By this time, Mackinac Island had evolved into a wealthy resort community, driving the demand for carriages. The carriagemen responded to the bonanza by crowding their carriages along Main Street--up to 80 at a time--to greet passengers coming off the boats. Competition was fierce, price cutting common, brawls occasional.
In 1924 the Mackinac Island State Park Commission stepped in to mediate, calling a meeting of carriage owners. The result was the Carriagemen's Association, a loosely connected group whose self-elected governing body set fare prices.
Two decades later, liability insurance and the cost of running a stable pushed the carriagemen toward a closer union. In 1947 each carriageman who could provide a team of horses and a carriage was issued shares of stock in a new corporation: Mackinac Island Carriage Tours Inc.
The new organization didn't change life much for a young Bill Chambers, 15 that year, or for his brothers and sister, Sally. Life rolled on at its familiar, pleasant pace.
The Chambers children, like their father and grandfather before them, were born in the house on Market and Cadotte. They grew up with the proud hackman tradition and a mother, Sam (nee Frank, but 50 percent Gallagher, Bill is careful to add), who kept them well fed with stories of their Mackinac heritage.
Illustrating her stories were old photographs like the one hanging in the lobby of the island's prestigious Grand Hotel. It's of Mrs. Potter Palmer (of Chicago's Palmer House hotel), seated in a fancy carriage around the turn of the century. The carriageman standing with the team is Dr. Bill's grandfather, William Chambers. "If you look very closely at that picture, you can see the Chambers family insignia on the harness," says Dr. Bill.
Virtually everything the boys did from the time they could walk trained them to be horsemen. As toddlers they napped in carriages. "Anytime we'd get fussy my mom would say to my dad, 'Here, take this kid,' " Dr. Bill says. "To this day, I still get a little groggy in a carriage."
The children got so accustomed to the gentle horse-and-buggy rhythm that, as Dr. Bill recalls, "The first time they put us all in a car, we all spit up."
The boys were never too young to go in the stables. "As soon as we were toddling around we played in the barn," Dr. Bill says. "But first, my father walked through and picked out certain horses and said, 'You can walk by that one and that one, but not that one.' " The boys obeyed because, as Dr. Bill puts it, "You knew you'd get your head kicked off if you didn't."
Carriage-driving lessons began for the preschoolers on their dad's lap. "At first, we'd hold the back of his hands," Dr. Bill says. "Then, when we were ready, he'd let us hold the reins."
By the time they were teenagers, the boys were working with their father and grandfather as footmen to the wealthy-families with household names like Mennen, Swift and Hoag (of Hannah-Hoag whiskey). Occasionally, the boys were invited to parties at the mansions in the island's prestigious East and West Bluff neighborhoods. They were allowed to go, but not without their dad and granddad's counsel: "Don't get too uppity. Coachmen use the back door," Dr. Bill recalls. "Remember that." Those barriers between the wealthy summer people and the carriagemen, Dr. Bill is quick to point out, have broken down over the years.
After high school, Dr. Bill left the island to attend vet school at Michigan State University. He served in the Army Veterinary Corps in the Korean war and afterward settled in Minneapolis. Of his off-island period he says only, "I survived it."
When his dad died in 1972, Dr. Bill returned to the island to help his brothers with the carriage business.
SHARROW, OUR COACHMAN, drives into the yard at Market and Cadotte, where little has changed in 170 years. At the side of the yard sits the white clapboard home Tom Chambers built in 1830. White ruffled curtains hang in the windows, a couple of ancient lilac trees adorn the yard and a tangle of colorful flowers sprout around the foundation. Bill's sister, Sally, lives here now. Sara Chambers, Bill's mother, lived here until two years ago, when--alert and lively until her last days--she died at age 97.
In the yard between the house and stables, Bill breaks all the colts that will become Carriage Tours horses--a task he takes seriously. "Every move you make on a colt makes an impression on them," he says. "When they're born, even before their mother licks 'em off, we put our fingers in their ears, nose, mouth. That way they won't mind being bridled later. Everything matters with a colt--how you feed 'em, the way you turn in the stall." Nowadays, Tom Chambers' green-trimmed stable is where Bud Chambers builds and repairs carriages for Mackinac Island Carriage Tours. As private as Bill is gregarious, Bud is happiest left alone to build his carriages.
Unlike Bill, Bud has never moved off the island. He's never moved farther from the house on Market and Cadotte, in fact, than a few blocks away--across the Grand Hotel's golf course, as the crow flies. "We like to say that the farthest he's ever gone is from the eighth hole to the 15th," Bill says with a chuckle.
With the exception of the 35-person Carriage Tours taxis that transport guests through the state park, Bud has built every carriage the company uses. He does it using almost the same tools and procedures Tom Chambers did.
One major difference in carriage design was born out of the way the business has changed in the last 50 years or so. Just after World War II, for instance, when the island's tourism business sprouted, the company found it needed to make bigger carriages. Bud already was helping his father by that time, so he helped design bigger taxis. He sliced old carriages through the middle, added a section and reassembled them. The results are the red-and-yellow 16-person taxis that ply the streets of Mackinac today.
For the most part, Bud's everyday tools are what most people consider family heirlooms. Bill points to a wrought-iron device set against the front wall. Made by B.E Goodrich, the machine is used to tighten the rubber around carriage wheels. "My grandfather bought it in 1885," says Bill. "We still use it every day."
If a tool wears out, Bud makes a new one. "That's what it means to be a carriageman," Bill explains. "You have to shoe your own horses, fix the harness, train and drive your horses, make your own carriage.
"We operate a system of transportation that was defunct in 1900; everything is specialty," he continues, looking out the door to where Sharrow waits atop the carriage.
"Like, there's only one of Buck Sharrow. All the rest are in St. Anne's Cemetery."
FROM THE CHAMBERS homestead, Sharrow negotiates the carriage up the hill past the Grand Hotel. As we talk, Dr. Bill leans forward every now and then to include Sharrow in a joke. The coachman looks back politely but quickly, careful to keep his eyes on the team.
As the carriage shop is Bud's world, the Carriage Tours' stables and barns at the top of Cadotte Avenue is the domain of Dr. Bill's brother Jim. He is head nanny to the company's 350 horses. As we're introduced, his charges--the ones that aren't working--are frisking around in a pasture behind the barns.
The company's horses consist mostly of hackneys, tawny-colored high-spirited driving horses. Carriage Tours is one of only about 15 hackney horse breeders in North America. The rest of the herd is made up of Percherons, the 2,000-pound gentle giants the company uses to pull the big green taxis.