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article number 151
article date 08-02-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
The Early Days of Washington Island Wisconsin … at the Tip of the Door Peninsula.
by Hjalmar Holand

From the 1934 book, Old Peninsula Days.

And now for scenes where Nature in her pride
Roared in rough floods and waved in forests wide—
Where men were taught the desert path to trace,
And the rude pleasures of the wildwood chase—
With light canoe to plow the grassy lake,
And from its depths the silvery trout to take … by Anon.

Far out amid the white-crested waves of Lake Michigan lies Washington Island. It has a shoreline of twenty-six miles with rocky beaches, deep bays, towering headlands and rolling contours. When the pioneers came it was covered by a dense primeval forest, but now the sun shines on more than a hundred well tilled farms. It is a little land of amazing thrift and cooperative enterprise.


Washington Island was a favored place of abode long before the white man discovered it. Nowhere in the state are found so many ancient village sites, cemeteries and cornfields as here. There is such a wealth of Indian remains that, as one archeologist says, “there is little left to desire.” To this island came the remnant of the great Huron nation of Lower Ontario after it had been devastated by the terrible Iroquois. Here also came Radisson and Groseilliers, the two first explorers who penetrated into the West after Nicolet. Somewhere in the interior of the Island there was then “a great field,” and here the two travelers joined with the Hurons in vanquishing the Iroquois who had discovered their hiding place. This Island was also the destination of the first ship to sail the Great Lakes, the Griffin, which Robert La Salle built at Niagara Falls and sailed into the West to find a cargo of furs wherewith to finance his expedition to explore the course of the Mississippi.

Washington Island is almost an ideal place in which to live. It is big enough to check any feeling of isolation and confinement, yet small enough to promote a sense of solidarity and cooperative effort. In the latter, its thousand inhabitants have made remarkable progress. In everything except in church work, the island is perhaps the most cooperative community in Wisconsin—the prejudice of creed is the only obstacle to complete fellowship.

Scene as you arrive on Ferry from Gill’s Rock Wisconsin, 2012.

The Island is also a place of delightful scenic charm. With twenty-six miles of water front there is a great variety of water views. Prominent among these pleasing vistas is Washington Harbor which cuts into the land about one and a half miles, its steep surrounding slopes covered by beeches and low-spreading cedars. On its west side, Bowyer’s Bluff rears its perpendicular mass of castellated limestone to a height of more than two hundred feet, looking at a distance like the crumbling ruins of some gigantic Yucatan temple. The cliff is seamed with caves and fissures, and carved into fantastic figures by the storms of bygone ages; but now the clinging cedars are weaving a drapery of green for its rugged sides.

Many thousand years ago there was, just south of this imposing bluff, a cove or small bay extending eastward for about a half mile between wooded hills. But the crumbling rocks of the bluff falling into the waters of Green Bay were pushed southward by the waves driven by the prevailing northerly winds, and eventually the mouth of the bay was closed by a broad belt of polished cobble stones. The little bay became a little lake and the storm wrought belt of beach stones that closed it in became a dense belt of woodland. Now the little lake lies peacefully embosomed by steep hills and sturdy woods, looking quite like a mountain lake, although separated by only a few rods from the turbulent waves of Green Bay. Among all the scenic delights of Door County, this little lake is no doubt the most charming.

Lake at Jacobson Museum, 2012.

Here at the southwestern corner of the lake is a pleasant little glade of flat land. This spot was the long occupied home of Indians, for their remains are here very abundant. The owner has recently been clearing some land on the borders of the glade and in so doing, he made a most interesting discovery. In clearing away a thick growth of cedars he uncovered a large cross trenched in the ground near the shore of the lake. This cross lies directly north and south with its head or top a few feet from the beach. Between the head of the cross and the beach is a small mound which apparently is artificial. The longitudinal arm of the cross is twenty feet long, twenty inches wide and about eight inches deep. The cross arm is fourteen feet long, twenty inches wide and about eight inches deep. From the center of the cross where the arms intersect, it measures about seven feet to the end of each transverse arm and also to the head of the cross.

This tract of land and its immediate vicinity is still largely in the state of nature and has never been tilled by white man. It is probable, however, that some early white fisherman had his shack here, and it is known that the Indians used to camp here because their ancient corn hills may still be seen in the woods a few rods away, and many Indian artifacts have been dug up in the immediate vicinity of the cross. It does not seem at all probable that either the fishermen or the Indian made this excavation.

Washington island is the greatest center for fishermen on all the great lakes and all manner of equipment and mechanical devices used in fresh water fishing may here be found. But no fisherman on the island has yet been able to suggest any piscatorial use for this interesting trench. The same may also be said when we consider the arts, customs and mode of life of the Indians.

“An Indian idol found near Little Lake.” Photo by A. H. Fensholt.

There is a third possibility that this cross is a memorial of the work of an early missionary. To him, the representation of the cross was an ever present appeal and refuge. Father André who preached to the Indians of Washington Island was quite an unusual type of a missionary. Resolute and ingenious he made use of many expedients to turn the Indians from their idolatrous ways. As an illustration may be mentioned his religious songs written in the language of the Indians but sung to French airs to the accompaniment of a flute. These songs he taught to the Indian children. With a band of “these little savage musicians” he went about the villages “to declare war on Jugglers, Dreamers, and those who had several wives.”

It therefore does not seem at all strange, if this missionary, with his flair for the dramatic, cut the symbol of his triumphant faith into the very ground of the village. The soil that he excavated, he perhaps heaped into the mound at the head of the cross. Here he and his “band of musicians” perhaps stood while with glowing zeal he painted the greatness of his God; the Indians meanwhile sitting mute and spellbound around this mystic symbol, amazed at the antics of this new “medicine man” and the wonderful accomplishments of their own children. When there were converts—and he made many—the water was at hand for baptism immediately at his rear.

The most probable significance of this cross is therefore that it is the memorial of the valiant and eloquent missionary who almost 300 years ago ignored hardships and sufferings and defying torture and martyrdom, preached a new gospel to a strange and idolatrous people. Carved in the ground, it was more enduring than a cross of wood because it could not rot away, and surrounded as it was by waters of the lake and the green cedars, there was no dust to obliterate its sanctified excavation.

Almost a hundred years ago the first white men settled on Washington Island, attracted by its rich fishing. The fish then were very abundant. Whitefish could be seen leaping into the air, and sturgeon were so plentiful that they were often stacked like cordwood on the shore, there being at that time no market for them. Trout were incredibly large.

Some time later, a record was kept which will illustrate what huge fish were caught. In the spring of 1860, Joseph Cornell caught a seventy pound trout off Rock Island. In 1862 William Cornell, a fourteen year-old boy, caught seven trout, the smallest weighing forty, the largest forty-eight pounds. In the spring of 1882 two trout were caught on Fisherman Shoal weighing fifty-eight and sixty-five pounds. They were sometimes just as numerous as they were large. In 1869 Godfrey Nelson caught two hundred and twenty trout in two days. In the winter of 1875 Charles Sloop caught one hundred and twenty in one day, and one hundred and forty the next.

Photo from Jacobson Museum, Washington Island, Wisconsin.

Sometimes it required perseverance, but the results were usually satisfactory, as was the case with Silas Wright, who shed for eleven days without a bite and then caught boat loads on the twelfth. These were all hook-and-line catches of authentic record.

With such generous returns for the labor expended, there was the usual extravagance which goes with easy money. To make up for the restrictions in the life and diet imposed upon them by their surroundings, the fishermen were lavish in their expenditures whenever an opportunity presented itself. A dollar was a very small coin in those days. Canned goods, fancy toys, laces, and costly furnishings were imported in reckless quantities. Ranney, their easy going merchant and fish buyer, was also their banker, and handed out liberal quantities of cash without any formality of notes or securities.

Nor was there any lack of merry making. As most of the fishermen engaged a number of girls to help them in overhauling and “taking up” the nets, and in hanging them on reels to dry, a “shin dig,” or dance, could be arranged at a moment’s notice, On special holidays, like the Fourth of July, there was, of course, much boisterous celebrating. A schooner or tug would be hired to take a crowd to Escanaba for grand doings. Another crowd would secure a rival boat, whereupon there would be a race with noisy shouting and laughter. On such occasions drunkenness was, of course, common, and fights would start and end in two minutes.

“Fisherman’s Harbor on Stilts at Whitefish Bay.” Photo by F. L. Hotz.

These hardy pioneers of the deep, for many years constituted a sort of fisherman’s aristocracy, who looked with pity upon the poor fellows coming in as wood choppers and farmers. They esteemed the land of little or no value except to supply the potatoes they needed with their finny diet. Their thoughts and plans were of the sea, and its vagaries were a constant subject of conversation with them. The land was dull and dusty, but the sea was fresh, and full of riches, sparkling with sport, and full of thrilling adventures.

But that big rolling sea that surrounded them and fed them was also a grim taker of tolls. Many a family on the island mourned one or more of its members who had perished in its treacherous depths. Sudden storms were common, often the greatest skill was in vain, and a widow with her little ones was left to stare disconsolately out yonder where husband and father had gone and never returned.

At present, most of the fishing is done by gasoline boats carrying a crew of five to ten men. They go twenty-five to thirty miles out into the lake to set their nets. These are known as gill nets because the fish in trying to swim through them are caught by their gills. The nets are located by long distance ranges from Manitou Island, headlands on the Michigan shore, and other points. As these nets are set on the lake bottom, sometimes eighty to ninety fathoms deep, they are very heavy. They are therefore reeled in by machinery as the boat moves slowly along the line of nets. As the fish are pulled from the nets they are thrown on the cleaning table where men quickly dress them. The nets are then placed in their boxes and sprinkled with washing powder. A steam jet is turned on them and they are ready for setting again.

“Dock at Gasoline Town.” Photo by F. L. Hotz.

Frequently the nets are torn by clinkers which have been thrown from passing steamboats. They also fill up with moss and seaweed. Because of these difficulties, hooks and lines are frequently substituted for nets. They are anchored to the sea bottom in the same manner as the nets. A line, perhaps a quarter of a mile long, is set out horizontally. On this line at intervals of six feet, are suspended vertical lines about four feet long. These lines are each fitted with a hook on which a small herring is put for bait. When the trout or whitefish hungrily seizes the herring, he suddenly finds himself caught on the hook.

The early fishermen did not have such elaborate outfits, but the methods used were the same. Gill nets were used to catch chub, whitefish, and trout. Pound nets were used to catch herring, and they are still used in the same way.

These pound nets are very large nets set vertically. They are supported by “pound-sticks,” from twenty to seventy feet long, driven into the lake bottom. The nets consist of a “lead” extending from the shore to the “pound,” which is placed from five to fifteen hundred feet out in water perhaps sixty-five feet deep. The herring in swimming along the shore are stopped by the “lead.” They turn and follow it, as they can get neither over or under it. When they reach the “pound,” or “pot,” they are caught in a trap something like a modern fly trap.

Rock Island Light House. Photo from Jacobson Museum, Washington Island, Wisconsin.

For thirty years the fishermen ruled Washington Island alone. The land was considered too far north for farming, the woods too formidable, the soil too stony. But in 1868 -1870 came some groups of stout Norwegians, Danes and Icelanders who secured homestead rights back in the timber. They did not expect to do much in the way of agriculture. Their main hope was in cutting cord wood. This they set to work with great energy to do.

Soon the mighty maples swayed and fell and were then split and cut into four foot lengths with an axe, for cross cut saws had not yet come into use. The price, delivered at the pier, was two dollars per cord, an immense amount of toil for a pittance. Yet it was better than nothing. Frequently there was no sale for cordwood and they were obliged to roll huge logs together and burn them. When a little field was finally cleared, the stumps stood immovable for years, an obstacle to cultivation. Meanwhile they had nothing to sell, and their distress was great. With small pastures and little hay, their cows dried up in winter and gave no milk.

Photo from Jacobson Museum, Washington Island, Wisconsin.

Unexpected difficulties also developed, chief of which was the difficulty of securing water. The story is told that one of the Danes set to work the first summer to dig a well. He got down only a few inches when he came to a flat rock. He dug and dug on every side to get around this stone, but it seemed to stretch out indefinitely. He told his neighbors about the trouble he was having with it. They came and inspected the difficulty. Then one of them started to dig on the other side of the cabin. Only a few inches down the same stone appeared. Filled with evil forebodings, they hurried home and began to dig around their own huts. The same stone appeared also there, for it was the solid rock which underlies all of Washington Island only a foot or two below the surface.

Since they could dig no wells they were obliged to carry water from the lake, in pails, in kegs, on wheelbarrows and in barrels on wagons with oxen. As it was so laborious to get water, they were obliged to be very saving with it.

But outside the borders of their island lay the water, a hindrance to communication with the outside world, and especially so in fall and the first half of the winter when navigation ceased and “the Door” had not yet frozen over. They felt like stranded mariners a thousand miles at sea. L. P. Otteson recalls how they once went for seven weeks without word from the outside world. This was bad, but what was worse was that the whole island had run out of chewing tobacco. All possible substitutes were tried, such as willow bark, juniper twigs, cabbage leaves, etc., but without relief, and further abstinence was intolerable.

Communication now (1934), has been made easy by ferry service to Gill’s Rock, Wisconsin.

Finally, Mr. Miner consented to go to Green Bay. It was his last trip on the ice. A long and dreary week followed. At last, a large party of young fellows walked out on the ice to meet him, or rather the quid, half way. When he appeared in the distance they broke into a run and soon were eagerly pulling at the strappings of his sled. The tobacco was found and immediately passed around, each one snapping off a generous allowance with intense relish. There was a minute of silent bliss, wherein the movement of many jaws was faintly audible. Then they all turned homeward, staining the ice an odorous brown and feeling that all was well with the world.

Undismayed by the many obstacles of nature, these Scandinavians stuck to their task and, in spite of all evil prophecies, turned this formerly unproductive island into beautiful farming land. The stumps were blasted with dynamite, the deep, dark woods were turned into sunny fields, and well drilling machinery was found which pierced that solid layer of limestone a hundred feet deep and found water-bearing strata beneath. Even the innumerable rock fragments which everywhere littered the ground were finally turned into good use, because they were crushed into first class road material, giving the island smooth and excellent highways.

Washington Island now exports thousands of tons of foodstuffs annually, such as potatoes, butter, grain, fish and fruit of all northern kinds. Few places in America have such a diversity of export products as this island. It is as progressive and enlightened a community as can be found anywhere.

Photo from Jacobson Museum, Washington Island, Wisconsin.
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