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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ain't Life Grand

If you're going to name your hotel The Grand, you'd better make sure that you live up to the name.

To the Musser family, current owners of The Grand Hotel in Mackinac've got nothing to worry about. Your little place fits the bill to a "t".

The Grand Hotel ( is located on Mackinac Island. It sits on top of a great hill (you could call it a grand hill, I suppose) on the East Bluff of the island.

The Grand was built in 1887, and even then it was a tony place, with rooms renting from $3-5 a night.

1919 was a big year, because young W. Stewart Woodfill was hired as a desk clerk. He wasn't just good at checking people in, he was also good at checking accounts, because he purchases the hotel in 1933. (Now THAT'S an American dream).

In 1951, Dan Musser joined the staff. He would be named president of the hotel (it's a pretty darn grand hotel that needs its own president) in 1960, and then he purchases it in 1979.

Today, Dan Musser III is president. I hope he's counting his pennies. I'm not sure that you can buy this place on a clerk's salary anymore.

This *isn't* the Grand Hotel. It's a private residence on the western bluff of the island. They call it the "Baby Grand." I have a feeling they're a fun group of people to drink with at sunset.

Here *are* some photos of the Real Grand Hotel. (They're all grand except one).

(Note: this is not the face of someone who just played a "grand" game of bocce. As I recall, I kicked his butt).

There are 2500 geraniums planted in 260 window boxes along the 660 feet porch. (That's more numbers than this English major has thought about in a long, long time).

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Quick Detour

Last blog, I told you about our new bed and breakfast in old St. Augustine.

And then I climbed into a virtual hole on the internet and haven't been heard from since.

At least, I'm sure that's what it looks like to you. But, in fact, I've been writing about the new venture over at I hope you'll swing by and check it out.

In the meantime, I will continue to post updates on this site. In fact, I just found some great photos from my last trip that I never got online. I'll be posting them in the next day or two.

In between cleaning 15 bathrooms, of course.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Our New Baby

So, netties, yesterday I told you that the hub and I finally stopped yapping about buying a bed and breakfast and we actually did it. Finally.

Today I'd like to tell you a little more about our new baby. And by new baby, I mean ancient baby, because the building dates back to the 1700's. Which is older than any building that we've ever owned before.

The building that now makes up the Bayfront Marin House is actually several buildings that stretch all the way from Marine Street to Avenida Menendez (that's a whole block, folks). The oldest building is in the back, a colonial structure at 47 Marine Street. It dates from the Second Spanish Period. The first recorded notice of a house on the property is in the Roque map of 1788, which shows a wooden building. Francisco Marin, one of the members of the Minorcan colony who had taken refuge in St. Augustine acquired the house and the lot in the 1780's.

Although it was built 200 years later, the building clearly shows the original owner's knowledge of the early regulations for building that were laid out by the King of Spain in 1573. It stated that in hot climates, the streets should be narrow and "all town houses are to be so planned that they can serve as a defense or fortress against those who might attempt to create disturbances or occupy the town."

Ready for any kind of disturbance, the house is built right to the street line, with masonry walls extending north and south from the facade, as if it was enclosing a compound. Entry is not from the street (too easy for ne'er-do-wells to just walk in, I suppose), but instead through a door on the south side. This door is now the entrance to our aptly named Francisco Marin room, a guest room that still shows off some of the original coquina walls (please note: the electric fireplace is for modern ambiance, not historical accuracy. I don't believe Senor Marin had an electric fireplace during his ownership). Here's a picture of the room, in case you'd like to request it when you come visit:

This room is one of my favorites, not just because it's the oldest, but because the horse and carriage tours still go by it on Marine Street. You can close your eyes, sink back in a pillow, and imagine you're an 18th century princess. One who had the foresight to install air conditioning, of course.

But back to the Bayfront Marin House. Almost a century after Francisco Marin bought his little piece of the American dream, Captain Henry Belknap decided to purchase a little Victorian Cottage that is now the front of the Bayfront Marin House (it's the King George and Marie Antoinette rooms, which face the bay). Here are those two rooms (please note: I had nothing to do with the decorating. I was lucky enough to purchase the inn at the END of its restoration for once, rather than the beginning. So any compliments truly belong to the old owners, the Graubards).

After Captain Henry moved in, he must have decided he needed a little bit more room for when his family came to visit, so he purchased a cottage owned by Andrew Burgess in 1893. It was located just north of the Marin House, but the good cap'n moved it to his property and just attached it to the back of his own home. We named Room #3, the Hopkins Cottage, after him.

Soon after marrying these two houses together, Captain Henry bought the remodeled coquina Marin house (the one I mentioned first in this blog) and began to make wooden additions to it. So he combined the three structures--ranging in period from the colonial era to the Flagler period--to make the rambling structure that we now know as the Bayfront Marin House.

Alas, Captain Henry died in 1909, and it was sold to John Campbell. Mr. Campbell turned the big building into apartments, running it until Beulah Robinson Lewis of Virginia bought the place in 1932. Beaulah's family owned it until 1988, when the guy we bought it from bought it with a partner. He opened the Bayfront Marin House Bed and Breakfast in July 2003.

Then, on September 1, the hub and I got the big set of master keys to the place. Which makes me feel pretty important as I walk around the grounds. Or maybe more like Schneider on One Day at a Time. To be honest, it depends on the day.

And the rest, as they say, will be history.

I'll be sure to tell you how it goes!!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Historic Travel Girl Does Something Truly Historic (For Her and the Hub, Anyway)

Okay, netties, so in my last blog I plugged a bed and breakfast in Saint Augustine, the Bayfront Marin House. Here's a picture of it, with all of its great porches and happy looking yellow umbrellas.

You may have thought that it was just a random reference yesterday, just me suggesting an obscure but beautiful place to stay in one of the most beautiful cities in America. After all, I do that a lot.

But this time, it was more than that. This time, it was a carefully calculated marketing ploy designed to make you want to stay at this particular bed and breakfast.

Why would I care where you stay when you come to Saint Augustine?

Because the hub and I just bought the place.

Yes, after 14 years of talking about our five year plan to own a bed and breakfast, we finally bit the bullet/took the leap/lost our senses and Did It.

(insert fist-pumping and wild jumping and unintelligible yelling here)

Ho-ly crap. You would think that I would be used to the idea by now, after 14 years of yammering on about it endlessly to my friends, but in fact, I still don't even feel like it's ours. I'm on the weekend shift at the bnb, and my job is to wander the courtyard and say hello to the guests, and thank them for staying with us. Tough stuff, I know. And absolutely critical for the future of this lovely place (note: that's sarcasm. I have never felt so useless).

Still, when I can't find a parking space and I get there 10 minutes late, I'm always worried that someone on the staff will yell at me.

I guess I'm not really owner material. I'm more late-night-shift, on call to unstop-up the overflowing toilets material.

But, speaking of material, this new gig is going to give me plenty to write about in this little blog. And technically it all fits into my mission of helping the hapless traveler find a cool historic place to visit.

It also supports my other mission--which is to pay the massive mortgage every month.

So, netties, welcome me to Saint Augustine. Prepare to hear lots of insider insight on what to do and what to see in America's oldest city. Not to mention where to stay...which is, of course, the Bayfront Marin House. In case you're interested, we're running New Owner Specials through the end of September!!!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Happy Birthday to the Oldest City

Today marks the third day of festivities for St. Augustine, Florida's 445th birthday celebration. (Note: if you haven't made your reservations yet for the big bash in 2015, you might want to book a room at

St. Augustine was officially declared a city on September 8, 1565 by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles. That makes it the nation's oldest city.

It also makes it the nation's most European city. The hub and I started coming here a couple of years ago, when the Euro was so strong that we could no longer afford to buy a Toblerone bar in Charles de Gaulle airport. Saint Augustine, on the other hand, was very affordable. At one of our favorite restaurants--The Columbia--you can get two great entrees and a pitcher of sangria for around $55. It's just like being in Spain, although the traffic is about 400 times better.

Speaking of food, there's a long history of great eats in this town. Long before the Pilgrims sucked up to the generous Indians in Plymouth Rock for a free meal, the Timucuan Indians had already invited the Spanish settlers of St. Augustine over for a dinner. Today, the last day of the birthday shenanigans, the St. Augustinites celebrate that tradition with a 16th century cooking contest.

In fact, I'm headed over there now. I'm not sure what 16th century food was like, but I'm hoping that there will be birthday cake at the end of the buffet.

Friday, September 3, 2010

She Knew You Way Back When

As some of you may know, the hub and I restored a house in Galveston Texas a couple of years ago. (And by "restored", I mean we bought a house in good shape, watched it fill up with nine feet of water during Hurricane Ike, and then "restored" it to its original good shape. With a couple of upgrades like a new kitchen and awesome draperies).

Earlier this week, I got a call from Marschall Runge, of North Carolina, whose mother grew up in the house. He just happened to see the house and wanted to see if there was any way they could walk through it (we rent the house and have a sign in the front yard advertising that fact and telling folks how to reach us).

It just so happened I was in Texas this week. While they were there. Which gave me the magical opportunity to walk through the house with people who knew it "way back when."

Gretchen Herrmann Runge is a beautiful woman, with striking white hair and a face that lights up when she has the chance to share a story. She lived in the house in the 30s, and moved out in 1947 when she married. She said those nuptials in my living room, facing the bay windows. The room had a window seat then (the hub and I have talked about putting one there!).

The reception was in the room that's now the library/downstairs bedroom. "We didn't want a lot of people," she told me. And I laughed, because I said the same thing when I got married. I think the reason that a lot of brides and grooms are nervous is because they don't know half the people in the room.

Gretchen also told me that the fireplace tiles in all of the fireplaces downstairs (there are three) had all been replaced since she lived in the house (there are two tiles in the dining room that show signs of the zodiac--those are the only original ones, she said). This may not be an interesting detail to my readers, but it was huge for me. After Hurricane Ike, many of these floor tiles cracked as the water seeped out of the house. I was heart-broken that they had been destroyed on my watch, so I haven't replaced them. Now that I know they're imposters of the originals anyway, I feel much better about tearing them out. But that's a job for another day.

Mrs. Runge's father, George Herrmann, sounds like quite a card, as they used to say. He called the house "The Herrmanntage", like Andrew Jackson's Hermitage in Nashville.

George was married to a woman named Anna. I didn't know Anna, of course, but in 1981, when the house was on Galveston's Tour of Homes, Anna was quoted in the tour's guide book: "The house is home to my children," she said (one of those children was my new friend Gretchen!). "At Christmas they were laughing about the time I came home to find them sliding down the steps on my cookie sheets. I sat down on the last step and used my shoe on was a happy home."

I have a copy of the guide book in our kitchen, so that guests can see the "before" pictures of the house (it was the Renovation in Progress in 1981, then was back on the tour in 1999 as a finished piece). I've always showed visitors that quote because it cracks me up.

Mrs. Runge did not remember the beatings on the bottom of the stairs, but she laughed when I showed her the quote. She also told me that the newel post at the bottom of the stairs was original, but the shade is not. "The original shade had a cyclamen on it," she remembered. "My mother gave it to one of the granddaughters."

Gretchen was a lady who paid attention to details. Here are just some of the other things she remembered about the house:

Her family bought the house in 1933 from Mabel and Violet Keiller, the daughters of the previous owner, Dr. Keillor, who passed away in 1931. There is a state historical marker in front of the house about Dr. Keillor, even though Gretchen's sons--Marshall and Val, who accompanied her on the trip this week, along with additional family members--said they always thought that Gretchen's father, Dr. Herrmann, was a more impressive doctor. (Dr. Herrmann was  a cardiologist at UTMB, and was a pioneer in the field. He stayed at UTMB--and at 1409 Market Street--until 1973, when he entered private practice with his son in Del Rio).

While I'm on a doctor's visit: a quick note about Dr. Keillor: Gretchen says he had tuberculosis (there is no mention of that on the historical marker, so that was news to me. Note to self: wash hands). The doc had an incinerator in the house that he used to burn things that he touched. Gretchen's parents finally took it out a few years after they moved in.

When Gretchen was a girl, the upstairs master bedroom and bathroom were actually two separate bedrooms (which explains why there is a fireplace in the bathroom--it used to be a bedroom. Another suspicion of ours confirmed). They were separated by pocket doors, and the kids slept in the front room, and her mother slept in the second room. Her father, who apparently snored, was banished to a bedroom down the hallway (now our pink room).

There was a back staircase that led from a small covered downstairs porch (now part of our kitchen) to the upstairs bathroom. It was for the help to use. Gretchen says her family always had one or two people working for them, coming in every day except Saturday to help her mother with the meals and cleaning. She says that during the Depression she suspected that they came more for the free food than for the small amount of money her family paid them.

She says she was particularly close to an African American woman named Serena, who was just a tiny thing (she held her open palm about shoulder height as she told me that). I should point out here that Gretchen wasn't that tall herself.

Speaking of that staircase that isn't there anymore, Gretchen said that her mother loved ferns and had a whole bunch of them hanging on the first floor of the porch (underneath the staircase that led upstairs). They had a cat, too, named Susquehanna, that liked to hang out there. (We have an orange cat that is not ours but hangs out there anyway. We call him Sunset. He may be a descendent of Susquehanna for all I know). The two photos at the left show what the downstairs porch looks like today.

By the time Gretchen moved out of the house, her parents had decided to enclose the small front porch upstairs (the house has a lot of porches) and turn it into a bathroom (it's since been turned back into a porch. And the cycle continues...) She said the paper boy liked to throw the paper on that upstairs porch, and her Dad just went out there to read it every morning.

Gretchen told me that in the forty years her parents owned the house, they never had water in it. That makes me feel good, and makes me hopeful that Ike truly was a 100 year storm. Of course, they did have water from above: after a strong storm, the ceilings in the living room and library collapsed. They had been incredibly ornate ceilings, made of Italian plaster.

The ceilings may not have lasted, but a lot of the other details have. And that's something of a miracle in itself. Much of the woodwork in the home is intact, and a lot of it is rare curly pine. When we bought the house, one of the Realtors told us that another couple had looked at it (allegedly--I seldom believe anything that Realtors say) and the wife said she would lighten the place up by painting the woodwork. He said he escorted them out of the house right then (allegedly).

After surviving this unnamed couple, much of the woodwork was torn out of the house by the gorillas that ServPro employed to clean the house after the storm. They just threw it on the sidewalk like it was  just another wet disposable item from the house. Thank goodness our friends (who stayed on the island during the storm, a little adventure they have sworn that they will never ever do again) walked by and yelled at the gorillas, then carried all of the wood back into the house (well, everything except the pile that another neighbor STOLE and MADE INTO BOOKCASES. And yes, he told me about the bookcases himself).

Anyway, according to Gretchen, a lot of the house is intact. And that made me happy.

I know a lot of times my blogs go to the snarky side. There is no snark here--other than the references to the bookcase bozo--and it's because I truly felt lucky that I was in town on the right day so that I could meet this wonderful, story-filled woman.

Thank you, Gretchen! It was wonderful talking to you!!!

(Shown in the photo: Gretchen Herrmann Runge, on the right. Then, from the right, it's Val (who works at UTMB), John Runge (Gretchen's Grandson, who was on his way to college in Austin) Marschall and Susan Runge (Gretchen's son and daughter-in-law).

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Star Drugstore: A Lot of Firsts, and a Good Place for Seconds!

I had lunch today at the Star Drug Store in Galveston (

It's a great little historic place. They claim to be the oldest drug store in Texas, and it's a pretty sincere and non-falutin' place, so I'm inclined to believe that their research is correct.

The history doesn't end there: the porcelain Coca-Cola sign is one of the oldest around, too, and it's been beautifully restored (as has the entire building). Star was also the first lunch counter to be integrated on the island, by George Clampitt back in the 50's.

Speaking of integration, I quickly integrated a bacon, lettuce, and avocado sandwich into my hungry belly this afternoon. The hub had today's special, an italian sub on great french bread. My sandwich came with a side of dill potato salad, which was warm and seemed a little more like mashed potatoes. But it was GOOD, once I stopped expecting crispy cold potato pieces.

Star serves homemade ice cream (made just up the street in Santa Fe). We actually wanted to order some, but our waitress never returned to take our order. We took that as a judgement, like we didn't need ice cream, and we headed out without dessert. Luckily, Galveston only had about 30 other little places that were more than happy to add to our calorie count for the day.

But bad waitressing aside, I love the Star Drug Store. I love all of the stuff for sale in the display cases around the dining area, and I love the little list of historic tidbits that's printed on the back of their ice cream menu (like, the hilarious David Schwimmer movie Breast Man featured a quick glimpse of the Star's exterior, as well as a shot of the phone booth that used to be in front of the building. How did I miss that movie on the Oscar list?)

And I love the cute pink t-shirts that they sell for just $15. I got mine a little big, to hide that ice cream belly fat.