Grand Hotel has had millions of guests over the course of the past 125 years. Each of these guests has taken with them a memory to pass on to their family and friends of their experience on Mackinac. One of these guests, Major James Burton Pond, would take with him an experience of his own.
Born on in New York on June 11, 1838, Mr Pond became an officer in the 3rd Wisconsin Volunteer Cavalry during the Civil War and had received the Medal of Honor for his leadership and actions at the Battle of Baxter Springs. He would find work as a lecture manager following the war and in 1874 purchased the Lyceum Theater Lecture Bureau. His client list included P.T. Barnum, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglas, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry Ward Beecher, Ellen Terry, Henry Morton Stanley and Winston Churchill. Major Pond would travel with his clients during these lecture tours and one of those tours would bring him to Grand Hotel.
The summer of 1895 had Pond managing the American and world lecture tour of the American humorist, Mark Twain. In addition to having to deal with the usual obstacles of travel by train and steamship, Pond became concerned with the health of his client. Mr. Twain had not been feeling well since the beginning of the tour and was growing worse as it went on. The audiences, however, didn’t see the difference and gave Mr. Twain ovations at each stop.
Mark Twain, Major Pond and their wives left Cleveland on the steamer S.S. Northland on the morning of July 17. Those aboard the steamer adored Mr. Twain and found reasons to approach him. Mr. Twain graciously interacted with each one. Arriving in the Straits of Mackinac on July 19, the group went ashore and then boarded the F.S. Faxton of the Arnold Line for an afternoon excursion of the local islands and a meal before docking at Mackinac Island.
They reached Grand Hotel at 4:30 and Pond “noticed one of ‘Mark’s’ lithographs in the hotel office, with ‘Tickets for Sale Here’ written in blue pencil in the margin. It seemed dull and dead about the lobby, and also in the streets. The hotel manager said the Casino, an adjoining hall, was at our service, free, and the keeper had instructions to seat and light it.”
The party went for dinner in the dining room and Mr. Twain attracted some attention “but nothing special” but didn’t feel well enough to eat. Pond was notified after dinner that the hotel had not yet sold a single ticket for Mr. Twain’s 9 o’clock lecture. Mr. Pond became nervous and at 8 o’clock notified the man in the Casino that he shouldn’t light the lights since there wouldn’t be an audience. Pond chatted with the janitor until 8:30 and was about to leave when a couple came to the door and asked for tickets. He was about to tell them that there wouldn’t be a lecture when Mr. Pond noticed other guests starting to arrive and changed his mind.
“Admission is one dollar,” Major Pond told the guests. “Pay the money to me and walk right in.”
The crowd kept coming and Pond took their money but was forced to ask them to have the exact amount since he was not able to change large bills without delaying them.
“It was after nine o’clock before the rush was over,” Pond would write later. “I sent a boy for Mark. He expressed his pleasant surprise. I asked him to walk to the platform and introduce himself, which he did, and I don’t believe an audience had a better time of an hour and a half. Mark was simply immense.”
Major Pond had collected $398 by the time the lecture had started and was considering the stop a success. Two more guests approached about half way through the lecture but wanted to pay half price since they had already missed a good portion of it. Pond insisted that each pay a $1 so he could reach his $400 goal and said he would make it up to them after the lecture was over. The two agreed and paid their admission.
Major Pond introduced the two guests to Mr. Twain following the lecture and all four of the men went to Grand Hotel’s billiard room until twelve o’clock.
“This has been one of our best days,” Pond would later write in his notes.
The wives of Mr. Twain and Major Pond would stay at Grand Hotel for a few more nights as their husbands traveled via the Grand Rapids & Indiana railroad to Petoskey for another performance before returning to Mackinac Island on July 21 and heading for Duluth on the S.S. Northwest.
Major Pond gathered his notes following the tour and wrote the book “Eccentricities of Genius” about his travels with Samuel Clemens a.k.a. Mark Twain.