Posts Tagged ‘Door County’

The Empty Meadow

September 3, 2013

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.

meadow

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.

DSCF5063

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

DSCF8963

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.

Cast Iron and Memories

September 6, 2012

Pottawatomi Lighthouse, the oldest light station in Wisconsin, sits on top of a bluff on Rock Island, in lake Michigan. Rock Island is now a state park, and it provides the setting for my latest Chloe Ellefson mystery, The Light Keeper’s Legacy.

In the mystery, Chloe is hired to write a furnishings plan for the lighthouse.

The lighthouse was occupied until 1946, when the light was automated. Decades passed before an energetic volunteer support group formed to restore the lighthouse. When the Friends of Rock Island (FORI) returned the lighthouse to its 1910 appearance, they had to find period artifacts to furnish the rooms.

My husband and I have had the good fortune to serve as docents, helping visitors imagine life at Pottawatomie.  Here’s Scott talking with guests in the ground floor kitchen.

Although most pieces in the lighthouse came from elsewhere, one major exception can be found in the second floor kitchen. The original cast iron stove had been placed in storage. When the restoration was complete, FORI and park staff hauled the stove out, cleaned it up, and managed to get it back upstairs.

I’d have fond feelings for the stove simply because it is original to the building. But it also helps tell a great story.

And here I am at the old stove in the second story kitchen.

When I give tours, I often ask guests to guess what fuel was used to keep the lamp burning. The two most common answers are whale oil (which was used by the earliest keepers) and kerosene (used in later years). But there was an intermediate fuel, designated by the lighthouse service when whale oil became too expensive. What was combustible, cheap, and readily available in the upper Midwest?

Lard.

The lighthouse was designed to accommodate two families, with a kitchen on each floor. Since the second story kitchen was (obviously) closest to the tower, I imagine that during the lard era keepers constantly kept a kettle of fat simmering on the back of this stove.

Emily Betts, a real woman who lived at Pottawatomie Lighthouse with her family, served as assistant keeper during this time. Decades later, when she was 93, a reporter wrote of asking Emily about her most vivid memories from that era.

“… In cold weather, the oil would thicken and turn white and the light refuse to burn.  Emily and her husband would warm lard oil on the stove, wrap the bowl in hot towels, rush it up the tower stairs, and by keeping up this process the light was persuaded to burn through the long cold nights.”  (Door County Advocate, 12/5/1947)

I simply can’t imagine how she managed. The stairs are very steep. Emily had a large family, and would have been pregnant some of the time. (Her first two children were born at the lighthouse.)

I’ve climbed those stairs in a long skirt. I need one hand to hold the hem high enough that I don’t trip, and the other to clutch the railing.

In time lard gave way to kerosene. When the light was automated, kerosene gave way to electricity. Today a single solar panel on a metal tower powers the light at Pottawatomie station.

But the old iron stove, and Emily Betts’ description in an faded newspaper clipping, remain. They are tangible reminders of the long, cold, dark nights when keepers hurried up the stairs time and again to replenish light and clean congealed grease from the lens…while merchant captains steamed safely through Rock Island passage.

Pottawatomie Lighthouse is open for tours Memorial Day through Columbus Day weekend (October 7 in 2012) . Two ferry trips are required, so advance planning is important. A car ferry runs from the peninsula to Washington Island, and a passengers-only ferry runs from Washington Island to Rock Island.  The lighthouse is about a mile from the dock.

For more information:

Rock Island State Park:  http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/rockisland/

For Ferry information:  http://washingtonisland-wi.com/ferry-schedules/

Shards

March 1, 2012

One of my favorite artifacts at Old World Wisconsin sits on a high shelf at one of the Finnish farms. Someone affixed bits of broken china to a crock—including a doll. Were the shards themselves treasured bits of something precious? Sad story. Was someone simply trying to make the crock more decorative with materials at hand? Happier story. Either way, it’s fun to wonder.

I’ve seen similar pieces elsewhere. Check out this one from  the collection of the Swiss Historical Village & Museum in New Glarus, WI.

Not too long ago, I traveled through Door County, WI, and stopped at a favorite cafe in Egg Harbor. I’ve visited several times, but only just noticed the decorative work on a couple of benches and a manhole cover just outside the door.

The pieces are unexpected, funky, cheerful.

I started to go back inside to ask the proprietors the story behind the artwork… but I decided not to. It’s more fun to wonder.

Abandoned Farmhouse

April 14, 2010

I often photograph abandoned old houses.  I map them in my mind, and the next time I drive by, I always look to see if something has changed.  Every once in a while, I’m enormously cheered to find that someone is fixing up some once-lovely place.  More often, I discover that one wall has caved in, or that someone has razed the place altogether.

A few weeks ago I packed my laptop and my cat into the car and headed to Door County, Wisconsin, for a weeklong writing retreat. I’ve been driving this route periodically for almost thirty years, now, and I always look for a couple of special houses.  I’m a bit worried about one of my favorites.

This house must have been spectacular when it was new. (Of course, in its own way, it still is.)

The original owners must have been good farmers, for even with the red bricks produced locally, these homes weren’t quick and easy to throw together.

Whenever I see such a place, I am reminded of the poignant poem “Abandoned Farmhouse,” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser.  I’ll reproduce just the first stanza here:

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn
.

Mr. Kooser interprets his abandoned farmhouse in the same way curators hope museum visitors interpret artifacts carefully chosen to help tell a story.  If you love history but haven’t discovered Mr. Kooser’s work, I recommend Delights and Shadows, or any of his other volumes.

I am interested in historic architecture.  Still, like Mr. Kooser, I think mostly of the people who once lived in these abandoned farmhouses. Who proudly stepped inside for the first time?  What joy and anguish did the house once hold?  How did the last occupants feel when they moved out?  Did they know the house would sit empty, and perhaps crumble into the landscape?

I pass this one when I drive toward Lake Delton. Don’t you love the gingerbread trim?

Say the phrase “historic site” and most of us think first of a place formally preserved; a place we now need an admission ticket to explore.  But historic sites surround us, every day.  All we need is a little imagination to bring them to life.