island – “When Power Island Was Henry Ford’s Playground“.  Below is the article in full, as written by Beth Milligan.

Can you imagine the masters of the world’s industry partying right here in Traverse City? It happened almost 100 years ago.

Locals have boated across West Grand Traverse Bay to swim, camp and hike what’s today known as Power Island. The 200-acre parcel has a colorful history filled with steamships and dance halls, Native American legends and a rotating cast of high-profile visitors and owners – including auto baron Henry Ford.

Ford was no stranger to the Traverse City area when it made front-page news in 1917 that he’d purchased what was then called Marion Island. Nearby Bower’s Harbor had been the site of the Ford company picnic in 1914, and Ford’s brother-in-law was Milton Bryan, owner of Grand Traverse Auto and president of the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce. Ford and his wife Clara often co-hosted dancing parties with Bryan while in town, and the couple were recurring guests at the Traverse City Golf & Country Club.

When the property purchase was announced, local speculation ran wild that the Fords would open a major summer resort or game preserve on the newly christened Ford Island. For the previous decade, steamships had taken revelers out to a two-story dance pavilion on Bassett Island, which connected to the main island by a strip of land during low water levels. Though Native American legend held the island to be haunted, residents still flocked across the bay for raucous dances that went late into the night, movie screenings, picnics and social gatherings.

Though the Fords ultimately never developed a resort, they did make a splash on the social scene. Henry brought Harvey Firestone – founder of Firestone Tire and Rubber Company – and inventor Thomas Edison for a visit, while “the wives stayed in comfort at Traverse City’s Park Place Hotel,” according to historian Kathleen Firestone. Another legend has Ford kicking baseball slugger Babe Ruth off the island following a drunken escapade.

Whenever Ford’s 200-foot yacht, the Silia, was docked in Grand Traverse Bay, “spectators would line up to get a glimpse” of the auto titan, according to Firestone. The boat was outfitted with five double and four single staterooms, a saloon, dining room, smoking room and officer’s quarters. Often docked at the Wequetong Club, Ford sometimes regaled locals with concerts and events.

Ford finally sold the island in 1944 at the age of 81. Over the next three decades, the island changed hands several times, adding the name Rennie Island to the mix of monikers used by locals for the property. When developers targeted the island for the construction of private cottages in the 1970s, local chamber representatives and residents formed a committee to set about preserving the property for public use once and for all.

Thanks to a $250,000 contribution by residents Eugene and Sayde Power, their efforts were successful. The island was acquired through the Nature Conservancy, then bestowed as a public park to Grand Traverse County in 1975. In 1987, the Power’s gift was honored with a resolution by the county board of commissioners to rename the park Power Island.

Today, residents still flock to and enjoy Power Island, with the property made even more accessible in 2014 with the launch of a summer shuttle to the property. But it was the mystique of early owners like Ford – and the contributions of residents like the Powers – that helped secure the island’s long-term status as a recreational gem for northern Michigan.

Be sure to visit The Ticker for news and events in the Traverse City area.