Door County


By Florri McMillan

Ephraim harbor, Moravian church.

In the 1950’s when Jeremiah James drove his family from Chicago to their Door County summer home, the trip took twelve hours.  His son, Ed, says it was endless, broken up by stops for cherry picking, pit stops, and “bakery”, Wisconsin’s favorite shopping experience.

At its widest point the peninsula spans seven miles from Green Bay (“The Bay”) to Lake Michigan, “The Quiet Side”.  In between, green fields and orchards catch the sun and trap the raindrops, producing a bountiful crop of fruits and berries.

Rock Island, at the very tip of Door County peninsula, was the first place in Wisconsin visited by white men in 1634.  The massive Viking Hall they built still stands, welcoming adventurous Millennials.  As always in America, the Indians came first.  In canoes?  Across the ice?  Possibly from Russia?  Most likely they appeared from Lake Superior and the U.P. (Michigan’s Upper Peninsula), but before the corn grew tall they took off for points south, and at fifty degrees below zero, who can blame them?

Washington Island (another 50 miles from the James place) is a REALLY big island whose inhabitants in the 1800’s had to take a four day trip by hand sled to reach Green Bay; hardly worth it even for a Packers game!  Today you can come and go by boat and ferry several times a day.  Generations of two-fisted drinkers have stood up to the bar at Nelsons Pub to join The Bitters Club (Est. 1879).  The offer is still available today.

Your factoid for the day:  Washington Island has the largest Icelandic population in America.


The peninsula, Door to all points, has offered many generations livelihoods in lumbering, shipbuilding, and farming.  Strongmen quarried limestone while loggers stirred their coffee with their thumbs.  There were some sheep stealers and a few ersatz pirates in Egg Harbor, who turned out to be party animals!

On October 8, 1871 the good ship Pestigo burned into flame, scorching the land as it sank.  It was the same day that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over her lamp.  Locals still refer to that Chicago disaster as “The Other Fire”.  Perhaps to close the circle, there is documented proof from the 1990’s that several Chicagoans:  Joseph Varley, Allen Smart, Daggett Harvey, and Karl Velde, crashed the Ephraim Fireman’s Supper wearing headdresses and Cubs caps with ponytails attached!

The story goes that some pretty successful Irishmen from Green Bay built getaway cottages for themselves in the 1920’s along Lake Michigan and the Bay.  Without basements, heat, or phones they took their leisure.  It was the beginning of a summer schedule for many Chicago, St. Louis, and Milwaukee families which saw the mothers and their children debark for the summer to avoid pollen, creepy crawlers and worldly cares.  Many husbands and fathers stayed in Chicago at home or at their clubs, joining their families for the month of August.


Famous trail Newport Park.

Five-generation Chicago families are not unusual in Door County.  Annie Hambleton says her great-grandfather Chalkley J. Hambleton, Sr. bought their house on Fish Creek’s Cottage Row for his wife, Elizabeth McMurray.  “My grandfather inherited that house from his parents.  He was married to Elizabeth Davis and they had two sons; Jay, my father, and my Uncle Doug, who now owns the house.

Chicagoans clustered along Cottage Row in large, drafty wood or stone homes along the water.  Paul and Betsy Guenzel, Bernie Rogers, May J. Clay, the Beaches all lived on the Row.  As is the custom, the Notz family and later Stephanie Vittum, sold their house with all the furnishings in situ since 1922.  At last summer’s Estate Sale, hundreds shopped their way through history, unearthing Currier & Ives prints in mint condition and eight babies’ cradles.

Certain unassailable rules govern the activities of Cottage Row residents.  Cocktails, wherever you are invited, are from 6:00 to 6:45.  Those who drive sit in their automobiles until 5:59.  Seniors who stroll over start fifteen minutes early.  No one sits around discussing where to go for dinner.  Theirs’ is in the oven!  Some people go to two cocktail parties on the same evening.  This is called “double dipping” and is somewhat frowned upon.  We all know who you are.

Wilson’s Ice Cream Parlor circa 1872.

Longtime residents have rolled with the punch as gentle, shabby cottages have acquired television, air conditioning, and even WIFI.  God is respected (especially during tornados) and bats are tolerated.  Yes, there are Jet Skis; yes, there is a championship golf club.  As one member was overheard to say, “Honestly, this place is getting as bad as the Hamptons!”

Chicago activities (and arguments) in Door County are all about games and contests.  Treasure Hunts and softball games are de rigeur.  No one cheats at jigsaw puzzles.  You have to do your own charade when it’s your turn.  Yes, you do.  Grandparents cannot go paddle boarding without a child along.

The most important social affairs in Door County do not take place at clubs or the many fine restaurants.  Like bridge games, they mostly take place at church.  This is Pot Luck Country.  The season peaks in February when it is below zero and ends when you plant your tomato seeds in paper cups.  Of the utmost importance is one’s signature dish, the one everyone hopes you will bring.  Meat gets you an extra point.  Deviled eggs is always good.  Molded jello can be iffy, but there’s always Caesar salad.

One does not take the initiative.  Ever.  An army of volunteers has been previously deployed.  Greeters, check-in markers, warmers, centerpiece creators, and most of all, dessert table managers.  No one, but NO ONE, is allowed to take a peek at the desserts, which are in a separate room.

B.Y.O. place mat, cutlery, wine glass + wine, cloth napkin, salt & pepper.  It is not allowed to prearrange seating, but…….oh well, it all works out.  The Politics of Potluck revolve around “BEING CALLED UP”.  Table numbers are CALLED UP in succession to fill plates and return.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION!  Speed and agility!  When will your beef stroganoff dish show up?  Did I spy line busting?  Don’t make me remind you again to get away from the dessert room.


Egg Harbor sunset.

There are three yacht clubs in Door County:  EYC, EHYC, SBYC (Ephraim, Egg Harbor, Sturgeon Bay).  On a peninsula surrounded by all five of the Great Lakes, yachting is not a hobby; it’s a culture.  All the yachts of any significance used to be built by Palmer Johnson in Sturgeon Bay.  Now it’s pretty much mine sweepers and barges at the shipyards, but the sailing is wonderful in any vessel by anyone.  The Door County Yacht Clubs have reciprocal arrangements with many other U.S. clubs, like the Chicago Yacht Club.  Dedicated sailors, mostly volunteer, make sailing a possibility for anyone.

The most important race, THE MAC, the longest fresh water annual sailing race in the world, gathers a huge international fleet of sailors of all types.  They start off from the Chicago Yacht Club after a festive party the previous evening, the equivalent of the Blessing of the Fleet at Marseille, and end, after 333 miles, in Lake Huron off Mackinac Island.  It is an arduous and dangerous course.  It resembles the Apollo’s trip to the moon – no sleeping, no hot food, and no rest rooms.  But it’s worth it every house guest will tell you.  Many skippers and friends plan to take a few days to visit in friends’ homes before heading back south.  Thirsty throats and sore muscles seeking respite are common.  At the MAC, it’s not what you wear, or who has the best brats.  The trophy goes to the host with the strongest shower heads!


The Sturgeon Bay Shipping Canal, finished in 1882, dredged out Green Bay across seven miles to Lake Michigan in order to open everything north of Chicago to large ships and barges, river boats and cruisers.  In 1872  the illustrious William B. Ogden, president of the Chicago and Northwestern Railway, put together a private group of friends to fund the digging of a 3.1 mile canal on its east end.  That 3.1 mile vision of a great Chicagoan brought prosperity, mobility, shipping, and tourism to Door County.

On a perfect day last summer I stood at the edge of the canal to watch the Tall Ships in all their majesty parade through into Lake Michigan. Anchored across from me was the unimaginably immense, rust red barge christened “Philip D. Block”, longer that two Chicago blocks, which has since 1925 carried steel to the industrial centers of the country.  Under the letters P.D. BLOCK the Tall Ships sailed gracefully by, without so much as a toot.





  1. Watching the full moon and setting sun at the same time.
  2. Two-stepping to the Power Tools on Saturday night.
  3. Seeing Greg Vinkler, Chicago Shakespeare’s LEAR, as a rock star, as a nun, as Salieri



  1. Who decides which table gets called up first for dessert.
  2. The secret of Miss Door County’s delicious lime jello mold.
  3. Why Brett Favre deserted the Packers
  4. Where the wild mushroom are


The string of pearls comprised of Door County’s bayside towns contain dozens of trips and treats.  These are notable:

ELLISON BAY – The largest house in Wisconsin

“Caxton”, Cubie’s secondhand bookstore. Thousands of books, and he knows where every one is.

EPHRAIM – Wilson’s Ice Cream & Hamburgers founded 1874.  “Dry” since then until 2017 when the city fathers cast their votes for beer and wine.

PENINSULA PARK – 50 state park roads and trails.  Camp grounds.  Bikes to ride.  Nature walks with guides.  Live theater and musicals nightly.  Boat anchoring in Nicolet Bay.  One of the 100 best public golf courses in the USA, according to GOLFERS DIGEST.

Right across the street:

NELSON’S HARDWARE which has literally everything.

DRIVE-IN-MOVIE – a double feature every weekend

PENINSULA ART SCHOOL campus in Fish Creek, crowned by Paul and Betsy Guenzels’ beautiful octagonal barn gallery to hang their shows in.

EDGEWOOD ORCHARD GALLERY – named one of the top ten galleries in the country.  Wonderfully restored turn of the century stone buildings and wood carved windows.  Wooded sculpture garden.  Ask to see the jewelry from Mack & Bancker.

CHAMBERS ISLAND – A large island with a 50 acre lake in the middle.  Boats can anchor on the west side.  Forty families who live there love the land and nature just as their ancestors before them.  You can walk with them and go in their lighthouse.  A boat which used to bring seminarians across to a Retreat House is now all fixed up and will take you to and from Fish Creek dock. No shops, no food, BYO water – but new firetrucks and GREAT WIFI!


Ephraim sunset.