Oh, those lilacs. So pretty, so fragrant, So pretty & fragrant, that Mackinac Island has a whole festival dedicated to them every summer, usually in June.

But did you ever wonder what the fascination with lilacs was? Why lilacs? Why not orchids, or daisies, or irises, roses, gardenias, hyacinths, honeysuckle (my favorite) or any other kind of decent smelling flower?

If you trek the northern Michigan countryside and happen to come across a patch of lilacs out in the middle of nowhere, there’s a reason for that. Yes, it’s true that nowadays there are plenty of Michiganders who grow lilacs for the love of them, but the old Michiganders from well over 100 years ago – back into the 1700s & 1800s – had another reason for the lilacs.

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The main reason was for the smell. Back in the olden days before there were flush toilets and running water, people had to rely on outhouses, or just a simple hole dug out in the back. Since there were no such things as septic tanks or sewer systems, these man-made holes filled up. Once the landowners saw their outhouse holes overflowing, they immediately dug a new, fresh hole and moved the outhouse on top of it. Voila! A new holer!

So what to do with the old, overrun hole? Cover it with dirt and plant a lilac bush on top. The lovely smell of the lilacs helped mask the disgusting pungent smell that came out of the newly-moved outhouse and its fresh contents.

Now, this isn’t just a random lilac bush here and there…there are whole rows of lilac bushes, spread out all over northern Michigan and Mackinac Island. Why? Because every time the outhouse hole filled up – usually every couple of years - it kept getting moved over a few feet and a new bush being planted over the old hole. So when you see a hedge of lilac bushes in the north, you’ll know why and what used to be there.

So yes, I guess if you wanted to call the annual Lilac Festival a tribute to air fresheners, you wouldn’t be too far off base. Mackinaw City has outhouse races in wintertime... maybe there's a way to combine the two?


Now take a look at the photo gallery below. Among the beautiful lilac photos, I've thrown in some old Michigan outhouse photos and postcards!

Lilacs and Outhouses

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