City Spotlight: Door County, WI

Door County, Wisconsin is the peninsula which juts out of the state into Lake Michigan. The 12 light stations and 3 life-saving stations are shown on this map. Reprinted from 'Guarding Door County: Lighthouses and Life-Saving Stations' by Stacy and VIrginia Thomas (Pg. 2 Arcadia Publishing, 2005.)

History of Door County, WI
Though Door County’s most recent permanent Native American and European settlers arrived in the last few centuries, the peninsula and islands have been home to other residents for thousands of years. Archaeologic evidence suggests it has been continuously inhabited by humans since 10,000 B.C. Early permanent settlements date back more recently, about 2,000 years. The dominant Native American tribe in the region was the Potawatomi. Other influential tribes include the Winnebago (or Ho-Chunk), the Ojibwe, the Sauk, the Menominee and the Ottawa.
Claim of the territory started with the French in the 1600s, following by the British, and ultimately, the United States claimed final ownership in 1783. After the U.S. claimed the region, it was designated as part of the Northwest Territory. With the growth and shift of local populations, the land was also considered part of the Indiana Territory, then the Illinois Territory, then Michigan and finally, in 1848, it became the state of Wisconsin, with the peninsula being designated part of Brown County.
Early permanent settlers, Increase and Mary Clafflin, established themselves in the Little Sturgeon Bay area, later moving to the area now known as Weborg Point in Peninsula State Park. Shortly after, entrepreneur Asa Thorpe built the dock at Fish Creek in 1855, establishing the only place between Fort Howard and Rock Island for ships to refuel on cordwood. The village thrived enormously as a result.
In 1851, Door County had finally acquired enough settlers to be established as a county in its own right. Though for one year, this included present day Kewaunee County, in 1852, the legislature re-determined the boundaries. On a cold February day in 1853, the community of Ephraim was established, as the site for Reverend Andrew Iverson’s congregation to meet.
Early settlers largely survived on the harvest of timber and fish. By 1900, considerable harvesting of these natural resources, in combination with improved transportation, helped lead to a rise in the tourism industry, particularly via passenger steamers. Though traditional farming crops failed in the county, it was discovered that fruit trees flourished. By the 1920s, road were so improved that the county was more often visited by automobile than by boat. Motorists were warned however, the trip to northern Door would require at least 3 spare tires.
Now that we’ve reviewed an early history of Door County, let’s reflect on some vintage images from the area.

This may be the Mary Ellen Cook coming over the breakwater. In May 1883, the Cook was bound for Chicago with a full load of lumber when it got caught in a nor’easter and took its “wild ride.” Capt. Val Valentine got caught in the trough of the seas, and it was impossible to get the schooner through the small entrance of the breakwater, which was not yet finished leaving a spot for a pier with rocks piled to the water level. Captain Valentine devised a bold plan in which he had the centerboard raised as he steered his vessel right for the gap in the break wall. A wave picked up the bow and brought it over the rocks while a second wave pushed it over unharmed in front of a few hundred amazed spectators. Stories told years later by sailors have it that the
vessel’s cook panicked and jumped overboard and drowned. (Courtesy of DCMM.)
Reprinted from 'Door Peninsula Shipwrecks' by Jon Paul Van Harpen (Pg. 17, Arcadia Publishing, 2006.)

A typical rocky shoreline in Door County, as wave action tumbles blocks of dolomite. Photo by Peter Rimsa.
Reprinted from 'Door County Tales: Shipwrecks, Cherries, and Goats on the Roof' by Gayle Soucek (Pg. 19, The History Press, 2011.)

This is an artist’s rendition of a bird’s-eye view of Sturgeon Bay in 1880. In just 30 years, the village had been transformed from a pine forest to the bustling county seat of Door County with its abundance of sawmills. The business district was already established on Cedar Street (Third Avenue), and the courthouse stood on the outskirts of the community. Stone quarries, lime kilns, and ice operations all fed into the burgeoning city’s economy. New immigrants and established entrepreneurs found opportunity in the developing community on the waters of Sturgeon Bay. Reprinted from 'Sturgeon Bay' by Ann Jinkins and Maggie Weir for the Door County Historical Museum (Pg. 9, Arcadia Publishing, 2006.)

Pottawatomie Lighthouse has been restored to look almost exactly as it did when its keeper, David Corbin, was alive. Corbin is rumored to still roam the property. Reprinted from 'Haunted Door County' by Gayle Soucek (Pg. 35, The History Press, 2012.)

The Lakeland starts to settle in the calm water. It made its death plunge at 11:30 a.m., sinking stern first, breaking amidships and blowing the cabins and hatches almost 40 feet in the air. The Ann Arbor 6 landed the Lakeland’s crew at the Goodrich Dock in Sturgeon Bay while Captain Anderson and the officers from the Lakeland searched the freezing waters for floating wreckage for nearly two hours. The ship was lost in 210 feet of water, six miles east of the canal. The Lakeland was valued at $500,000 and its cargo of 40 Nash and Kissel cars at $45,000. (Courtesy of Wisconsin Maritime Museum.) Reprinted from 'Door Peninsula Shipwrecks' by Jon Paul Van Harpen (Pg. 25, Arcadia Publishing, 2006.)

These workers pose at the planing mill of the N. S. Washburn Lumberyard around 1925. The mill was located at the foot of Kentucky Street next to the toll bridge. From left to right are Joe Krause, William Losli, Frank Bonnes, and Otto Erdmann. Reprinted from 'Sturgeon Bay' by Ann Jinkins and Maggie Weir for the Door County Historical Museum (Pg.1, Arcadia Publishing, 2006.)

Quarried stone was the county’s first export in 1834. Leathem Smith’s Sturgeon Bay quarry shown here was founded in 1893 and became Wisconsin’s largest crushed stone plant. The quarrying industry petered out during the Depression. (Courtesy DCMM & LPS.) Reprinted from 'Guarding Door County: Lighthouses and Life-Saving Stations' by Stacy and VIrginia Thomas (Pg. 11, Arcadia Publishing, 2005.)

Sturgeon Bay became the center for shipbuilding, especially after the completion of the canal in 1882. Prominent companies include Riebolt & Wolter/Universal, Harris, Leathem Smith, Peterson, Bay Shipbuilding, and Palmer Johnson. Sturgeon Bay played a crucial role in the World War II effort by producing 17 submarine chasers between 1942 and 1944. Built by Peterson Boat Works, the mostly wooden vessels carried a crew of 27 men and were responsible for hunting and destroying enemy submarines. (Photography W.C. Schroeder, courtesy DCMM & LPS.) Reprinted from 'Guarding Door County: Lighthouses and Life-Saving Stations' by Stacy and VIrginia Thomas (Pg. 12, Arcadia Publishing, 2005.)

Early stores such as this cigar and sundries shop often served as social hubs in the community.
Reprinted from 'Door County Tales: Shipwrecks, Cherries, and Goats on the Roof' by Gayle Soucek (Pg. 78, The History Press, 2011.)

For more, visit all of our Door County, WI titles here.