Joining The Club

People who live on Washington Island, off the northern tip of Door County, WI, have been known to tell newcomers that they won’t be true islanders until they stop at Nelsen’s Hall for a shot of bitters. I’d somehow missed the iconic tradition during my visits. But when I decided to place a scene at Nelsen’s in the third Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery, The Lightkeeper’s Legacy, I had to remedy that omission.

A venerable landmark.

Danish immigrant Tom Nelsen built the tavern in 1899. He lived to be 90, and credited his long life to his habit of drinking nearly a pint of Angostura Bitters every day. When that pesky Prohibition law went into effect, Nelsen blithely applied for a pharmacist’s license and dispensed bitters as a stomach tonic—despite the fact that it’s about 90 proof. Today, Nelsen’s Hall has the honor of being the state’s oldest legally-operating bar.

The hall was much more then a tavern, though. Over the years it has served as a social center for the island community. Memorabilia that decorates the main room provides lots of reminders.

Photographs and old tools, mounted near the waitstaff station.

Some of the walls are of stovewood construction, as seen in the open section here.

Once, island residents came to Nelson’s to watch movies.  This equipment dates to 1910.

The original bar, dating back to 1850, now showcases old ads.

When my husband Scott and I  visited recently, we told the waitress that we wanted to try the bitters.  She served up two shot glasses filled with a dark reddish liquid, and we tossed ’em back.  Not too bad, I thought.  A second later I realized that my nostrils felt hot.

Nelson’s serves more Bitters than any other location in the world.

We were invited to sign the Bitters Club membership book. The waitress pulled out two membership cards, dipped her thumb in the dregs of my glass, and provided the official seal. Each year more then 10,000 people visit Nelsen’s and join the Bitter’s Club.

Scott and I followed our initiation with dinner, which was quite good—definitely not your basic munchies. I won’t order bitters again, but it was a fun evening. Do you think the IRS will question our bar tab?

Anyway, I like businesses that celebrate tradition.   If you have a favorite, do let me know!  I’m always game for a new adventure.

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4 Responses to “Joining The Club”

  1. elizabeth Says:

    What an interesting history!

    I just discovered that my grandfather was stationed at the St. Martin’s Light Station, a neighbor of Rock Island and Washington Island! He stayed there in the months before my grandparents got married (my grandmother went off and traveled around Europe). I wonder if my grandfather and his Coast Guard buddies ever went to Nelsen’s Hall for bitters!

    I’ve lived in Wisconsin for most of my life and have never been to Door County; now I have lots of reasons to go. And I can’t wait to read about Chloe’s adventures there!

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Elizabeth, that’s so cool! Have you looked into any lighthouse history? There are a couple of books that focus just on Door County lighthouses and their stories. I can get you titles, if you’d like. In any event, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if your grandfather did stop by Nelsen’s for bitters (purely medicinal, of course.) When you do get there, you can raise a glass to him.

  2. Dianne Says:

    Kathleen,
    In Dawson City, Yukon, Canada, you can join the Sourtoe Cocktail Club, of which I am a card-carrying member. I had a shot of Yukon Jack and yes, a human toe, which had to touch my lips. No, I was not wasted when I partook of such a libation. Please see…

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/…/toes-wanted-downtown

    or Google Sourtoe Cocktail Club

    Due to a medical condition at this time, I was not able to throw back a shot of bitters.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Yikes! I tip my hat to your moxy, because I’m not sure I’d be able to manage that. I’ve read about a similar tradition in Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak mysteries, but I had no idea it had a basis in fact. Thanks for sharing!

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