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Northern Michigan Events: For decades, until his retirement, Dean Gillespie was the go-to guy on Mackinac Island for excavating. If a sewer line broke, it was Gillespie who dug it up. When the massive, Victorian-era Grand Hotel needed shoring, Gillespie was on the job. Islanders knew him by his stocky build, gray sweatshirt (except during hunting season when he wore red) and his dry Irish humor. But there was one thing most folks didn’t know about him, says his lifelong friend, Bill Chambers, dropping his voice to a conspiratorial tone: “He never, ever killed a lilac.
Gillespie is no anomaly here. Mackinac Islanders adore these shrubs—genus Syringa—that grow in every nook, cranny and corner of this eight-mile round island set in the Straits of Mackinac’s seamless blue beauty. Chambers, president of Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, has his own lilacs remembrances. As teenagers he and Gillespie, both octogenarians now, planted a grove of lilacs up on Surrey Hill where Carriage Tours is located. The bushes still bloom, wildly, happily, every June. “All the island families planted them,” Chambers says. “But no one ever bought a lilac. You just dug them up—you couldn’t kill them. Even if you just left them to lie there, they’d find a way to root someplace.”
Metaphors for islanders and their favorite shrubs are easy pickings. Lilacs are tough as native islanders (or native islanders are hearty as these flowers?). Like their human counterparts, lilacs thrive in the cold Straits of Mackinac winters; neither lilacs nor island folk shrink from sinking their roots into the island’s craggy limestone bedrock. In fact, they crave that acidy terra firma. And last but best, lilacs prefer their soil the way these islanders like their beer: well drained.