by Barbara Larsen
Door County Almanak, No. 5, 1990
Evening shadows were lengthening. Although the sky was still bright blue over the bay, the dense woods surrounding the dirt road leading from Birchwood Hall into Sister Bay kept the sun’s rays at bay. Mamie Hedeen shivered as she hurried along the rough stony trail. It was too dark and somewhat scary for her. As she walked, she could hear an animal following her, out of sight in the woods.
Mamie had worked hard all week helping owner Andrew Knutson and his family get Birchwood Hall resort ready for the summer season. Now it was Friday night, and she was making the four-mile trip home for the weekend. She could hardly wait to see how far the work on her family’s farm had progressed. Her father and brothers had raised the house up on blocks and were digging a basement by hand, a long hard job.
After boarding all week in the Knutson home, she was anxious to get home and see her four brothers and seven younger sisters, especially the baby. The advocate had said, “The stork deposited a baby girl at the home of Dan Hedeen on the 15th of April. This brings a round dozen times that this bird has come to this home.” Mamie knew that it had been her grandmother Sjoquist, a midwife, not a stork, who had done the deed for all the others.
Washing windows and curtains, scrubbing floors, sweeping down the cobwebs from the varnished wood logs of the lobby, cleaning out the tremendous stone fireplace, getting the hotel kitchen polished and in order was not new work for sixteen-year-old Mamie. As the oldest girl in the family, she was used to housework and lots of it! She fingered her week’s wages of $3.00 resting safely in her pocket and felt a sense of pride at being a wage-earning member of her family.
Coming out at the end of Beach Road, Mamie breathed a sigh of relief. She made her way along the well-traveled main road through Sister Bay. Even though it was inches deep in dust, it was easier to walk here. Besides, all the Hedeen’s were good walkers. Every place she and her brothers and sisters went they had to walk. Even to programs in Ellison Bay and Ephraim. She had to admit, of course, it was more fun when they all walked together singing all the way. She would never forget a walk to Ephraim one-night last year when her brother and his friend hiked ahead singing “In the Evening by The Moonlight.” It was so beautiful! Yes, her family loved to sing! Her sister Gladys had the most beautiful voice in the family. Gladys and Mamie were asked to sing duets around the whole area.
Passing A.A. Carlson’s Liberty Park Hotel on the left, she remembered hearing that Mr. and Mrs. Charles Pierce and Mr. Hanson, the first of the summer visitors, had arrived there early in June. Mamie wondered when the first guests would arrive at Birchwood Hall and who they would be. She hoped there would be some young people among them.
A little further on was Ole Erickson’s General Store (across from what is now Al Johnson’s Restaurant). Mamie had gone there recently with her mother to choose yard goods for some new outfits. Waitressing at Birchwood Hall every day this summer would require a couple of changes. It was fortunate her mother was such a good seamstress. She could make anything, and her clothes always fit well, too.
Mamie decided to stop in at the store for her favorite treat – “Ladies Chewing Gum.” These were little flat hearts make of paraffin, heavily laced with powdered sugar. They cost one cent apiece. Mr. Erickson kept them in a glass container on the counter. The younger children at home would be so excited to get them.
A Model T Runabout flew down the street, engulfing Mamie in the dust as she left the store. Squinting through half-closed eyes she watched its progress. The Moeller’s Garage ad in the newspaper had listed Model T’s at $500.00 just this spring. Mamie wondered who was lucky enough to own it.
At home that night Mamie thought about the money she would earn that summer and how she could spend some of it. She was happy that her father subscribed to the Door County Advocate even though it did cost $1.50 a year. It was fun to read the ads and imagine herself purchasing some of the dresses and clothes were shown.
She needed shoes and the Rosenberg’s ad showed Ladies Patent Colt and Kid Button Shoes with the new 1914 last and kidney heels for $2.45. She sighed. That was almost a week’s salary.
She wondered what the Athena knit underwear at L.M. Washburn’s was like. The ad said, “dainty and cool for summer.” It also said, “made in all the pretty low-necked designs in union suits and separate garments.” How low, she wondered? What would her mother say about it? What did it cost? Probably more than the knit cotton ribbed suits with a high neck at Bunda’s Store in Sister Bay.
Mamie and her sisters had giggled earlier at the Washburn ad for Nemo Week when the new line of “Self-Reducing Corsets” was being introduced. They imagined a plump relative wearing the new auto massage model which according to the ad, “Not only reduces the figure all around by confining and reshaping the surplus flesh but, by a constant gentle massage, due to the patented construction of these new corsets, the fat is gradually softened and removed by natural processes, thus making the figure permanently smaller.”
A bigger sign escaped. If only she could get to Sturgeon Bay to Shop but the trip by W.C. Olson’s Stage Line took most of the day with its numerous stops for passengers, freight, and mail. And her parents would never think of allowing Mamie and one of her sisters to stay at the First National Hotel in Sturgeon Bay overnight even if they could afford the $1.50 each for the room. Let’s face it, she would probably also never know the excitement of attending the Mutual Moving Pictures at the Gem Theatre with its “good program of 4000 feet of film every night.” Price, ten cents.
Walking to work at Birchwood Hall after her home visit Mamie hoped to see one of the Goodrich boats coming into the Wiltse Dock (which is Anchor Marine today). It was always exciting to see people arriving especially the summer visitors with their stylish clothes. Such a lot of excitement was in the air as trunks and valises were unloaded from the boat and loaded onto wagons with teams for the short trip to the resort hotels.
The summer weeks were filled with long days of setting tables, washing dishes, helping Mrs. Knutson and her crew in the kitchen, and what she liked best, waiting on tables in the large dining room. This is when she got to know the summer visitors. The hours were long and the work was not easy but there was a short break in the afternoon when the help could rest and relax.
The best times were in the evening after work in the dining room was finished. Some of the guests were girls her own age. They would meet to talk and stroll around the grounds, exchanging stories and confidences. Many were from Chicago and St. Louis and had exciting tales to tell.
Mamie would tell them stories of her family – about the time the previous winter when she was driving her plump grandma and two of her sister to the Baptist Church in the cutter and they hit a snowbank and they tipped over. It was all Mamie could do to get the horse to stop, pull grandma to her feet, and rescue little Ruth, who was underneath grandma.
And then there was the time her family saw a speck in the sky which grew larger and larger as it came toward their farm from the south. When it moved into the air space above them it was huge! They had no idea what it was. It moved so quietly and smoothly. It filled them with awe. They had to wait until the Advocate came to find out it was a zeppelin which had flown way up from Chicago.
On those summer evenings, the adults sat on wooden benches on the wide west porch of the white frame hotel watching the sunset colors changing over the waters of the bay. The smaller children chased and ran playing hide-and-go-seek on the large sloping lawn which stretched to the dock and fish shanty near the water.
Croquet games were popular, especially when Leonard Knutson, the Knutson’s son, and some of the other young men of the area joined the girls. Mamie was pleased when Leonard seems to take a special interest in her and began to ask her places. The young men were also handy for rowing the flat-bottomed rowboats in twilight rides out on the bay. They were almost all experienced sailors as most people living along the shore ran fishing businesses.
The Knutson’s did pond fishing in the spring and fall with huge kettle-like nets with tunnels of netting leading into the centers. Fish came into these enclosures or “pots.” The nets hung on stakes driven into the bottom of the bay.
In summer they set lines for hook fishing. A set line was a thin line to which short three-foot lines – “snooze” lines – were attached 20 feet apart. Each had a hook baited with dead herring. A buoy was attached at either end of the line which was sometimes several miles long. Mamie would often see Leonard and the others lifting the pond nets for bait and setting out to overhaul the lines when she went down to the kitchen to help get ready for breakfast in the morning.
Sometimes the girls sat on the steps listening to the adults talk. The men told of the trout and sturgeon they had caught on the fishing excursion that day aboard the Active of Sister Bay. This was the staunch boat with a three-cylinder Fairbanks Morse engine run by Robert Seaquist, a neighbor to the north. Most of the fish caught weighed ten pounds or more – sometimes much more, depending upon the person telling the story!
Some of the men told of a short trip to see Fred Dennett’s Door Farms on land overlooking Ellison Bay. The farm’s huge 150-foot-long and 60-foot-high barn was famous for miles around. Its cow even laid on cork brick for comfort! Mr. Knutson told of the terrible hailstorm of 1912 which killed thousands of chickens, destroyed barns, and blew building roofs into nearby woods, but the Dennett barn stood firm.
There was talk of the State Forestry Department’s plans for the recently established Peninsula Park. Work had begun the last year on improving roads which had been two-wheel tracks over rocks and through sand until now. Soon there would be a fine scenic road skirting the Green Bay shore and up into the hills for lookout sites. 200,000 young trees were going to be planted and two nine-hole golf courses laid out. This news generated a good deal of enthusiasm among some of the guests.
One of the popular Birchwood Hall guests, Robert Barbee, had purchased four lots north of the resort from Mr. Knutson for $100.00 each. He sold one of the lots to his friend, Charles Boman, from Chicago. The Boman cottage was being built that summer.
The Boman family and other guests watched the construction with interest. Like many summer cottages of the time, it consisted of a small living room and numerous sleeping rooms. No kitchen was planned as the family looked forward to eating Mrs. Knutson’s bountiful food in the Birchwood Hall dining room three times a day – even though this would cost $3.50 per week per person!
Some of the men would walk over to the cottage site to watch the work being done on the dock. The constant was action and fierce storms off Green Bay dictated heavy-duty construction which accounted for the cost of $100.00.
During the summer of 1914, the Kewaunee, Green Bay, and Western Railroad instituted the “Door County Special,” a new daily summer run. Leaving Green Bay at 10:00 am, it would arrive in Sturgeon Bay at noon for dinner. The passengers were then taken by touring cars to the northern end of the peninsula to Death’s Door, enjoying the beautiful scenery and resorts as they went. They stayed overnight at various hotels and returned to Sturgeon Bay the following day. Boarding the Special again, they arrived in Green Bay at 3:00 pm.
It was expected by Mr. Knutson and other resort owners that hundreds of people would avail themselves of this new travel opportunity. This could be the best season Birchwood Hall had had since the Knutson family had started the resort in 1909. The brand-new railway depot which opened in Sturgeon Bay on August 1 should be good for business, too. Someone was quoted as saying, “She’s a ‘ummer!”
When the Door County Advocate of August 6, 1914, with its headline, “War Is Now Raging in Europe,” arrived at Birchwood Hall the relaxed conversations of the summer took on a different tone. The paper predicted this would become the world’s greatest war with Russia, England, and France arrayed against Germany, Austria, and Serbia in a fierce struggle for supremacy. It seems likely that many smaller countries would be drawn in. American tourists were unable to get home. A fear and restlessness nibbled at the guests and conversation at the long tables over Mrs. Knutson’s good plain food became more serious. Mamie sensed this as she served their meals.
The Chautauqua in Sturgeon Bay the next week which a number of guests attended for a day or two at a time stimulated a change of conversation although Wardner Williams’ lecture on “International Peace” was by far the most talked about. 800 people in the afternoon and 1000 people at night gathered to hear Dante’s band concert. All the businesses closed for the Thursday opening and Sunday was the “big day” with excursions run from Washington Island, Oconto, and Green Bay.
Gollmar Brothers Circus was in the city at the same time and a grand spectacular free street parade was held every morning at 10:00. Some of the visitors decided to take in a performance because of reading the ad, “Herr Dreisbock’s Trained Wild Animals, A Mighty Gathering of the Kings of the Forest.”
Summer wore on and finally came to an end. International news continued to be grim. Little did Mamie know that her romance with Leonard Knutson would end when he would be killed in the war a few years later and be brought home in a coffin. Nor did she dream she would later marry Leonard’s cousin, Arnold Nelson, with whom they had shared too many good times as young people.
Mrs. Knutson died in 1916 and Andrew Knutson operated Birchwood Hall with sons, Leonard and Melvin, until 1917 when he sold it to Anton Jones and his wife. They ran it until the 1930’s when the depression ruined the business. It then reverted back to the Knutson’s but was never run as a resort again.
Nils and Linnea Tornbloom purchased the property in 1941. The main lodge and dining hall were razed in the 1960s, bringing an end to the old resort which had been known as the “Haunted Hotel” to the children of the area for a number of years.
Today another white frame building, built to house the Jones family and located further up the hill toward Beach Road, has been named Birchwood Hall II and is owned as a private home by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Durkin who bought it in 1980. Birchwood Hall resort and its leisurely ambiance live on only in the memories of a handful of people and a few faded picture post cards.
Note: All of the names mentioned in this store are real. Most of the events are based upon memories related to the author by Mamie Hedeen Nelson, a charming and energetic woman who is 89 years young.
Other information was given by Dr. Vernon Boman and Mrs. Robert Durkin. Printed resources were: Pioneer Experiences in Door County by Jon Seaquist, A Century in God’s Country, 1866-1966, and items from the Door County Advocate, June-August, 1914.
Artistic liberties were taken by the author in arranging the information to form a sequential story.