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Door County, Wisconsin

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Door County's name came from Porte des Morts ("Death's Door"), the passage between the tip of Door Peninsula and Washington Island. The name "Death's Door" came from Native American tales, heard by early French explorers and published in greatly embellished form by Hjalmar Holand, described a failed raid by the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) tribe to capture Washington Island from the rival Pottawatomi tribe in the early 1600s. It has become associated with the number of shipwrecks within the passage.

Before and during the 19th century, various Native Americans occupied the area that became Door County and its islands. 17th-century French explorers made contact with various tribes in the Door Peninsula. In 1634, the Jean Nicolet expedition landed at Rock Island. This is considered the first visit by men of European descent to what is now Wisconsin. In 1665, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard des Groseilliers spent the winter in the county with the Potawatomi. In 1669, Claude-Jean Allouez also wintered with the Potawatomi. He mentioned an area called "la Portage des Eturgeons." In 1673, Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet stayed in the county about three months as part of their exploration. In 1679, the party led by La Salle purchased food from a village of Potawatomi in what is now Robert La Salle County Park. During the 1670s Louis André ministered to about 500 Native Americans at Rowleys Bay, where he erected a cross. The cross stood until about 1870. Around 1690, Nicolas Perrot visited the Potawatomi on Washington Island. In 1720, Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix visited the area with eight experienced voyageurs.

Six Jesuit rings marked with letters or symbols and turquoise colored glass trade beads were found on Rock Island in remains left by Potowatomi, Odawa, and Huron-Peton-Odawa Native Americans during the 17th and 18th centuries. The remains of four Native American buildings were documented at the Rock Island II Site during 1969–1973 excavations.

By the end of French rule over the area in 1763, the Potawatomi had begun a move to the Detroit area, leaving the large communities in Wisconsin. Later, some Potawatomi moved back from Michigan to northern Wisconsin. Some but not all Potawatomi later left northern Wisconsin for northern Indiana and central Illinois.

In 1815, Captain Talbot Chambers was falsely reported to have died fighting Blackhawk Indians on Chambers Island; the island was named for him in 1816. In the spring of 1833, Odawa on Detroit Island were baptized during an eight day visit by Frederic Baraga. During an attack in 1835, one of two fishermen squatting on Detroit Island was shot and killed along with one or more Native Americans. The other fisherman was rescued by a passing boat. From the 1840s to the 1880s, the Clark brothers operated a fishing camp at Whitefish Bay that employed 30 to 40 fishermen. Additionally, 200–300 Potawatomi extracted fish oil from the fish waste at the camp.

The Menominee ceded their claim to the Door Peninsula to the United States in the 1836 Treaty of the Cedars after years of negotiations with the Ho-Chunk and the U.S. government over how to accommodate the incoming populations of Oneida, Stockbridge-Munsee, and Brothertown peoples who had been removed from New York. As a result of this treaty, settlers could purchase land, but many fishermen still chose to live as squatters. At the same time, the more decentralized Potawatomi were divested of their land without compensation. Some Potawatomi as late as 1845 made sure to visit and gamble with the Menominee shortly after the periodic annuity payments were issued. Many emigrated to Canada because of multiple factors. One factor was invitations from Native Americans already in Canada for the Potawatomi to join them. Another was British policies to invite and encourage as much Indian emigration from the United States as possible. Even prior to their final emigration, many Potowatomis had periodically migrated into Canada to receive compensation related to their service on the British side during the War of 1812 and to pledge their continued loyalty. Another factor was a desire to avoid the harsh terms of the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, which compensated the Wisconsin Potowatomi with less than what was paid to Potowatomi from the Chicago area. Although not all Potawatomi participated in the Treaty of Chicago, it was federal policy that any who did not relocate westward as the treaty stipulated would not be compensated for their land. Additionally, some preferred the climate of the Great Lakes area over that of the Plains, and American governmental policy for the area beginning in 1837 tended towards forced rather than voluntary Indian removal. Moving to Canada became a way to stay in the Great Lakes area without risking removal.

Potawatomi Chief Simon Kahquados traveled to Washington, D.C. multiple times in an attempt to get the land back. In 1906, Congress passed a law to establish a census of all Potawatomi formerly living in Wisconsin and Michigan as a first step toward compensation. The 1907 "Wooster" roll, named after the clerk who compiled it, documented 457 Potawatomi living in Wisconsin and Michigan and 1423 in Ontario. Instead of returning the land, a meager monthly payment was issued. Although Kahquados was unsuccessful, he increased public awareness of Potawatomi history. In 1931, 15,000 people attended his burial in Peninsula State Park.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw the immigration and settlement of pioneers, mariners, fishermen, loggers, and farmers. The first white settler was Increase Claflin. In 1851, Door County was separated from what had been Brown County. In 1854 on Washington Island, the first post office opened in the county. In 1855, four Irishmen were accidentally left behind by their steamboat, leading to the settlement of what is now Forestville. In 1853, Moravians founded Ephraim as a religious community after Nils Otto Tank resisted attempts at land ownership reform at the old religious colony near Green Bay. In the 19th century, a fairly large-scale immigration of Belgian Walloons populated a small region in southern portion of the county, including the area designated as the Namur Historic District. They built small roadside votive chapels, some still in use today, and brought other traditions over from Europe such as the Kermiss harvest festival.

With the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862, people could purchase 80 acres of land for $18, provided they resided on the land, improved it, and farmed for five years. This made settlement in Door County more affordable.

When the 1871 Peshtigo fire burned the town of Williamsonville, sixty people were killed. The area of this disaster is now Tornado Memorial County Park, named for the whirlwinds of fire. Altogether, 128 people in the county perished in the Peshtigo fire.

In 1885 or 1886, what is now the Coast Guard Station was established at Sturgeon Bay. The small seasonally open station on Washington Island was established in 1902.

As the period of settlement continued, Native Americans lived in Door County as a minority. The 1890 census reported 22 Indians living in Door County. They were self-supporting, subject to taxation, and did not receive rations. By the 1910 census their numbers had declined to nine.

From 1865 through 1870, three resort hotels were constructed in and near Sturgeon Bay along with another one in Fish Creek. One resort established in 1870 charged $7.50 per week (a little over $150 in 2020 dollars). Although the price included three daily meals, extra was charged for renting horses, which were also available with buggies and buggy-drivers. Besides staying in hotels, tourists also boarded in private homes. Tourists could visit the northern part of the county by Great Lakes passenger steamer, sometimes as part of a lake cruise featuring music and entertainment. Reaching the peninsula from Chicago took three days. The air surrounding the agricultural communities was relatively free of ragweed pollen because grain crops matured slowly in the cool climate and were harvested late in the year. This prevented late-season ragweed infestations in the stubble. This made it especially attractive to those suffering from hay fever in the city.

Improved highways of crushed stone facilitated motor tourism in the early 1900s. By 1909 at least 1,000 tourists visited per year. In 1938 Jens Jensen cautioned about negative cultural impacts of tourism. He wrote, "Door County is slowly being ruined by the stupid money crazed fools. This tourist business is destroying the little bit of culture that was."

In 1865, the first commercial fruit operation was established when grapes were cultivated on one of the Strawberry Islands. By 1895, a large fruit tree nursery was established and fruit horticulture was aggressively promoted. Not only farmers but even "city-bred" men were urged to consider fruit husbandry as a career. The first of multiple fruit marketing cooperatives began in 1897. In addition to corporate-run orchards, in 1910 the first corporation was established to plant and sell pre-established orchards. Although apple orchards predated cherry orchards, by 1913 it was reported that cherries had outpaced apples.

Women and children were typically employed to pick fruit crops, but the available work outstripped the labor supply. By 1918, it was difficult to find enough help to pick fruit crops, so workers were brought in by the YMCA and Boy Scouts of America. Cherry picking was marketed as a good summer camp activity for teenage boys in return for room, board, and recreation activities. One orchard hired players from the Green Bay Packers as camp counselors. Additionally, members of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and other native tribes were employed to pick fruit crops. In addition to their pay, Native American families were given fruit that was too ripe for marketing, which they preserved and stored for long term use. A Civilian Conservation Corps camp was established at Peninsula State Park during the Great Depression. In the summer of 1945, Fish Creek was the site of a POW camp under an affiliation with a base camp at Fort Sheridan, Illinois. The German prisoners engaged in construction projects, cut wood, and picked cherries in Peninsula State Park and the surrounding area. During a brief strike, the POWs refused to work. In response the guards established a "no work, no eat" policy and they returned to work, picking 11 pails per day and eventually totaling 508,020 pails.

The Wisconsin State Employment Service established an office in Door County in 1949 to recruit Tejanos to pick cherries. Work was unpredictable, as cherry harvests were poor during certain years and workers were paid by the amount they picked. In 1951, the Wisconsin Department of Public Welfare conducted a study documenting conflict between migrant workers and tourists, who resented the presence of migrant families in public vacation areas. A list of recommendations was prepared to improve race relations. The employment of migrants continues to the present day. In 2013, there were three migrant labor camps in the county, housing a total of 57 orchard laborers and food processors along with five non-workers.

In 1905, the Lilly Amiot was in Ellison Bay with a load of freight, dynamite, and gasoline when it caught fire. After being cut loose, it drifted until exploding; the explosion was heard up to 15 miles away.

In 1913, The Old Rugged Cross was first sung at the Friends Church in Sturgeon Bay as a duet by two traveling preachers.

In 1919, the first Army-Navy hydrogen balloon race was won by an Army team whose balloon splashed down in the Death's Door passage. Two soldiers endured 10-foot waves for an hour before their rescue by a fisherman.

In December 1959, the Bridgebuilder X disappeared after leaving a shipyard in Sturgeon Bay where it had been repaired. Its intended destinations were Northport and South Fox Island. Possible factors included lack of ballast and a sudden development of 11-foot waves. The body of one of the two crew members was found the following summer.

Door County, Wisconsin is bordered by Kewaunee County.

Cities & Villages

  • Egg Harbor
  • Ephraim
  • Forestville
  • Sister Bay
  • Sturgeon Bay (County Seat)

Other Towns & Communities: Bailey's Harbor, Brussels, Carlsville, Carnot, Clay Banks, Detroit Harbor, Ellison Bay, Fish Creek, Gardner, Gibraltar, Gills Rock, Idlewild, Institute, Jacksonport, Juddville, Kolberg, Liberty Grove, Little Sturgeon, Maplewood, Namur, Nasewaupee, North Bay, Northport, Peninsula Center, Rosiere (part), Rowley's Bay, Salona, Sevastopol, Shoemaker Point, Union, Valmy, Vignes, Washington, Washington Island, West Jacksonport and Whitefish Bay



Nat'l Reg. of Hist. Places

POW Camp Sturgeon Bay