A Fifty-Year Reminiscense
By Hjalmar R. Holand
(Abridged version of an essay written by author H. R. Holand in 1948…remembering Door County as it was in 1898.)
It is fifty years this summer since I first saw the Door Peninsula. I was then a student at the University of Wisconsin and thought that the Madison surroundings were about as beautiful as could be found anywhere. But that was before I had seen northern Door County.
Over on the eastern edge of Wisconsin lay a long peninsula between Green Bay and Lake Michigan which on the map looked like a very cozy corner. Not only its insular location, but also its local names fascinated me. Especially did I like Ephraim, because it had the flavor of old, patriarchal history. I laid plans to visit this norther part of the Peninsula.
About the first of August, 1898, I arrived in Green Bay on my bicycle … and started northward.
Upon arriving in Sturgeon Bay, I went to the Court House to consult the best county maps to get “the lay of the land”…
The highway northward to Fish Creek was just a narrow, stony lane with shapeless stone fences and brush on both sides. In the fields also were big stone piles, and most of the dwellings were log houses. The farmers were hauling in oats, some with horses, but many with ox teams.
Eventually I arrived in Fish Creek where every man apparently was a fisherman. I went down to a rickety pier, where a small steamer was just putting off. A few moments later a farmer rushed up, but came too late, as the steamer was now a hundred feet away. He looked so forlorn, I felt called upon to comfort him. To my surprise he offered to take me to [Ephraim].
[W]e set out, he in his buggy, and I on my bicycle. It was a most wretched road with a succession of mud holes and stony knolls, and scraggy woods on both sides almost all the way.
The drive to North Bay seemed endless as it was necessary to go by way of Baileys Harbor, and then through the gloomy swamps northeast of it.
I coasted down the last hill to the beach opposite Ephraim. There it lay, a charming little village with every house painted white, against a background of bright green evergreens on the steep hillside behind it! Nowhere had I seen a village that could compare with it in beauty of location (and now, after fifty years of rambles in many states and countries, I can still say the same).
Filled with elation at finding anything so perfect in a pioneer region, I traveled onward until I came to a store, operated by a dour old Dane, named Jacob Smith. From him I learned that practically every family in the village was Norwegian.
At that time there were practically no tourists in northern Door County, and Ephraim in summer was then as quiet as it now is in winter. It was reported that a stove manufacturer from Chicago had started to build a palatial summer home in Fish Creek at the fabulous cost of $3500.00! The price of labor then was one dollar for a ten-hour day, or fifteen dollars for a month including board. But the dollar had a much greater buying power then than now. My dinner in Sturgeon Bay cost me twenty-five cents and included soup, roast beef, four vegetables, bread and butter, apple pie and two cups of coffee. Tipping was unknown.
Back in the 1890’s farming represented more hard work and less pay than at any other time except in the 1870’s when the grasshoppers ravaged the fields. Land was therefore very cheap. [M]ost of the farmers had large woodlots and they squeezed a little income out of these. But a cord, and those three dollars represented a terrible lot of heavy labor. The fishermen did a little better even though the price of herring was only one and a half cents per pound. Long pound-nets lined the whole shore of Door County.
I once more mounted my wheel and pedaled back to Eagle Cliff. I sought out a spot on the top of the northern slope, and here I stretched at full length to muse on my riches. It was good land as was shown by the big growth of the many different kinds of trees around me. But what was far better was its location on the shore of Green Bay, which with its islands, promontories and rock-rimmed bays presented so many delightful vistas.
Best of all, however, was the noble cliff of white limestone, rising straight up to a height of more than two hundred feet, with green cedars springing from its fissures, and surmounted by towering pines and oaks centuries old. What would not a Chicago capitalist give to have such a timber-clad cliff in or near Chicago? But I had no desire to see it transported to Chicago, and there get vast riches by its sale, even if some supernatural power would take care of the transportation. I wanted it to be right where it was, far from noisy crowds, a sanctuary for me and my future family for all time. I felt like a supremely happy millionaire (if there be such a one).
Thus ended my first visit to paradise.
Hjalmar Rued Holand was founding President of the Door County Historical Society and responsible for several important works of Door County history, including the perennial favorite Old Peninsula Days, the more formal two-volume History of Door County, and Wisconsin’s Belgian Community, which deals largely with the Belgian settlement of southern Door County. Holand died in 1963.