The Empty Meadow

I had intended to write a novel “just” about Pottawatomie Lighthouse in Rock Island State Park. Why look any farther? Pottawatomie has it all:  a fascinating human history, a stunning location, an impressive and beautifully restored structure. My husband Scott and I have done stints as live-in docents for the past five years, so we know it well.

pottawatomie lighthouse

I write the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery series. Chloe is a curator at Old World Wisconsin, the large outdoor ethnic museum in Waukesha County where I once served as curator. A series about historic places, the magnificent lighthouse…it was inevitable. Clearly Chloe needed to spend time at Pottawatomie.

So I began planning the mystery novel that would become The Light Keeper’s Legacy. The basic premise:  Chloe travels to Rock Island as a guest curator, charged with developing a furnishings plan during the restoration process. Her peaceful island idyll gets off to a rough start when she discovers a body on the beach.

I wrote the first few chapters. Then something unexpected happened. During a non-docent visit to Rock Island, Scott and I explored the southern end of the island—something we’d never done.

While doing so we visited the site of a former fishing village.


At one time, perhaps three hundred people lived there.  This interpretive sign suggests what some of the buildings might have looked like.

Fishing village sign

Illustration Rock Island State Park, Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources; artwork by Benjamin Tollefson.

The village didn’t last for long. As men had to go farther from shore to fish, they needed bigger boats and deeper harbors.

Chester Thordarson, the wealthy inventor who purchased most of Rock Island in 1910, restored a couple of the small cottages and cabins still standing at the village site, intending to use them as guest accommodations.

Thordarson-oldest log home in Wis

Photo from Thordarson collection, courtesy Washington Island Historical Archives.

Rock Island oldest log002 - Version 2

Note the same cabin, barely visible on the north side of the cove. Photo from Thordarson collection, courtesy Washington Island Historical Archives.

The same spot today.

The same spot today.

Now, nothing physical remains.  A few shallow depressions—suggesting long-gone foundations—are all that can be seen of the fishing village.


Yet something does remain, something intangible but compelling. As I walked through the peaceful meadow, I imagined the bustling activity it once held.


I could almost see the little cabins, almost hear the thuds of a cooper’s mallet and the sweet tones of a Danish lullaby. I could almost smell the smoke of wood fires, the tang of new-caught fish, the wet green scent of drying nets.

Danish wife

As I wandered around the shallow harbor it was easy to imagine English and Irish and Icelandic and Norwegian fishermen hauling their boats onto the cobbled beach.

Danish fishermen

And, as sometimes happens when I’m writing, my vision for the book changed. I created an historical plotline featuring a family of Danish immigrants who settled on the fishing village in 1869. Ragna Anderson, a fictional woman from the Hedebo region of Denmark, became a major character.

Danish women

Ragna’s story is woven with Chloe’s more modern experiences. The two are linked by the lighthouse, and by one of the real families who lived and worked at Pottawatomie Lighthouse. Emily Betts appears in Chloe’s research, and as a character in the historical plotline. My novel is much richer because of the inspiration I found in that “empty” meadow.

On Rock Island, it is very easy to focus only on the magnificent lighthouse, and the equally magnificent Viking Hall and Boathouse built by Chester Thordarson.

boathouse, Rock Island

But those structures present an incomplete picture. Many people came and went from Rock Island without leaving any still-lingering physical evidence behind—European and Yankee fishermen, Pottawatomie and Menomonee and Huron travelers, French traders and explorers.

The same thing is true, of course, throughout Door County—and elsewhere. Next time you travel your favorite back roads, use your imagination and a guidebook or two to explore the landscape. Imagine who might have once peopled the peaceful forest; the tranquil field.  You never know what—or who—you might discover.

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11 Responses to “The Empty Meadow”

  1. merrylu Says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Reading this story about how it came together brought it even more to life for me.

  2. merrylu Says:

    Thanks for sharing some of the background about how your story came about. It really makes your book (which I loved) cone alive.

  3. nancyloswald Says:

    This is a wonderful post and a great example of the way stories “come” to us. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  4. Ruth Says:

    Thank you for the extra history lesson. Dan and I both enjoyed The Light Keepers Legacy and have Washington Island on our list of must see places in WI. Ruth Nelson-Lau

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      I know you’d enjoy Washington Island. They have a fairly short tourist season, generally Memorial Day weekend, and then July 4 – Labor Day. Of course it’s not quite that specific, but those are the best times for making sure places are open. On the other hand, Scott and I enjoy coming before and after those times, when it’s very peaceful and quiet.

  5. Arletta Dawdy's Blog Says:

    Lovely showing of the writing process at its most imaginative. I look forward to reading it.

  6. JustDeb Says:

    I just finished your book. Loved it! My sister recommended it. She does a stint at the lighthouse every year with her husband and daughter, also. I was born on Washington but only lived there for the first few years of my life. My Grandparents lived there so we were there all the time, it is like home. My Dad is still up there. I haven’t been to Rock for over 30 years and now I feel like I need to get over there again. I just remember the boathouse was very cool. I also see you used Tryg’s book as a reference, he is my newest brother-in-law. Loved the story, glad you put Ragna in it. My Grandfather was born and raised on Washington as was his father. If you read Tryg’s book, you probably read about my GGGF, Nels Jepsen or my uncle William Jepson. Thanks again for the great read.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! It’s always lovely to hear from a reader, but especially so someone with such close ties to the setting. I did find Tryg’s books extremely helpful! And everyone on the island was as kind and helpful as could be. Perhaps I’ll see you on Rock one day!

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