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The story behind the story of Dandelion Cottage.

In 1903, a young Marquette girl named Eleanor complained that she had read all of the books ever I written for children. Her mother, Caroline Watson Rankin, took that statement to heart and decided to do something about it. Rankin's resulting work, "Dandelion Cottage," was based on the antics of her daughters and their friends and featured a real cottage that stood behind the Rankins' home. The cottage still exists today, albeit in a different location, and still draws sightseers interested in the inspiration for this children's classic.

The story of "Dandelion Cottage" begins with its author, who was born Caroline Watson in Marquette, Michigan in 1864. The Watson family had arrived in Marquette in 1855 to open a general store, just six years after the town was established.

Caroline's interest in writing began at a young age. She published her first short story at 11 in What Next, a juvenile paper that she modestly said "probably accepted anything that came its way." Still, the story's publication encouraged Caroline to continue on her quest. At 16, she answered an ad from the Daily Mining Journal for a "bright boy to do reporting." When she presented herself at the newspaper's office, she argued that though she wasn't a boy, she was bright. And the editor gave her the job. She remained with the newspaper until her marriage in 1886 to Ernest Rankin, who was employed by the local railroad.

Rankin and her husband raised four children--Imogene, Eleanor, Ernest Jr., and Phyllis--in her family home at 219 E. Ridge Street. To supplement their household income, Rankin wrote short stories for major national magazines including Harper's, Ladies' Home Journal, Gardening Magazine, Century, Youth's Companion, and Mother's Magazine. She often used the male spelling of her name, Carroll, as well as other pen names. She felt this concession to masculinity helped her to be more competitive in the publishing world.


Then came the day when daughter Eleanor complained she had nothing to read. This comment spurred Rankin to begin writing a serial story about four girls--Bettie, Jeanie, Mabel, and Marjory--who earn the right to use an empty cottage belonging to a local church as their summer playhouse by agreeing to pick all the dandelions on the cottage lawn. The negotiation for the cottage is made between the girls and a character named Mr. Black, the church's senior warden and a prosperous businessman. Black is said to have been based on Marquette's Peter White, who was well-known to Rankin and, like her, attended St. Paul's Episcopal Church.

Initially, the story was intended only as entertainment for her children. Then publisher Henry Holt contacted Rankin. He had read her work in national magazines, and wondered if she'd be interested in developing a novel. Rankin quickly assembled what she had written, fleshed it out to 21 chapters, and sent it to New York City for review. In 1904, "Dandelion Cottage" debuted under the auspices of Holt's esteemed publishing house.

Rankin's children were delighted to be the first "critics" of this important new book.


Not much is known about the origins of the cottage that is the setting for the book. But in 1888, it was owned by Peter White, who donated it to St. Paul's church with the understanding that it would be moved from its original site on High Street to make room for a new chapel honoring his deceased son. The little building ended up around the corner at 212 E. Arch Street, behind the church and nearly behind the Rankin home.

After Rankin's novel was published, the building became known as Dandelion Cottage. Its notoriety would grow throughout the 20th century, in conjunction with that of the novel. During that time, it remained a church rental property. Then, in 1988, St. Paul's decided to expand its parking lot, and that meant Dandelion Cottage would once again need to find a new site.

Fortunately, the church acknowledged the historical significance of the little building. Rather than simply tear it down, the elders looked for someone to buy it for the sum of $1, plus pay the costs of relocating it. In early 1991, Marquette Mayor William Birch and his wife, Sally, accepted the challenge. On October 12, the building was moved to its present location at 440 E. Arch Street, directly behind the Birches' Ridge Street home.


Marquette's Mining Journal ran numerous stories about the attempts to sell the cottage and its successive move. Estimates to relocate it two blocks down Arch Street were said to total $20,000. But the Birches went beyond just moving it; they substantially restored it. The exterior was given a fresh coat of bright yellow paint, and the inside was remodeled, too. A modern kitchen was installed, damaged woodwork was replaced, and the maple floors were refinished. In a whimsical touch, dandelions were stenciled on the interior walls. In all, the restoration cost more than $60,000, but the owners understood that if a thing was worth doing, it was worth doing well.

On June 28, 1992, the relocated and refurbished Dandelion Cottage was opened to the public. Hundreds stood in a long line down Arch Street to tour the building, many expressing their delight that this Marquette landmark had been preserved. Phyllis Rankin, the then 97-year-old daughter of the author, unveiled a state historical marker that she had purchased for the occasion. Rankin told the Mining Journal, "I am glad [the cottage] was saved and I know my mother would have been delighted about it. It looks lovely.... [The owners did] a beautiful job."

While Dandelion Cottage has since been resold, it remains a private residence today, holding its own amid the more substantial Victorian-era houses that tower over it.


As for Rankin, the success of "Dandelion Cottage" encouraged her to write three sequels--"The Adopting of Rosa Marie," "The Castaways of Pete's Patch," and "The Girls of Highland Hall"--as well as a boys' book titled "Wolf Rock" and five other novels for children. Like "Dandelion Cottage," these children's books were inspired by local events and places. In "Finders Keepers," the characters take a train to visit the wild blueberry patches north of Marquette on the Yellow Dog Plains. "Stump Village" is based on an early school in Marquette that Rankin attended. A fire at the Ridge Street School, on the block next to Rankin's house, inspired a scene in "The Adopting of Rosa Marie," in which Mabel Bennett escapes from a burning schoolhouse by sliding down its dust chute. And in "The Girls of Gardenville," a young lady loses control of her automobile during her first driving lesson. She coasts down a large hill and smashes into a statue at the bottom--reminiscent of Marquette's Ridge Street hill and the statue of Jacques Marquette that once stood at its foot.


Rankin spent the rest of her life in Marquette and died there in 1945. Though a century has passed since the publication of "Dandelion Cottage," local interest in her work lives on. As recently as 2012, actress and playwright Monica Nordeen wrote and starred in a one-woman show about Rankin's life. "Behind the Dandelions" was staged at Kaufman Auditorium. That same summer, the Marquette Regional History Center (MRHC), which produced Nordeen's play, held a Dandelion Cottage walking tour that included the cottage, the Rankin home, St. Paul's, and the Peter White property. Finally, a dramatic version of Rankin's first book, written and directed by Ron Riekki, was performed in 2012 at Marquette's Lake Superior Theatre.

Today, the cottage remains a must-see site, the book continues to sell (as a fundraiser for the MRHC), and the dandelions still return to Marquette every spring.

Tyler R. Tichelaar is the author of "My Marquette: Explore the Queen City of the North" and numerous historical novels set in the Upper Peninsula, including "The Marquette Trilogy."
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Author:Tichelaar, Tyler R.
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2016
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