The first inhabitants of the immediate area were the Potawatomi (Keepers of the Fire). In 1672, they arrived in the Red Banks area of Green Bay, and close on their heels came Jesuit missionaries, who the Indians called Black Robes. Father Louis Andre was one of these. In 1674, he moved with a group of Potawatomi up Cape Illinois (now Door County), to an as yet unnamed bay, where two camps formed on either side of the Mink River leading into the bay. One was called Washbegahtong, which was “a mile from the point of the cross on the north side of the bayou.” About a mile west was another village where an abundance of Indian artifacts were later found.
As Father Allouez had erected a cross at Red Banks, Father Andre positioned what was probably about a 20’ whitewashed cross on the point (across from Rowleys Bay Resort). Crosses were not erected in the villages, but rather in prominent, easily seen waterfront locations. In 1932, the last Potawatomi chief, Simon Kahquados explained why:
“There were many Indians living along the shore clear down to Milwaukee and Chicago. These Indians used to go in their canoes along the shore on trips to Mackinac Island. At that place was much drinking and other evil, so the missionaries placed the cross on this point so that all the Indians passing up and down would be reminded of their Christian duties.”
Father Andre lived among these tribes for some years. Three activities of note were playing his hand-carved flute for the children and singing French airs substituting Algonquin lyrics. He also penned an Algonquin dictionary. Of scientific interest, he was the first to write in extensive detail about the tidal activity of the Mink River and Green Bay. After leaving the Indians, Andre traveled north to Canada to fill other positions of the Order.
The Potawatomi lived in the area for more than two centuries.* Conditions were ideal — the pristine Mink River cut through the mostly swampy land and nourished hundreds of acres of wild rice. Fishing had always been best at the northern end of the peninsula, and the bay remained unfrozen most of the winter, drawing in plentiful wild game. Although the cross disappeared, the old steps were still visible at the turn of the century.
The next white man to settle here was Peter Rowley, a man seeking solitude (although he had a wife and female relative in tow), traveling up Green Bay and around the point. He and his family lived in a log home and fished and hunted the rich locale from 1840-42. Within a few years, other settlers appeared, and Peter moved on in his quest for privacy, but his name became the one attached to the bay.
The Logging Boom
The beautiful bay surrounded by virgin timber didn't escape the logging years that denuded the entire upper Midwest. In the 1860s, Osborne Cogswell, Inc. of Racine, a logging business, built the first dock for shipping lumber, wood, posts, poles and ties to other parts of the country. They owned hundreds of acres throughout the northern half of the county and had operations in other bays as well. In 1876, S.A. Rogers from New York bought substantial acreage and the dock from Osborne Cogswell and began his own enterprise. He proceeded to buy more land from Door County for unpaid taxes. He also inherited some acreage from his father-in-law, Dr. Blawis, who received it by government patent for his service during the Civil War.
Between 1878 and 1885, the enterprise of Rowleys Bay grew. A trading post was built to include a post office and doctor’s office for Dr. Blawis, and a post office existed intermittently until 1904. A 40 x 60 ft. barn, carriage building, horse barn, chicken coop, pigpen, seven-bedroom house, sawmill, icehouse, shingle-mill and school were also built.
Seven or eight million feet of lumber a season were put through the mill. Once the virgin cedars were gone, even the tiniest cedars found a use: cedar oil was extracted for lamp oil and sold for an amazing $8 a gallon.
The Tourism Boom
The next character to enter the scene was Ditlef Hanson of Tacoma, Washington. He traded Rogers for some swampy acreage bordering the north side of the Mink River in 1892. Hanson reasoned that Chicago was built on a marsh, so he was undeterred in his elaborate plans for a town on the bay. The promotional brochure back in that day was a lithograph, which Hanson utilized as a handout to picture ‘Tacoma Beach’ with boulevards, impressive city buildings, horse-drawn carriages, and children playing. Hanson depicted the lazy Mink River as a stunning waterfall tumbling into the bay. Not surprisingly, many purchased lots sight unseen. When the new owners realized they had literally purchased swampland, they abandoned their lots, stopped paying taxes and the land reverted to county ownership, going down in history as perhaps Door County’s largest real estate scam.
In 1902, S.A. Rogers put his eldest son Jay in charge of his affairs and moved back to New York with his wife. After her death he returned to Rowleys Bay and died in 1921.
Jay sold the rest of the family’s 2,000 acres over the first half of the century. His oldest son bought the remaining 367 acres in 1947, hoping to develop a resort. Circumstances intervened that resulted in him selling in 1948 to Lou Casagrande, a Spaniard, by origin and a former diamond dealer from Milwaukee. He named his new enterprise Rowleys Bay Resort. Lou and several local craftsmen redid the old buildings. The trading post was transformed into an attractive dining room with log-lined walls and quaint paintings. The artistry and décor was by Frank Gospaderek, a sign painter from Sturgeon Bay. The horse-barn, carriage-shed, and pig-pen/hen-house became the meager lodging facilities. One shower and one toilet were shared by five rooms. The rustic result was a popular fishing and hunting camp.
In 1963 Mike Van De Hei, a developer from California, and his Door County-born wife Verna (Berns) purchased the property from Lou. They deepened the boat harbor, and started work on an airstrip next to the Mink River Road. They started RB Boy’s Ranch, which never got off the ground. Mike, who was a test pilot, was killed in a solo flight in May 1968, ending their dream.
Meanwhile, in 1964, Newport State Park’s 2,400 acres were purchased by Wisconsin from various landowners and to this day present a pristine view across the bay from the resort.
Verna sold the property in 1969 to Niel Nilson and Earl Erland, who attempted to keep the resort running but were ready to pack it in after 18 months.
In 1970 Leonard and Alice Peterson bought the property and changed the name to Wagon Trail Resort. Alice was instrumental in the creation of Grandma’s Country Bakery (now Grandma’s Swedish Bakery) and for many years undertook all the cooking and baking for the on-site Wagon Trail Restaurant (Rowleys Bay Restaurant) as well as for the bakery. Her recipes are followed faithfully to this day.
In 1971, the owners made twenty-two one-and-one-half acre homesites available near the resort. Hundreds of spruce and pine trees were planted at the time, and now offer fragrant privacy to the homes that were built over a 20-year period. The resort handles rentals for many of the owners. The Petersons developed Wagon Trail Campground nearby and operated it for five years before selling to Jim and Ronnie Robinson. In 1994 the Robinsons in turn sold the campground to Dick Bartlett and Cheri Ault. The gorgeous, heavily-wooded grounds make this one of the prime camping destinations in the Midwest.
In 1977 the Nature Conservancy began purchasing property along the shores of the Mink River Estuary; almost 1,800 acres and most of the Mink River shoreline are now protected.
The first real lodge was built in 1978-79. With 20 rooms, two suites, the 60-seat restaurant (now the bakery), offices, game rooms and a laundry, the new venture took off. Another addition in 1984 added 23 more rooms, a conference room and large laundry.
In 1988, Alice Peterson died suddenly due to a heart problem. Three years later, Leonard wrote the book, “Rowleys Bay / Reliving the Heritage of Northern Door County,” a well-researched history of the area with rare photos.
Building continued, with a new 100-seat dining room, gift shop, large conference and banquet room, elevator and 36 additional rooms including two and three-bedroom suites and balcony whirlpool rooms.
A 'folk art' addition to the lobby in 2000 was a miniature gauge train set complete with scenery depicting features of Door County. Created by Bob and Bill Appel, it is fascinating for children and adults alike. They also created a photographic and historical timeline for one of the hallways that is a draw to history buffs.
On Leonard’s retirement in 2003, Bob and Jewel (Leonard’s daughter) Ouradnik and Bob Czerniakowski, CPA, became the new owners. The Ouradniks have been involved with the resort since 1983, Bob Czerniakowski since 1992; Jewel has managed the resort since 2000.
In 2010, as a nod to the past, and to celebrate the 40th anniversary of family ownership, the resort's name was changed to Rowleys Bay Resort. Grandma’s Swedish Bakery, Rowleys Bay Restaurant and much of the resort underwent an upgrade and remodeling, without losing the property's vintage character. Rowley’s Pub was also added. The original granary has become a rustic enclosed pavilion (The Stuga) for private group parties and events. Families, groups and vacationers of all ages continue to enjoy an affordable waterfront resort in one of the most unique locations in Door County.
*The Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the Treaty of Chicago in 1833 took the land rights east of the Mississippi away from the Indians, scattering them to other locations and reservations. Most left around 1875, due to the arrival of lumber enterprises.