The Strange Death of Danny Dodge
An auto scion, an island girl, and an afternoon of playing with dynamite.
Mar 4, 2008 Gerald Volgenau
Illustration by Meredith Krell
(page 1 of 3)
It started as a Cinderella story - the tale of a simple Manitoulin Island girl who falls in love and marries a prince. But its ending was dark, and the strange death that is part of it is still not fully explained. The prince - and I guess we might call him that, since he was the son of industrial king John Dodge of the Dodge Motor Co. - was Daniel George Dodge, but everybody called him Danny.
In 1938 at the age of 21, Danny had dark hair, combed straight back, steel-rimmed glasses and the firm Dodge family jaw. He liked to tinker alone with experiments in his workshop.
At that time, he owned a lodge out on Manitoulin's Maple Point. You can almost see the place from the village docks of Kagawong, on the island's north shore, not far from where the St. Mary's River spills into the northern reaches of Lake Huron.
When I first started looking into this story in the late 1980's, a few older villagers were still around in Kagawong who remembered Dodge. They recalled that he used to speed about in a flashy red convertible "with lots of horns and lights." Sometimes Dodge would give them rides to the nearby town of Gore Bay. They remembered his racy speedboat. And they recalled how he used to like to hang around the Kagawong docks with the local kids and wait for the packet boat to bring the mail.
"He was kind of like James Dean," said Austin Hunt, who lived pretty much his whole life in Kagawong. As a boy, Hunt had known Dodge, who was about five years older.
To see the hamlet of Kagawong today is pretty much to see what it looked like in the 1930's, except the railroad tracks are gone. It's a quiet, pretty village, and just a short walk through the trees lies Bridal Veil Falls, which gave the town its name. In the Ojibwe language, kagawong means "where mists rise from the falling waters."
Dodge owned a lodge on Maple Point, which was about a half-hour ride out the bone-jarring peninsula road from Kagawong. The lodge, which I've visited several times, was no Mackinac Island mansion, but then it was no primitive hunter's cabin, either. It was a sprawling ranch-style place with a huge stone fireplace, a pool table, an electric generator. Outside, young Dodge had a tennis court and a small dock where he kept his mahogany resort boat named MAC.
This was very modest stuff considering that the young man was worth about $11 million back in the days when just $1 million really amounted to something. (Such wealth would equal about $150 million today.)
As villagers tell the story, Danny fell in love "with an island girl." She was the telephone operator in the nearby town of Gore Bay. Back in those days, you had to speak to an operator every time you made a call. Her name was Annie Lorraine MacDonald. She was 19.