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article number 270
article date 09-17-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
A Reverend Starts a Colony Which Fights to Survive, Ephraim Wisconsin 1853
by Hjalmar Holand

EDITOR’S NOTE: The preceding chapter described that Reverend A. M. Iverson received a load of five hundred dollars from Bishop H. A. Shultz of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to buy land for a colony. He found the land around what would be the Village of Ephraim Wisconsin.

Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death,
Yet shall I have no fear:
For thy rod and thy staff they comfort me,
And thy word shall be my cheer. … DAVID

The finest natural harbor on all Lake Michigan is Eagle Island, just outside of the present village of Ephraim. On the north, the island is exposed to all the storms that blow, but on the south, opening toward the nearby mainland, is a cove of deep water shaped like a horseshoe. For this reason the island is also called Horseshoe Island.

It is the very exposed position of Eagle Island which has made it such a safe refuge for the sailor. It is a limestone rock, about a quarter mile in length and width, rising about thirty feet above the lake level, and covered with a thick growth of timber.

The cedar trees which love to grow in the moist teeth of the wind each year send their roots far into the crevices of the limestone. Eventually the stone yields to the expansive force of the vegetable cells, and its fragments are precipitated upon the beach below. Here the waves begin their grinding and polishing work upon them.

Finally they become smooth pebbles and boulders which are rolled by the waves around to the sheltered south side of the island where they are deposited in two projecting arms forming the horseshoe. As the boulders which make up the welcoming arms on the south side of the island were once parts of the crags on the north side, the island is slowly though imperceptibly crawling landward.

Horseshoe Island.

In the meantime the island has been a haven of refuge to thousands of storm-tossed mariners. In early days it was quite common to see a dozen schooners riding out every savage north-easter in its snug harbor, for there no waves could reach them.

Nearly all the early French explorers and emissaries of the Crown bear witness to its charm, and the old time furtraders, their bateaux laden with pelts from the uplands and prairies of the Dakotas, had here a favorite rendezvous.

It was also for a while, the only stopping place which the steamers plying between Buffalo and Chicago had along the peninsula on their occasional trips to Green Bay.

To this island it was that Iverson led his little band of faithful after they had turned their backs upon the green pastures which Mr. Tank had prepared for them at Green Bay, as told in the last chapter. Over on the mainland, about two miles away, lay their little village of Ephraim with its prospective streets and building lots to which they all had their titles.

As yet, however, the “city” lay shrouded in its forest mantle, untenanted since the days of creation. A number of temporary shanties were therefore put up on the island, and here the entire colony lived from May till November, 1853.

Meanwhile the men divided their time between fishing, clearing land, and house building. Writing forty years later, Iverson describes the first day’s work on the mainland as follows:

“I remember so distinctly the first morning when we began to clear land. There were eight of us who rowed over from the island. Arrived at my lot, I kneeled among the bushes and prayed earnestly to the Lord that he would bless the work and here plant and water His own congregation.

“When I for the first time swung my axe over my head it was with a vivid realization of the Psalmist’s words when he exclaims ‘Here, has the sparrow found a home and the swallow a nest.’ Soon the first tree crashed to the ground. I had two young men to assist me. We worked with rare energy and soon our perspiration flowed like tears. In the afternoon heavy columns of smoke were seen to rise from four different places, in that we sought as much as possible to burn up the brush as fast as we made it.”

Ephraim Inlet 2013.

About the middle of November the greater number of the colonists moved across the bay to the new village of Ephraim, where by this time four houses were erected. Among these was Iversons which is still standing in its original shape, size, and place. It is now one of the two or three oldest houses on the peninsula.

One of the colonists was an ingenious Dane by the name of H. P. Jacobs. He had built a good house of straight cedar logs in Sturgeon Bay. This he tore down, marked the logs and made into a raft which he towed to Ephraim. When he arrived after his long pull, it was the work of only a few hours for his neighbors to carry the logs up the steep hill and lay them up in their old order.

There it stood for many years, the post office and council room where all important affairs of the village were first discussed. Fifty years after its erection it became the first hotel of the village. Many summer visitors will recall pleasant days spent in “Stone wall Cottage.”

That winter there was three and a half feet of snow on the level. For thirty miles north and south of the little settlement the forest stretched unbroken, inhabited only by wild beasts whose growls were often heard in the night. There was no post-office or store within seventy-five miles, but the colonists lived comfortably without these necessities, eking out their slender provisions by hunting and fishing, and meeting regularly for divine worship in Iverson’s sitting-room.

The next summer the little colony was augmented by a company of Norwegian immigrants directed to Eagle Island by a friend of the colony who had moved to Chicago. There were about fifteen families of them, and for a time they all lived in the shanties which the Moravians had erected on the island.

Unfortunately they brought with them the germs of the dreadful Asiatic cholera, and an epidemic broke out. There was no physician on the peninsula and no remedies of any kind. One after another became sick, and many died. Seven cholera victims were laid away in the stony soil of the island without coffins or priestly rites.

Eventually the survivors preempted lands in the vicinity of Ephraim, and resolutely began the toil of carving farms out of the tangled wilderness.

These new settlers were very different from the Moravians. Strong of brawn, if not of brain, they were used to hard work and expected nothing else. They were not inclined to religious musings, and their idea of a pleasant holiday was one marked by boisterous carousals.

John Thoreson, who after a while opened a store in Little Sister Bay, usually had a barrel of whiskey on tap, and all visitors were invited to help themselves. The story is told that some of these hearties had been on a visit to Ole Sorenson (in the present State Park). It was dark, they were drunk, and were prowling along the edge of Eagle Cliff trying to find a place to climb down and reach the beach.

Little Sister Bay.

Torkel Knudson, who was very strong, suggested that they take John Anderson, who was tall and lanky and use him for a sounding line. If he could reach the incline below, he figured it would be safe to slide down. This proposition was adopted with acclaim. Torkel seized John by the heels and dropped him “overboard.” The first time this was done they tried it just above the big cave, and poor John, the protesting sounding line, was frightened into sobriety by finding himself dangling head downward over a perpendicular cliff a hundred and fifty feet high.

Such doings shocked the pious Moravians greatly. Little by little, however, these people came under Iverson’s gentle influence and many of them became very good church members.

During the first years there was sometimes great want in the colony. The nearest place where supplies could be purchased was Green Bay, seventy-five miles distant. But there were no roads, not even a path through the primeval jungle.

Sometimes it was necessary for some of the men to walk that long distance, following the stony beach, and carry a sack of flour home on their backs. But it was exceedingly toilsome to walk on the beach, and it took a week to make the trip. During this time it was necessary to camp out every night, and there was danger of getting the precious flour wet.

Late in the autumn the settlers used to send a committee to Green Bay to purchase what supplies were needed for the coming winter. A small vessel was then found to carry the supplies to Ephraim. One fall the vessel that had been engaged for this journey was delayed by other trips.

Day after day the pioneers watched to see it come around Eagle Point. They were waiting for their flour, their coffee, their salt, and a score of other household necessities. Their clothing was worn out and their children were in need of shoes and underwear. But no sail was to be seen.

Eagle Cliff as seen from Ephraim in 2013.

Finally Christmas came, bleak and bare, with none of the common holiday extras. A committee was then sent off on the long tramp to Green Bay, along the frozen beach, to learn what had happened to their vessel. When they finally arrived they found that the vessel had frozen in ten days before, just as it was ready to leave the harbor.

That winter many of the settlers had nothing on which to live but potatoes and fish. Fish for breakfast, fish for dinner, fish for supper. Occasionally the menu was varied when they were unable to catch the fish. And no salt. A few had cows, but most of them went dry because of lack of fodder.

The ice was very rough that winter, but a couple of times some of the most hardy ones would set out for Green Bay as if on a polar expedition, cut their way through the ice drifts, burrow in the snow, and bring home a few of the most needed articles on a hand sled.

Most of the settlers, however, received none of these spoils. They spent their time when not fishing in contriving strange foot-gear out of birch bark and moss and in baiting clumsy traps with frozen fish, usually in vain. That winter an old gunny sack was treasured as a priceless fabric.

It is strange what expedients people will use when in need. About this time was born Cornelius Goodletson, who is still living, a hale and jovial citizen. After his birth, his mother had some ailment with her breasts, and was unable to nurse her baby. They had no cow. “Doctor” Jacobs was consulted. He could not relieve the mother, but he suggested that they mix some of the cheap black syrup, which was then in vogue under the name of “niggersweat,” with water and give it to the baby.

The mother was extremely doubtful whether the child would survive such an unnatural diet, but he belied her fears. One day the father came triumphantly home with a cow which he had persuaded someone to give up. But by that time the baby had become so addicted to his diet of “niggersweat,” that he indignantly refused to take the milk. He kept on growing and in time became six feet three inches tall and the father of a dozen children.

By this time so many people had settled in Ephraim that Iverson’s sitting-room was insufficient to accommodate all who came to attend the regular religious services. But the people were very poor and could not provide the money to build a church.

The old parsonage built in 1853.

In the summer of 1857 a gift of money was received from Rev. H. A. Schultz, which he had collected in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to be used for a church building at Ephraim. This was such an encouragement to the people that, with much self-denial, they subscribed a considerable sum, and the building of the church was started.

With their characteristic veneration for sacred things, it was agreed that their little temple of worship should not be built of the rough logs of the forest, such as they had used in the construction of their humble homes, but must be built of sawed and planed lumber of excellent quality, and in such a manner as would dignify the church for religious use for generations to come.

Accordingly, Captain Clow of Chambers Island was sent for to go to Cedar River, with his little flat-bottomed schooner, Pocahontas, after a cargo of lumber. Iverson writes:

“He soon came, but was alone on board, so that on the trip I had to serve both as deckhand and cook, as well as supercargo, which was all very interesting.”

They managed to get the church enclosed and roofed that fall (1857), but were then obliged to drop the work for lack of funds.

Iverson’s pulpit.

The fact was that the little settlement that fall was very near starvation. The crops in 1857 were a complete failure, due to excessive heat and drought, and in dismay the colonists looked forward to the winter with nothing to eat.

The bank at Green Bay would not lend a dollar on their real estate. The mills of Sturgeon Bay and Cedar River were shut down on account of the hard times. They were almost without clothing and shoes. There was not an overcoat in the settlement. Their summer garments, made largely of worn out grain bags, were now in tatters.

They thought of the hardships of the winter before when they were so near starvation. Now their potato bins and corn cribs and grain boxes were empty. What were they to live on?

In this dire extremity, Iverson launched a little sailboat which he had made, and started for Green Bay. When he arrived he hunted up a Mr. Gray, a good-natured Irish merchant who owned a large schooner. He told Mr. Gray of the serious plight in which the colony was, and said that if the merchant would advance the most necessary provisions and clothing, the colonists would pay for it by getting out as many cedar posts as he wished.

This proposition was accepted on condition that all the men of the colony should come personally before Mr. Gray and enter into the required contract. With joy the colonists heard of this plan, and the men went to Green Bay and signed contracts with Mr. Gray.

Personally, Iverson signed a contract for two thousand fence posts. He was also appointed foreman by Mr. Gray to superintend the work and guarantee the condition and delivery of the posts.

Plenty of cedar.

The following winter there was great slashing of cedar on the lowlands of the village. Iverson personally cut his two thousand posts and carried them on his back to the shore, where they were piled up. As there were no horses and only two oxen in the settlement, most of the others did the same. They were the choicest lot of fence posts that Mr. Gray ever received.

About this time occurred the first lawsuit in Ephrairn, which was also one of the first in the county. The justice of the peace was Zacharias Morbek, a man of ready gifts, but of a domineering disposition, who had things pretty much his own way in politics.

A certain man north of Ephraim was brought before the justice, accused of assault and battery upon his (the defendant’s) wife. The testimony developed that there was quite a mistake, in that the defendant had not been guilty of beating his wife, but his cow. This, however, made no difference to the stern judge.

With ready decision he declared that both offenses were well known to the law, and that it was plain that the defendant was guilty of cruelty to animals which covered both specific offenses. He therefore sentenced the culprit to sixty days in jail and ordered the constable to take him to the jail at Green Bay.

In the spring of 1858 the colonists were overjoyed to receive a visit from their old friend and benefactor in Bethlehem, Bishop H. A. Schultz, who was accompanied by his daughter. They stayed for a couple of weeks, made the acquaintance of every settler, and so kind, sympathetic and noble were they that it seemed to the humble colonists as if they were visited by angels from heaven.

Finally the day of parting came and all were moved to tears. It was Bishop Schultz’s plan to go by sailboat to Fish Creek and there take the steamer to Buffalo. That morning, however, the water was a little rough, and Bishop Schultz, who had a strange fear of the water, said it was impossible for them to embark in a small boat in such weather.

At that time there was no wagon road to Fish Creek, but only a wretched trail through the timber leading across two swamps always covered with a couple of feet of water. It was decided to try this trail.

All went well until they reached the first swamp. Here Iverson proposed to follow an invisible little path which went north through the underbrush. Mr. Schultz, however, was persuaded that it would be impossible for them to find their way through that jungle.


Finally it was decided that Iverson should carry Miss Schultz through the swamps, while the bishop followed, making a desperate attempt to balance himself on a string of fallen trees that marked the path.

During the spring and summer of 1859, Iverson, as usual, made many missionary trips to Sturgeon Bay, Fort Howard, New Denmark, Chicago and other places in Illinois. Upon these trips he told of the hopes his members had of completing the church. He was able to obtain sufficient contributions so that the work was resumed.

Doors, windows and seats were ordered from Green Bay, a steeple was built, and the church was thoroughly painted and plastered. Iverson personally made a massive, well constructed pulpit. Through a gift from Bethlehem, they were also able to purchase a bell. On the 18th day of December, the day set for the dedication of the first church in Door County, it stood complete, free from debt.

The 18th day of December, 1859, was probably the greatest day that Ephraim has seen. A heavy snow had fallen the night before, but nevertheless, when the new bell tolled for the first service in the trim little church, slowly moving oxen were seen to come from every direction, bringing sleighs packed with worshippers.

They came, the Thorps, the Claflins, the Weborgs, and all the others from the west; the Nortons and Jarmans from the south; the Dorns, the Hempels, the Langohrs, from the east; the Amundsens, the Andersons, the Knudsons, and others from the north; and last, but not least, the village congregation itself.

When the bell rang, the church was filled to the last seat, a well instructed choir was in the gallery, and the memorable service began. With more than the usual fervor their pastor preached, and the people, stirred partly by his ardent address and partly by their own feelings, were moved to tears. As they sat in their own well built house of worship, it seemed to them such a great achievement that they could hardly believe it.

They had suffered so long in toil and tribulation, in cold and sickness, in hunger and nakedness, that this dedication of their own church seemed to them to inaugurate a new era. For ten years the congregation had been buffeted about, moving from place to place in the wilderness, like the children of Israel, but suffering far greater hardships than they. No manna daily fell from heaven to feed them—they had to toil for it in the forest primeval.

When their wives or their children were sick, there was no golden serpent hung on high upon which they might look and be healed—they could only pray in anguish over their afflicted ones. Here no grand ceremonial cheered them on from day to day with impressive pomp and the sound of trumpets—they had to work out their own material and spiritual salvation in solitude and humility.

Drawing of the early settlement at Ephraim, Wisconsin.

Poor, brave, self-denying, suffering, pioneer fathers and mothers! Like the seed corn planted in the ground perishing unseen to produce the luxuriant life that springs from it, so these pioneers buried themselves in the wilderness, and wore themselves out with hard work, that their children might have a better chance in life.

But the children of this new land, how little they appreciate the sacrifices of their pioneer ancestors! They remember only in disdain their fathers’ rags and bent back, their mothers’ wrinkles and rough hands, and forget that these are the price of their own prosperity.

This date marked an epoch in the history of Ephraim. For many long years it continued in its isolation, like an oasis in the desert, separated from other settlements by vast stretches of untracked forests, yet it prospered and grew.

In 1864 the founder of the settlement was called to another field, and was succeeded by Rev. J. J. Groenfeldt, who did not suffer the light that been lit on “Mount Ephraim” to grow dim. For almost eighty years that church bell has tolled each Sunday morning, calling the people from far and near to worship. For almost eighty years a minister of the gospel has stood in its pulpit, calling upon the people to turn their thoughts from material to spiritual things.

Such teachings make for steadfastness of character, for high standards of living. The dance hall and its devotees have never found an opening in Ephraim. No saloon has ever poured out its foul stench and vulgar laughter upon this community. While the village and its people are not perfect, it is a clean, sweet place to dwell in, with high ideals and sterling honesty.

“0 sweeter than the marriage-feast,
‘Tis sweeter far to me,
To walk together to the Kirk
With a goodly company!—

To walk together to the Kirk,
And all together pray,
While each to his great Father bends,
Old men, and babes, and loving friends
And youths and maidens gay!”

In closing this account of the early history of Ephraim, a word of appreciation for Mr. Iverson must be added. He was not only its founder; he was also its nurse and educator. He made Ephraim what it is. Like a mother watching over her child, so Iverson worked for Ephraim with unceasing diligence and love.

This comes out strongly in the splendid narrative of his pastoral labors which he wrote almost forty years later, when he was an old man on the brink of the grave. Nothing can be more tender, more sympathetic, more loving, than his account of his pastorate in Ephraim.

The reader gets a vivid impression of a faithful flock, living together in primitive conditions, but rich in Pentecostal blessings.

Besides his duties as pastor. at Ephraim, Iverson also carried on extensive work as home missionary to other pioneer communities. He made several trips each year to Sturgeon Bay, Ft. Howard, Marinette, Cooperstown and many other places.

Once he stayed a whole winter in Cooperstown for which he received his board and a cow. As he led his cow home on his ninety mile tramp he thought this was very generous compensation. Many of these mission stations later became strong churches able to support their own pastors.

All these journeys he was obliged to make on foot, on the ice in winter and in a small boat in summer, for there was no road or trail through the peninsula for many years. More than once, when overcome with fatigue, he staggered on over the bleak ice, wrapped in swirling snowstorms, and thought his end had come; but his conviction that he was God’s messenger sustained him, and he tells of his toils and perilous adventures without self-commiseration.

After some years a trail was cut through the woods from Ephraim to Green Bay. It was not passable for any kind of vehicles except sleighs and it led over stumps and fallen logs and through swamps where the water stood knee deep the year around.

Plum Bottom, south of Egg Harbor was a particularly bad swamp, a half mile wide where the water frequently reached waist high. Through these slimy morasses and over the stony, uneven forest ground Iverson plodded every month, pursued by mosquitoes.

His friends in Bethlehem heard of his hardships, and the young people there bought him a fine riding horse and saddle which they sent to him. Iverson was delighted with the excellent gift. Now he could sit at ease in his saddle and arrive at his destination in a fairly presentable condition.

But his joy was short lived. He found that a horse required hay and oats, and this meant an expense which his slender income could not permit. In sadness he was obliged to sell his fine horse and once more he had to walk.

Finally the time came when he had to say goodby to Ephraim. He had opened three promising centers of work in Illinois and Iowa, and the governing board of the church wanted him to move thither and become their resident pastor. With a heavy heart he packed up his few possessions and said goodby to his communicants.

He placed his wife and children in a rowboat, to be taken by a neighbor to a family in the present Peninsula Park, with whom they were all to stay for a couple of days. Then he went back to his house to commune for a little while in solitude with thoughts of his beloved Ephraim, whose creator and guide he had been, now to be left behind forever. He describes his emotions as follows:

“Never can I express my feelings as I tarried a few hours in my home, now to be given up forever. I was quite alone with my God and Saviour in prayer. As I finally stepped out and closed the door behind me, it seemed to me my heart ceased to beat, and I could scarcely draw my breath.

“With a bursting heart I exclaimed, ‘Goodby, dear home! Goodhy, beloved Ephraim!’ With slow, heavy steps I walked down the road which for a half mile follows the shore, and time and again I was impelled to turn and cast another look at the humble little village, the most precious spot on earth to me.

“Just as the road turns into the woods which screened the view of the village, I burst into tears and in bitter sorrow called out a last farewell. Oh, that unforgettable day, July 6, 1864!”

Most fortunate, indeed, was this community in the wilderness to have such a man as its spiritual guide and friend. True, he was of a suspicious nature and somewhat intolerant in his religious views. But these blemishes were more than counterbalanced by his meekness and by that fervent devotion to his duty as he saw it.

He spent no time in looking toward the world with hopes of personal aggrandizement. His work lay with these pioneers, and to this work he was more than reconciled. He was joyful. He shared their physical labors with them, he untangled their business difficulties, he watched by their bedsides, and eased their sufferings with home-made remedies, he prayed for them and with them at all opportunities.

The Pioneer Monument at Ephraim Wisconsin.
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