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By Jackie Weber
This article was printed in The Town Meeting October 20, 1993
The view has changed from the long porch of the Island House, most of the large willow trees are gone. The new harbor filled with expensive boats is now in the foreground. New people have moved into the area; people have died and babies have been born; but the island will never change.
This house is more than just a house; it is about the people who made it a home. The Island House remains a living part of history of Elk Rapids.
In 1855 the Noble Family moved from Washtenaw County, Michigan, and settled in Elk Rapids. The Nobles and the Dexters grew up in Dexter, Michigan, and they remained friends throughout their lifetimes. Wirt Dexter and Henry Noble were the founding fathers of Elk Rapids.
In 1866, Henry Noble and his partner Wirt Dexter purchased the Island from the United States government.
During that year, Edwin Noble (brother of Henry), moved from Dexter, Michigan, to Elk Rapids where he worked as an office manager and manager of the mercantile store. Later he became partner in the firm of Dexter/Noble and became secretary and treasurer of the organization.
The company was one of the largest in the entire state. Dexter was President and operated the company’s office in Chicago; Henry Noble was Vice-President and in charge of the company’s operation in Elk Rapids. With the knowledge Edwin had with figures, he was the real driving force of the Iron Company’s success during the first twenty years of the business.
Edwin wanted to build his home on the four-acre island. The island rose 25 feet above the waters of Lake Michigan and had a beautiful view of Grand Traverse Bay. Most people were against him building on this formidable place. Edwin knew that it was the most ideal place in the village to build a home for his family. He had the island filled in with dirt and an area leveled for his dream home. The island was later named “The Isle of Pines” because of all the trees that he had planted there.
Edwin was 24 when he married Emmeline Hurlbut in 1862, and together they had two sons; Henry born in 1869 and Percy born in 1874. Emmeline died in 1879. In 1883 Edwin married Cora Gray and they had a daughter named Natalie born in 1894. All three children were born on the island.
The house was small at first… as Edwin’s family grew, so did their needs, resulting in additions. Rooms were added to house the servants who cooked, cleaned and took care of the Noble family. The house was 106′ by 44′ in size consisting of four bedrooms, parlor, dining room, two bathrooms and four tubs.
There were parties with lots of friends on the Island. In the winter, they would have toboggan and skating get-togethers and afterward they would warm themselves by the fire in the parlor. They had pets of all kinds including a friendly doe, horses, ducks, chickens and prairie dogs to play with.
The three children of Edwin Noble enjoyed all of the luxuries of life. Every day was an experience. There were trips aboard the boats that docked in Elk Rapids with destinations to New York, Chicago and Boston where they ate in the finest restaurants and shopped in the finest shops.
There were paintings and books on all subjects available for the children. Also, music lessons for Natalie and riding lessons for the boys. Life on the Island seemed enchanting. Good manners and fancy dress were requirements of an invitation to dine and taste the fine food the Nobles imported to the Island.
Under the house …the horse and carriage could pull in so the guests would not have to step out in mud and snow.
In 1890, Henry and Percy attended Orchard Lake Military Academy, a private school near Detroit. Natalie stayed home and attended school in Elk Rapids. She graduated in 1914.
In 1892, Edwin was involved in a very mysterious boating incident. The boiler blew up and he was badly burned. The accident left him an invalid for a number of years. Many of the family members suspected foul play.
In 1893, Edwin’s tax on his holdings including the Isle of Pines was $63.70 which included School Tax of $36.07. The Island had an assessed value of $2,500.
Around 1898, Edwin began to lose his power with the company. When he was well enough to go back to work, he found his name completely missing as a stockholder in the company. A Detroit law firm advised him that there were enough accounting errors to warrant an investigation. For reasons unknown today, Edwin did not pursue the matter.
Many of Edwin’s financial obligations were coming due at that time and with everything that had happened, he found himself without a job with the Dexter/Noble Empire. He was forced into semi-liquidation and in 1903 was forced to sell his beautiful island home to the new owners of the Iron Company, a firm from Grand Rapids.
Edwin died in Elk Rapids in 1922. He worked his whole life for his family and the Village of Elk Rapids.. Henry died in 1989 and Wirt Dexter died in Chicago 1890.
For a number of years, the Island House was used as a vacation home to accommodate the business associates of the Iron Company. In 1926, it became the property of Wirt Dexter’s widow, Josephine, and eventually went to their daughter, Katherine. She never lived on the island but a relative of Katherine’s, Ella Brown, stayed in the house during her summer vacations.
In 1948, Katherine Dexter McCormick deeded the island to the Village of Elk Rapids with stipulations. The Island House could be used as a community center, park, village hall or library.
Caretakers lived in the house and rooms were rented for meetings and small parties by residents of the village. The Garden Club and Business and Professional Women’s organization had monthly meetings there.
The Island House became the Elk Rapids Library in 1949.
On April 26, 1979, the Village of Elk Rapids was notified by the Michigan Historical Commission that the “Isle of Pines” had been listed in the State Register of Historic Sites.
When you visit the library, sit on the porch and think about those who sat there many, many years ago. Does the Grand Traverse Bay look the same as it did in the late 1800s? What did the Noble family see when they looked across those waters? Reminisce about the nobility of this special island. You may feel the warmth shared by the family that lived here from 1865 to 1903
No matter what happens on the island, it will always be known as the Island House and the Nobles will always remain part of the history of Elk Rapids.
Please CLICK HERE to read a wonderful article from “The Town Meetings – Elk Rapids Sesquicentennial Scrapbook”, by Jackie Weber (June 17, 1998)
Please CLICK HERE to read a wonderful article from “Newsletter of the Elk Rapids Area Historical Society”, by Dan LeBlond (Summer/Fall 2013)