Founded 1901

Royal Purple

Founded 1901

Royal Purple

Founded 1901

Royal Purple

Nothing bitter about this island tour

Back Home by Chris Hardie
Back Home by Chris Hardie

You can feel the history as you cross Death’s Door across the turbulent currents of Lake Michigan from the mainland tip of Door County to Washington Island.

The six-mile crossing was once traversed by Native Americans in birch bark canoes, later by French traders and the first likely traveler French explorer Jean Nicolet in 1635. Today what the French coined Port des Morts is crossed by modern ferry, dropping off visitors who do their own exploration of the 35 square-mile island.

I’ve been to Door County a few times, but it’s been more than 20 years since my wife Sherry and I have been able to visit. This was our first trip to Washington Island, which was first established in 1850, including the nearby Rock and Detroit islands. It was named after the schooner Geo. Washington, which was part of a fleet traveling from Mackinaw to Green Bay in 1816.

On a day when the farm back home baked in the upper 90s, it was a cool 62 degrees with light rain as we crossed on the ferry.

According to the Washington Island Chamber of Commerce, resident W.F. Wickman in 1870 persuaded four bachelors from Iceland to move to the island, which was the beginning of the second oldest Icelandic settlement in North America. The first – according to a 2020 article in the island newspaper Washington Observer – was in Spanish Fork, Utah in 1854.

Joining the 150 to 200 Icelanders was a mix of new arrivals from Norway, Sweden and Denmark who engaged in the trades of farming, logging, fishing and other occupations. The farming story is told at the Washington Island Farm Museum, a collection of nine buildings with exterior and interior displays and an authentically furnished log cabin.

Nearly all of the buildings are original island structures that have been moved and reconstructed at the museum site. Since I am sort of a farm antique myself, I was of course attracted to the displays of antique tools used for farming – many of which I have used. There also are many pieces of 19th century machinery.

One of the buildings – the Granary – was once on the Jens Jensen farm, home to a herd of Holstein dairy cows. A sign in the building notes that in 1929 there were about 75 dairy farmers on the island, which the Wisconsin Holstein News proclaimed the first bovine tuberculosis-free area in the country.

“The Holstein-Friesian cow rules supreme on the Island and it is doubtful one could find any other area where the good Holstein type could be found on farm after farm,” the publication stated.

Another sign told the tale of an old farmer giving instruction to a younger man on how to build a proper fence. The old farmer was insistent that all of the fence posts be the exact same height. When asked why, the old farmer said: “I did that in a field and one morning I found a crow sitting on each fence post. I got my rifle lined up and fired just one shot, killing 99 crows.”

The younger man asked him why he just didn’t round up 100 crows, to which the older farmer replied: “I wouldn’t lie for the sake of one crow.”

Among the museum exhibits is Pete Peterson’s (there’s a Scandinavian alias if I’ve ever heard one) old copper still that was used to supply the islanders with moonshine during Prohibition from 1920 to 1933.

That apparently was for drinkers who wanted something more than the bitters served at Nelsen’s Hall, a tavern open since 1899 and is the oldest continuously-operating tavern in Wisconsin.

That’s because the tavern founder, a stubborn Dane named Tom Nelsen, received a pharmacist’s license and decided to prescribe and sell Angostura bitters – 90-proof shots – as medicine to his patrons.

Separating legend from fact I leave to you, but the story is that a federal agent didn’t buy the medicine story and charged Nelsen with a violation of the Volstead Act. Before a judge, Nelsen claimed the product could be purchased at any drug store, offered medicinal benefits like aiding digestion and said it was so foul tasting that it could not be considered a beverage.

Nelsen supposedly poured a shot for the judge, who took a sip, winced and ruled in favor of the defendant, saying no beverage worth buying could taste so bad.

The bitters tradition continued even past Prohibition with the founding of the Bitters Club, of which thousands of new members join each year. Toss down the 1-ounce shot and you receive a membership card stamped with a thumbprint from the dregs.

Nelsen also enjoyed his own medicine and supposedly consumed a pint a day before dying at the age of 90.

When in Rome, as they say, so I had to join this club. I tipped back the glass with ease, actually relishing the aftermath of strong spices. I received a membership card that says I am “entitled to mingle, dance, etc., with all of the other islanders.”

“Aren’t you supposed to sip it?” my wife Sherry asked.

Nope. I prefer my medicine straight up and straight down.

Clearly, I was in need of some curing.

Chris Hardie spent more than 30 years as a reporter, editor and publisher. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won dozens of state and national journalism awards. He is a former president of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. Contact him at [email protected].

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