An early history of the hospitality business on Washington Island.
Title: Door County Almanak No. 5
Author: Multiple writers & illustrators, Fred Johnson, Editor
Publisher: The Dragonsbreath Press (1990) Softcover edition only
Where to buy: Passtimes Books (Sister Bay, WI), Peninsula Bookman (Fish Creek, WI), Amazon.com
Book Excerpt, Door County Almanak No. 5:
Hotels and Etc. in the Pioneer Days
by Conan Bryant Eaton
“Capn. Saunders, the pioneer of Washington Harbor, informs us that among the improvements of that place is a new hotel . . .” This was the latest news in the Green Bay Advocate of August 5, 1852, concerning the islands lying at the mouth of Green Bay.
The “hotel” seems certainly to have been the “White House” built by James. M. Craw, a Cleveland entrepreneur some 90 years old, who had just bought Saunders’ dock and shoreline holdings around the harbor, plus extensive additional acreage. (Some 65 years later, Hjalmar Holand’s History of Door County would call the structure “the oldest house in the county,” although he places the “first summer hotel in Door County” at Idlewild in 1879.)
Just two years later, the Green Bay paper could announce:
Washington Harbor has become quite a place of summer resort. . . .There are some 30 guests there now from Chicago. A very good house for a hotel has been put up by Mr. Craw, and it will undoubtedly become a popular place for refuge from hot weather and cholera.
The mention of disease as a factor bearing on travel in the Midwest deserves our notice. As early as the 1840s, epidemics of ague and chill fever” (malaria) are reported, and the first fishermen to reach Rock Island have been described as “shaking with ague.” An Escanaba developer who later became a U.S. Senator wrote that many Easterners of the time hesitated over moving west because of the threat of sickness. (He also wrote that “north of Green Bay . . . it did not extend into Wisconsin,” and this belief was shared by others.
An easy assumption might be that hotel keeping on Washington Island developed in straightforward fashion over the next century and a third into the impressive offerings of lodging and refreshment available countywide today. (Perhaps a few ups and downs I this growth would be expected to result from depressions and wars.) A closer look at the nineteenth century’s second half may turn up some surprises.
The Island’s White House itself had a checkered existence over the years serving as a private home for such later owners of the Washington Harbor property as Ranney and Furlong, but reverting to pubic hospitality in the twentieth century. By the 1940s, it was abandoned to the status of “haunted house” and nearing its final demolition.
Some idea of what constituted “hotel” accommodations (and of conditions facing travelers in Door County’s earliest settlement days) maybe gained from a few recollections by Washington Island’s earliest historian, Jesse Lee Miner. In his manuscript titled “Main carrying Hotells and &c in the Pioneer days of the Peninsula and adjacent Islands,” Miner tells of “the first Death . . . in connection with crossing Deaths Door or carrying the mail.” In the winter of 1846-47, says Miner, one Charlie Ticknor left Washington Island on the ice headed for Claflins Hotel in Fish Creek. . . . All houses on a mans route were called Hotels in those days.” (Poor Charlie, we must report, never checked in at Claflin’s “hotel”; he collapsed a few rods to the north and was not found until April).Miner also tell us:
In Early days, the Hotels on the route to Green Bay were the One-Man-Hotel-Outfit. . .a square piece of cloth to keep the snow from freezing to Him when he slept in a Snow-drift, and a box of matches and a small ax or hatchet to protect Him-self from the wolves.
“The road,” he adds, “was on the ice.” Besides Claflin’s “hotel,” he mentions as offering shelter at various times only Pete Sherwood’s cabin at Sherwood’s Point, the first Belgian settler in the town of Gardner, Larson’s at Shanty Bay, V. S. Garrett at Garrett’s Bay, and Bob Stevenson’s place at Little Sturgeon Bay.
In November 1969, Jesse Miner and his father carried mail from the Island. After landing a Wisconsin Bay in the dark, they were lucky to reach the cabin of “a nice old Norwegian couple” who took them in, and brought a bundle of straw from the barn to bed them on the floor. By 1870, Miner mentions John Ellison’s as an overnight stop on the mail route from Ephraim to the Island. Ellison furnished room and board to ice fishermen from Racine and a crew of dock builders. “Eighteen or 20” crowded Ellison’s breakfast table along with Miner one winter morning.
As late as 1878, the mail-carrying Miners, father and son, “made their Headquarters at Victor Leclaire’s cedar shanty at Europe Bay.” It seems clear from Jesse Miner’s account that Leclaire furnished overnight lodging and some sort of food.
Apart from the desire to escape summer’s heat, humidity, and ailments so common in regions south of Wisconsin, many early visitors seem to have little in common with today’s vacationer who travels chiefly for recreation. And while few establishments before 1900 could fit today’s concept of a hotel, some specialized types of public house had become quite common; many were more properly called boarding houses, or at best working-men’s hotels. Thus, the Island’s Corrigan wood-cutting and other enterprises based in Detroit Harbor furnished meals and lodging to woodsmen and teamster during the 1880s, as did the Freybergs’ logging, sawmill, and shipping operations in West Harbor.
The Freyberg Company’s boarding house offered the island community more than a logging-camp environment, as we see in a West Harbor column in an April 1881 Door County Advocate:
The social hop of the season was held at the Co.’s boarding house last Saturday night, which in point of attendance and unalloyed enjoyment eclipsed anything ever had here. Delegations of ladies and gentlemen were present from Washington Harbor and Detroit Harbor, and the dance was kept up until about 3 o’clock Sunday morning.
Somewhere between a “hotel” and a private home would fall the immigrant houses, which furnished lodging along the nation’s travel routes during nineteenth-century immigration. The Island’s “Icelandic Castle,” wryly so called by the Icelanders’ neighbors after its erection in about 1875, sheltered families newly arrived from the north Atlantic island until they could fit themselves into the local community. At least one bit of verbal testimony suggests that the Island’s “Powder Horn,” now known as a public meeting house of about the 1880s, may on occasion have sheltered immigrants freshly landed from steamers in West Harbor.
In December 1894, an outside reporter wrote after a visit to Washington Island:
There seems no good reason why this island has not a future before it as a summer resort. . . . The best scenery, both landscape and marine, in Door County. . . . Romance and historic interest have made this their home since old Pottawatomie Island was merged . . . into Washington. . . . In the old days, the Buffalo and Chicago boats made weekly landings; this year, there has been a daily line.
Looking back in 1917 at his first visit to Washington Island in August of 1895, John Paul Thoms, a Baptist clergyman from the outside world who had forged close ties with the Island, recalled for the Advocate:
Then, Washington Island had a lone top buggy, a Goodrich steamer weekly at 3 a.m. . . . no gasoline launches, seldom any summer resorters, all was rural, fresh, and primitive.
By 1896, a Detroit Harbor column in the Advocate reported: “There are a good many outsiders spending the hot season on the island. A first class hotel would be just the thing for our island. There would be no lack of customers.” In midsummer nine year later, one Martin E. Bacon notified the paper: “Washington Island is in every respect a summer resort.” He found summer people coming to their cottages “to spend the warm days of summer far away from the bustle and glare of city life. Today, it is famed far and wide, and no less than 300 resorters spend a week or more in the cottages or at one of the fine hotels.”
By 1910, the Souvenir Business Directory of Washington Island listed two private boarding houses, plus five hotels which, for their time, might well have been called “first-class” or “fine.” With locations on secluded sandy beaches overlooking sparkling waters, and offering what one host advertised as “Fresh Vegetables from the hotel’s own garden/Fresh fruits from its own orchard/Fresh water from its own spring/Fresh fish from its own dock,” they listed rates of $8.00 to $10.00 per week, $1.50 per day,” which seems—even for those times—irresistible.
Surely, something about the Island (and about Door County, too) provided irresistible. Our Baptist clergyman chronicled in his 1917 article the changes he had seen in the Island since the idyllic days of his first visit:
Into Washington Harbor came three Goodrich steamers a week. Two steamers came alternate days into Detroit Harbor, a flood of summer resorters came and went; boarding houses sprang up; hotels came into view; busses met all steamers; excursionists were taken over the Island . . . and launches came into service.
He listed at length the many “improvements.” Forests gave place to rich fields; wire fences replaced pine logs; stone piles were worked into macadam roads; telephones, rural mail delivery, a “Commercial club” appeared, and 40 automobiles were honking about the island. “Thus,” he summed up in the 1917 situations, “the Island appears in the forms of modern civilization, and rural activities.
The final paragraph by this intelligent observant reporter who had known and loved the Island for 22 years, should deter us all (including the professional futurists) from confidently predicting what is to come:
“But, alas! For summer visitors now,” lamented the Reverend Mr. Thoms, “the Goodrich has one lone steamer a week; with higher rates; no golf links, or sports, are provided; the prices have soared; the woods are fenced for stock; and the resorters are left to the highway and the bay. Eastern summer resorts have all manner of attractions. Apparently, as a summer resort, Washington Island has seen its best days; and now takes the place of a farming community.”