How many days did it take a mailman
to walk across the ice to Green Bay?

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Door County: Traditions of a Rugged Pioneer Past©

Following is a sample of the historical content found in this hour-long DVD (still also available in regular video format).
contains both historic images and contemporary color footage of all the places described is Door County's only complete visual history.

The five Door County islands are part of a chain, in recent history called The Grand Traverse Islands, and formerly called Potowatomi IslandsThey line up across the stretch of water between Wisconsin and Michigan like stepping stones. Originally, all belonged to the Northwest Territory. When that huge territory was broken into four states, Michigan received all but Washington, Plum, Detroit, Pilot, and Rock
and the bigger but not separately named island that contains the county's most populated towns and villages...from Sturgeon Bay on up.  This island is rather incorrectly, most often referred to as a peninsula, or the Door Peninsula,, though it is clearly an island...connected to North America only by bridges in Sturgeon Bay.  For only a small time in Earth's history, this large island was temporarily connected to the mainland in one area by silt that clogged space at the Lake Michigan end of what is now the Sturgeon Bay Shipping Canal.  That mass was dredged out in the late 1800s, returning the land back to island...but it was never given a name of its own.  The islands became part of Wisconsin when the state was founded in 1849, and, later, all 5 plus a large land area on the mainland officially became Door County.  There are many tiny islands just off both the lake and bay shores with only a few having ever been inhabited, or having a house or two on them in present day.

It took Washington Island's first mailman, Henry Miner, 6 days to walk across the ice to Green Bay to get the mail in winter...and 6 days to return (a little less when the wind was at his back).  When the ice was thick enough he could take a horse and sled, sometimes a  passenger.           

DEATH'S DOOR:  Everyone's favorite question about Door County (next to "What do people here do in winter?!") is "Why do you call it 'Death's Door'?"  Washington Island and the large island are separated by a rowdy stretch of water known as Death's Door, also called Porte des Mortes (Door of the Dead).  This name has two origins -- it was named either by Potowatomi Indians after a deadly battle with a rival tribe, many braves  killed trying to cross the water in canoes -- or by early French seamen and voyageurs because of the many ships sunk in this area where the water is treacherous, unpredictable, and often violent.  Countless wrecks lie deep below the surface...and some so close to the surface they can be seen from above.  First recorded English use of the name was in 1817.   Ferry boats carry passengers, vehicles, and large equipment back and forth across Death's Door year round.

FIRST LIGHTHOUSE:  The first lighthouse on the Great Lakes was built on Rock Island in 1836; first lighthouse keeper was David Corbin.

The islands and the mainland portion of the county are often referred to as Northern Door & Southern Door but it is all one county.


In Wisconsin, local governments work according to whether they are a city, village, or part of a township -- for example, a place may be called The Village of Sister Bay and Sister Bay is part of Liberty Grove Township. The year in which each was officially recognized by the state as an entity appears in bold type.  Some consider themselves founded well before the official date, however such considerations sometimes actually refer just to the first known visit to an area by someone who was there briefly but did not stay to live there, thus not actually founding a settlement.  The dates here are as officially recorded by the State of Wisconsin.   Thus is the difference between  "discovered" or "settled," meaning first people settling to live, and "founded" being the year a place was officially recorded by the state as a legal entity.

      1. Town of Washington - 1851  Washington Island is the only populated island other than the main Door island (peninsula). Settlers imigrated here from Iceland, beginning in 1870; today one of the largest communities of Icelandic descendants in North America. Island named by early Americans who, for the American government, named things as they sailed and traveled through this area.  They often gave places and bodies of water names that had nothing to do with the region or its history.
      2. Sturgeon Bay - 1851  Early residents called it "Otumba."  Returned to original Winnebago name when it became a city. Named for the huge fish that used to fill the waters of the bay -- as large as 9 feet long in early times. Location of the Sturgeon Bay Shipping Canal, passageway between the bay of Green Bay and Lake Michigan. First settler, a hermit named Peter Rowley who moved north after other people began arriving; first most known settlers, Increase and Mary Claflin, also later moved north to the area that is now Peninsula State Park.
      3. Egg Harbor Township - 1855  Mythical name generally attributed to an egg tossing battle between two schooner crews after a race to see who could land in the harbor first. Winners tossed eggs at the losers. (So far, at least 5 unrelated people have told us it was their ancestors who were captains of those two ships.) Another legend says it was named by an early pioneer who may have found a nest of bird eggs along the shore in the 1830s. This township includes the Village of Egg Harbor was settled by Jacob and Levi Thorp; and  Carlsville, so-named because of the four men, all named Carl, who were its first settlers.
      4. Gibraltar Township - 1858  Includes Ephraim - 1853  which name is an Old Testament word meaning "doubly fruitful." Settled by Norwegians who came to build a Moravian community. They built the first school and church north of Sturgeon Bay. Settlement is attributed to Andreas Iverson, a Moravian minister and his followers, however, Norwegian Ole Larson had lived on Eagle Island (now referred to as Horseshoe Island) just off the shore for a few years prior to 1853; Fish Creek settled mainly by Asa Thorp as a dock and wood supplying business for passing schooners, became active fishing village; and Chambers Island where some early settlers lived for a short time, built a ship from the oak growing on the island, and now a few houses and a religious retreat are on the island -- it can be seen from the shore of Peninsula State Park.
      5. Brussels Township - 1858 Settled by Belgians who arrived in the area in 1853. This township includes the Town of Brussels, Namur named for the province from which most of the area's Belgian population came; Union  in 1865, named for the unified way in which residents handled public matters); Gardner in 1864, named for Freeland Gardner, first Door County shipbuilder, employed hundreds of Belgians; Rosier, Carnot, and Colberg. Waloon French language is still spoken in many households in this area and many residents remain in regular contact with descendants in Belgium who share the same ancestors.
      6. Maplewood Township - 1858  Settlers were mainly German, British and Canadian. Maplewood and Forestville make up this township.
      7. Claybanks - 1859 Named for the high banks along its Lake Michigan shoreline. Busy brick factories operated along the shore for many years.
      8. Liberty Grove Township - 1859 Jasper Morefield, a disgruntled citizen of Ephraim, decided he wanted a town of his own to run, so he asked that an area north of there be set up as a township. Included in this township are Sister Bay - 1912 early settlers Andrew and August Seaquist moved to this area from Ephraim in 1865 and built a large sawmill on the shore; named for the two "sister" islands just off the shore (There is no "s" at the end of the word "Sister" in Sister Bay. Never has been.); Ellison Bay - 1863 named for Danish born Johan Elliason who bought a mile of shoreline and advertised in Europe and Scandinavia for people to come and settle in the area; and Gills Rock - 1860 named for Elias Gill, mainly a fishing village for generations and still one of the county's most active commercial fishing communities.
      9. Nasawaupee - 1860  In 1860, people of this area wanted to have a post office. A Green Bay postmaster chose the name of a Menomonie chief. Name means "dawn," or "time just before sunrise."
      10. Sevastopol Township - 1869  Was called Laurieville before it became a township. Name was to be Sebastopol, but, as it was written into the records, a "v" was entered in place of the "b," and so it has remained. Valmy and Institute, named for an early religious institute which existed here in the 1800s, are part of this township.
      11. Baileys Harbor - 1861  Named for a sea captain who weathered a storm on Lake Michigan in this bay in 1853. Baileys Harbor was part of Gibraltar Township until it was set off from that township 1861. The lumber business was its main activity until there were no more trees and the area was virtually leveled. Tourists flock to the Cana Island lighthouse, built near the town in 1869.
      12. Jacksonport - 1869  Andrew Jackson, of Madison, Wisconsin, came here to log the area, quite unsuccessfully. A small area to the west of town is known as West Jacksonport, but is not recorded as an actual village.
      13. Garrett Bay, Juddville, Newport, North Bay --Settlements which had beginnings but were abandoned and exist now only in community reference by local residents.

If you've enjoyed reading these facts about Door County and have suggestions for what you'd like to see here in the future, please e-mail your questions and ideas.

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