Undefeated: The Story of Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

There are a few things that Michiganders know, growing up. One is the beauty of a Michigan winter (good thing, because it is very snowy and cold!). Second is the incredible landscape we live in, from beaches to mountains, city to rural, and even a few islands thrown in. Another is our strong work ethic – arising from our northern European ancestors, and strengthened through winter and landscape. We honor this work ethic here, in a variety of ways.

I recently read a book about a generations-long work ethic here in Michigan, and I’m so impressed with the book that I’m sharing it here – and also contacted one of the authors for an inside look! The book? Undefeated: The True Story of How the Family-Owned Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry Service Survived And Advanced Through Three Generations, by Jean R. Beach and Dr. Don Steele. 

Undefeated: The Story of Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry

Undefeated is a story that shows hard work, creativity, vision, family, and service to the community. It’s also a story of a community, that of the Mackinac Island area (which is just beautiful, by the way, and be sure to visit!). I loved this book for the in-depth look at a family that has worked hard to serve – and grow. The Shepler family, who helped create memories for hundreds of thousands of travelers to Mackinac Island over the last 7+ decades, has an amazing story. I was intrigued, impressed, and couldn’t put the book down. It taught me about tourism in Northern Michigan over time, as well as Michigan history (such as the building of the Mackinac Bridge, connecting Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas!). For history is all about people – and this family’s story is one that is fascinating and reads like a movie. Dig in, and be inspired by this all-American story of hard work, success, and family.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Undefeated co-author Dr. Don Steele. Here’s what he had to say…

Please tell us about Undefeated…

Undefeated is as much a personal family history of the Sheplers as it is a case study on a business surviving daunting challenges and prospering over three generations (a period of 70 years) through determination, a vibrant culture, creativity, and first class customer service. Told with folksy stories from family members, business associates, and friends, the book reveals how a family business can overcome the fluidity of a community’s changing needs, the disrupting technologies in an industry, and those obstacles presented in many family dynamics. The reader is rewarded with a backstory rich in regional history, and a saga of a family full of love and respect who pushed forward together when many would have quit decades ago. 

Undefeated: The Story of Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry

What inspired you to write this book? 

I was hired as a coach and consultant to help guide the Shepler family through the transition of leadership from the second to the third generation. Only 12% of family owned and operated businesses make this transition successfully. As I talked with and coached family members, the rich history of this northern Michigan Ferry business began to unveil itself. I suggested to Bill Shepler that capturing the legacy of this family might be a good idea. That was the trigger that put the book idea into motion.

Was it like writing and researching a book together? 

Yes. And. I hasten to add that my co-writer, Jean Beach, did some heavy lifting in the regional history domain. Family pictures were a great source of inspiration for the story that unfolds.

Distance between where I live in Scottsdale, Arizona and Mackinaw City, Michigan could have been a problem, but that problem was diminished greatly by my monthly on-site coaching and consulting.

I’m all about research – what was it like, researching this book? 

The regional history was gathered from many sources including, but not limited to, visits to museums and other tourist attractions that capture history; interviews with locals who are deeply engaged in business ventures that draw people to the area, i.e., Dan Musser, owner of the world famous Mackinac Island Grand Hotel; Judge Bill Crane, Attorney for the Sheplers; family members and their friends; and Shepler competition.

Suzanne and Kathy Shepler. Undefeated: The Story of Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry

Suzanne and Kathy Shepler

Were there any challenges?

A major challenge arose when a competitor tried to run the Shepler Mackinac Island Ferry Service out of business. The completion of the book was delayed for over a year until this hostile take-over attempt was resolved. The book details what happened.

What do you admire about the Shepler family and how they have worked so hard to keep this business successful and supporting so many? 

Please let me begin by saying that the Shepler family takes deep pride in the business they have built and all of the blood, sweat and tears it has taken to survive and advance over three generations and 70 years. Secondly, I learned that it is not wise to ever tell a Shepler, “It can’t be done!” Finally, this is a family with a strong belief in God, country and the American free enterprise system.

Undefeated: The Story of Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry

How hard has the Shepler family worked to keep this business so successful and support so many? 

From Cap Shepler to Bill Shepler to Chris Shepler --- no task is too big, too small nor too daunting. The prevailing attitude is “We are bigger than the problems we face” --- and the problems range from treacherous weather, shifting political winds, stiff competition, and an array of other challenges.

Undefeated: The Story of Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry

Give a glimpse of what it is like to live in the northern climes... 

To paraphrase what has been written about the California gold rush, it was said that "the cowards stayed home, the weak died along the way and only the strong survived!” Much the same can be said about those who have chosen to live and make a living in Northern Michigan. What was once treacherous territory has been greatly tamed by adventurous business people like the Sheplers, who have not only carved out a living, but also learned how to enjoy family life through summer and winter sports. Bill, Chris, and Billy have all served as ski instructors, coaching the local school ski teams to multiple state championships. Chris has also competed in the America’s Cup racing.

Undefeated: The Story of Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry

How did you decide what to include in the book and what to leave out? 

This was difficult. There is clearly more that could have been told. I also would have liked to include what has happened recently. Specifically, I just attended an event where the Sheplers unveiled their new vessel, named “Miss Margy” after Bill’s mother. This ferry carries 281 people at 40 miles per hour from Mackinaw City to and from Mackinac Island and St. Ignus. It is the only ferry boat built entirely in Michigan.       

Undefeated: The Story of Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry

The original Miss Margy



Learn more: http://sheplersferry.com/about/




All photos courtesy and copyright Shepler's Ferry; cover photo taken out on the deck by Wandering Educators

Note: We received a review copy of Undefeated from the publisher - thank you!