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I have rigidly held throughout my years with Grand Hotel to a philosophy of operation that frequently has been scoffed at. I have always felt that it must be operated in a grand manner or there will be no Grand Hotel. [William Stewart Woodfill (1896-1984). Excerpt from a speech given at the seventieth anniversary of the Grand Hotel on July 10, 1957.]
W. Stewart Woodfill
W. Stewart Woodfill, hay fever sufferer and an employee of his uncles’ lumber company in Greensburg, Indiana, desired to work in a pollen-free, scenic location. His first job was at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. This experience led him to Mackinac Island in the summers of 1919 and 1920. There, he worked as a clerk for the Grand Hotel. In 1921, Woodfill made a career choice – hotel management over lumber. He worked at the Wofford Hotel in Miami Beach, but returned to Mackinac Island in the summer of 1922. J. Logan Ballard, owner of the Grand Hotel, promoted Woodfill to manager in 1923. Woodfill continued in that capacity after Ballard’s death, which occurred the same year.
Woodfill Buys a Hotel
By 1925, Woodfill wanted to own a hotel, not just manage one. He attempted to buy hotels in Lansing and Chicago, but in the end purchased the Grand Hotel from the Ballard estate. The estate was happy to sell it at a relatively low figure and charge off the losses. In order to execute the deal, he entered into a partnership with Eugene J. La Chance and Joseph Ballard. They were all equal partners. Woodfill became the general manager. Yet, he was uneasy. While the hotel was successful, it nonetheless owed more money year after year. In 1927, Woodfill sold his share to his partners and realized a profit from the sale.
“It did not appear an auspicious undertaking.”
The stock market crash (1929) and the Great Depression sent the Grand Hotel into receivership (October 1931). In 1933, Woodfill reconsidered the property and bought it. Woodfill’s 1957 characterization of the sale –“It did not appear an auspicious undertaking.” — appears to be an understatement. The building was run down physically, and patronage had diminished. He spent money on rehabilitation, but his friends cautioned him against putting too much of his income into the enterprise. Woodfill, however, believed that the resort would eventually appreciate in value. “I sensed that we might be in the nadir of the Depression and that conditions would improve and higher rates could be charged,” he later recalled.
Yet Woodfill had to get through the summer of 1939, the year of the great quiet. That year, he had very few patrons, but a lot of people ready to work.
For exercise and recreation, I rode a saddle horse that year and for some strange reason I would say to myself every afternoon when I mounted my horse – here goes another $2,000- for I lost $2,000 a day for the first 21 days of July that year. Then the tide turned, my horse dropped dead, and I collapsed!
It was not until 1940, however, that the hotel again began to operate at a reasonable profit.
The War Years
The business continued to improve until August of 1941. That summer President Roosevelt met with Winston Churchill and signed the Atlantic Charter (August 14). The charter was an eight-point agreement outlining the leaders’ postwar vision: self-determination for all people, global economic cooperation, postwar disarmament and the promise that the United States and Great Britain would not seek territorial gains. The charter was not a declaration of war against Germany. However, many guests at the Grand Hotel perceived that the country was approaching war. According to Woodfill, shortly after the news of the Atlantic Charter appeared in the newspaper, guests left in droves. The Grand Hotel closed for the season early and lost $55,000.
December 7, 1941, continued to isolate the resort hotel. Woodfill later recalled -
I was confronted with the problem of either closing the hotel for the duration of the war or operating it under the hazardous economic conditions of those times. Conventions were not permitted to meet anywhere. Citizens were urged to stay home and attend war work. Railroads to this area were denied Pullman cars. Gasoline and rubber tires were severely rationed. Employees could hardly be found because of their demand for war industries and military service.
Retrenchment was a necessity. The elaborate dining room became a cafeteria during the war years because Woodfill could find only six waiters. Business improved by 1944 for the pubic was again taking vacations to Mackinac Island in order to get away from the strain of regimented war-time living. In 1945, the hotel turned a profit.
A Resort Hotel
Woodfill’s anniversary speech of 1957 reinforces aspects of the Grand Hotel that too often get lost in the romance of its location and magnificent porch. It is a resort hotel. A resort hotel needs repair, the grass has to be cut, beds have to be made, and meals have to be prepared. It takes vision, commitment, nerve and capital to succeed. Luckily, W. Stewart Woodfill embodied those qualities and managed to find the money.
Source: Woodfill, W. Stewart, “The Grand Hotel,” [speech transcript], Michigan History, Volume 41, pages 426-432.