By Coggin Heeringa, Interpretive Naturalist, Crossroads at Big Creek, Inc.
Crossroads at Big Creek kicks off the 2022 Fall Archaeological Experience with “IDA BAY DAY, A Celebration at the Trailhead” on Saturday, September 17, from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. at our Ida Bay Preserve. The community is invited to this free event at which our newly created Trail Map – “Stories of the Land and the People” – will be released, with historians and interpreters at the trailheads helping share the stories of this amazing preserve in Sturgeon Bay.
Expect music provided by members of the Door County Folk Alliance, period refreshments, demonstrations, and activities for the kids. And each family will, of course, receive a copy of our beautiful map/history pamphlet which encapsulates what we have learned about the preserve over the past decade. The research for the map was funded by the Wisconsin Humanities Council with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and its “A More Perfect Union” initiative, and by the Raibrook and Maihaugen Foundations.
We often explain to visitors that Ida Bay is not a body of water, but rather the name of the woman who preserved and donated the land to The Nature Conservancy (TNC). In December of 2013, TNC legally transferred ownership of the 64-acre parcel to Crossroads. Since then, the preserve has become a remarkable showcase for interpreting geology and forest ecology. As we got to know our new property, we also examined the many ways it has been used by humans over the years and realized that the preserve is a microcosm of Door County history.
We knew that First Peoples often created seasonal encampments along ancient lake shores, so we contacted our friends at Midwest Archaeological Consultants. They agreed to look at the topography. On the first survey day, (I think maybe the second shovelful), they found a motherload of pottery, presumably from the Late Woodland Period. So for the past decade, Crossroads has sponsored archaeological digs at Ida Bay. Because we are educators, we have included students from all Door County school districts, private schools and interested adults in authentic, archaeologist-supervised digs at the preserve. They have unearthed lithics, pottery, and organic materials verifying a significant occupation.
We also found evidence of European settlers on the land. With grant funding from the Door County Community Foundation and the Maihaugen Foundation, were able to fund an archaeologist-in-residence position. We engaged historical archaeologist Emily Rux to do a literature search and shovel-test the land to learn the stories of the people who have lived or labored on the land since the 1850s.
Based on land records and old maps, we speculate, but have yet to find evidence, that a portage trail may have crossed the land. Land records indicate that the forest was selectively cut in the 1850s. And thanks to local legend (and the presence of a very old building foundation), we believe the preserve was the site of a rooming house for Ship Canal workers.
Most surprising to us was the fact that the hospitality industry also made use of the property. The Cove Resort was a going concern in the early 1900s, hosting as many as 200 people and boasting a dock, dance hall, Door County’s first swimming pool and many guest cottages. Most of the resort was along the waterfront, not on our property, but several cottages were on our property as was the truck farm that supplied the hotel dining room.
Aerial surveys document that until the 1960s, the land supported orchards and farm fields and migrant housing. Ida Bay’s home (which is not a part of the preserve) was an antique store. And of course, now, Crossroads practices land restoration on the property.
The map and trail markers with icons will help visitors visualize the various land uses, and during the celebration on Saturday, interpreters will be stationed at the trailheads to help tell the stories of the land and the people. In the afternoon, guided hikes will be offered.
The overriding goal of the “Stories of the Land and the People” map and trail project is to get people outdoors. In their explorations, visitors will see first-hand Crossroads’ commitment to restoring the preserve to a coherent landscape of healthy, diverse and largely self-sustaining ecological communities. We also are committed to honoring the First People, European settlers, Latino migrant workers, and restorationists who settled and labored in the Ida Bay preserve since the retreat of the Ice Age glaciers 10,000 years ago.
Meanwhile, thanks to grants from the Door County Community Foundation and the Wisconsin Archaeology in Public Education Grant, the Fall archaeological experience will move to the Cove Estuary Preserve where a team of professional archaeologists will guide students from area schools in an authentic dig. We have reserved Thursday and Friday, September 22 and 23, as Community Outreach Days, and anyone, regardless of age and experience, can drop by and watch or participate in a dig. No reservations necessary.
Crossroads at Big Creek Learning Center and Nature Preserve is located at 2041 Michigan. Crossroads is a 501(c)3 organization committed to offering education, conducting research and restoration, and providing outdoor experiences to inspire environmental stewardship in learners of all ages and from all backgrounds. We welcome your support! Become a member of Crossroads by mailing a contribution to P.O. Box 608, Sturgeon Bay, WI 54235, or donate online at crossroadsatbigcreek.org