Island winters

Dec 11, 2002 at 12:00 am

Maybe it’s simplistic, but it seems that people can generally be divided into two categories: introverted or extroverted, romantic or pragmatic, Type A or Type B. Furthermore, in the Midwest, most of us can be characterized in two ways when it comes to our winter adaptability: as a hibernator or a hardy soul.

In these days of premium cable, deluxe DVDs and temperature-controlled environments, a visit to Belle Isle might be a bit less enticing than it once was to residents of our metropolis. However, wintertime on Belle Isle is magical in a way that other seasons are not. Whether it’s a blanket of snow that cushions the hiker from the bustle of urbanity or a carrot fed to a deer that bestows childlike wonder upon the feeder, winter on Belle Isle is a special time in a special place. In fact, there have always been reasons for both the dainty and the daring to visit this fair isle, no matter the temperature.

Some seasonal traditions do not, unfortunately, continue to this day. Ice skating is one of these.

The canals and lagoons of Belle Isle were once as busy as the rink at Rockefeller Center. According to Frank F. Marschner (a cashier at the Belle Isle Casino for many years), once the idea got started in 1896, the busiest season for winter skating was that of 1919-20. That winter afforded 48 days of skating, which resulted in high sales at the pavilion refreshment stands. Skaters lined up to purchase ham sandwiches for 6 cents, sardine sandwiches at 10 cents and coffee at 5 cents a cup.

A young Henry Ford was known to skate Belle Isle, as was Gov. Alex Groesbeck (1921-26). On Nov. 25, 1929, more than 500 skaters turned out on the canals and lagoons of the isle, breaking a 25-year record for the opening of the season.

In the early 1900s, skating was an occasion to turn out in finery — comfort was of secondary concern. Men donned derby hats, while the ladies were likewise turned out in elaborate millinery. Of course, as fashions became more liberal elsewhere, skaters turned to more streamlined clothing. By 1950, women sported outfits similar to those of speed skaters today.

Another annual event began when the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon hosted its first Christmas concert back in 1940. More than 4,000 Detroiters turned out for renditions of their favorite carols, held at the bell tower dedicated to peace by its namesake and champion, popular local advice columnist Nancy Brown. Automobile traffic clogged the bridge (sound familiar?) and just a few music lovers stood outside braving the cold, while most remained in their cars to enjoy the show.

Other Belle Isle winter traditions that have not been perpetuated are cross-country skiing and sleigh rides. Each winter, the island’s pony carts were transformed into sleighs in an ingenious fashion — the wheels were slipped off the carts and sleigh runners were bolted on. On the weekends, sleigh rides could be had for 50 to 75 cents, depending on the sleigh’s size.

Some traditions have endured the changing times and fortunes of Belle Isle. The traditional Christmas Flower Show that has been held in the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory since the early 20th century includes poinsettia, cyclamen, Jerusalem cherries and virtually every other type of Christmas plant that can be grown here. The Christmas Flower Show still runs daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. through Jan. 5, 2003.

A familiar winter sight is the 30-foot-tall ice sculpture near the beach, which is created by the construction of a supporting framework of poles and brush and maintained with a steady stream of water. It looks a bit like an abstract pine tree or an ice-rocket ship; a kind of impermanent, ever-changing piece of art.

Something in the future to look forward to is the rebirth of many traditions, if the whole of the city’s 1999 Master Plan for Belle Isle is implemented. For example, it calls for the old stable to house cross-country ski rentals, which would allow the far reaches of the woods to be an attainable aspect of a winter visit to Belle Isle.

In 1956, Christine Talley Stewart composed a lovely tune entitled “Christmas at Belle Isle.” Its lyrics speak for anyone who has ever found winter pleasure on our lovely island in the city:

Snowbirds always sing a song from every treetop,
everybody seems to wear a happy smile,
children’s voices ring with glee when they light the Christmas tree,
every Christmas at Belle Isle.
Lovers cuddle close and sing a Christmas carol,
as they walk along in lovey-dovey style.
It is heaven just to be near a decorated Christmas tree
every Christmas at Belle Isle.
No one seems to mind the cold wind from the river,
everybody loves this winter wonderland.
Tho’ there are no bright spring flowers
and you cannot sit for hours,
yet a walk around the park is simply grand.
If I had one wish I’d wish for you each Christmas,
it would be a pleasure just to see your smile.
You could cuddle close to me,
oh, how happy we would be
every Christmas at Belle Isle.

I can promise you, those of us who depend on Belle Isle as a year-round sanctuary won’t mind sharing her with the infrequent, intermittent or even first-time winter visitor. We’d be happy to allow you the discovery of frosty breath, the crystalline glint of an icicled pine, the frozen crests of the Detroit River captured as if permanently. Hibernators can opt to stay warm inside the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, the aquarium or the conservatory, while hardy souls have an entire island to explore.

Janet Anderson compiled and wrote a book in 2001 entitled Island in the City: How Belle Isle Changed Detroit Forever. It’s currently sold as a fund-raiser for the Friends of Belle Isle and is chock-full of facts and photographs. Call 313-331-7760 or visit for information on how to purchase the book. You can contact Belle Isle at 313-852-4075.

Kelli B. Kavanaugh writes about history for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]