Eagle Bluff Lighthouse
One hundred years of memories
As Peninsula State Park celebrates its centennial, history shows that the first hundred years of fun and relaxation are only the beginning.
The first time we camped in a Wisconsin state park was back in 2001 and the park was Peninsula. I ventured there with my six- and eight-year-old sons. As soon as we rolled into Tennison Bay campsite 456, my boys jumped on their one-speed bikes to careen the campground’s winding, black-topped lanes, leaving me to wrestle with bungee-style tent poles, musty sleeping bags and a tangle of metal marshmallow sticks. As soon as they heard the sound of wheezing tailpipes near our site, my boys pedaled back faster than a bass on a mayfly. Their buddies had arrived, dropped off by grateful parents. More bikes, more folding chairs, and more hoopla amplified the commotion.
I had no way of knowing this would be the first of many adventures over the years, always with extra friends, and always at Peninsula. Together, we’d started a family tradition. Five stitches, two charred pie-irons, four bigger bikes and one pop-up tent later, site 456 is still our sentimental favorite and Peninsula is still our favorite destination.
In spring and fall, Peninsula is as laid-back as any state park. At sunset, couples sigh, hold hands, and lean in to each other at romantic Sven’s Bluff. At sunrise, active AARP-types walk briskly along the spectacular Eagle Trail, a two-mile trek below craggy, 430-million-year-old bluffs. In summer, the park belongs to "families" – those with two parents, no parents or grandparents; groups of couples; scads of scouts, and trios of twenty-somethings launching kayaks to paddle along Peninsula's eight-mile shore. Peninsula is a beautiful backdrop for generations of memories, a treasured setting for treasured family stories. This year, the invitation to experience this irreplaceable landscape is more compelling than ever as 2009 is Peninsula State Park’s centennial (visit Friends of Peninsula State Park).
Surviving a century is quite a tour de force. Peninsula has weathered two World Wars, the Great Depression and other severe economic catastrophes, and unforeseen changes like invasive plants and changing camping habits that threatened to harm this precious landscape. Through it all, Peninsula has stayed on point: protecting resources, open space, recreation and a place to relax despite the odds.
Enjoying the terrain between Fish Creek and Ephraim is nothing new. A 1994 archaeological dig at Peninsula State Park reveals "campsites" dating back as far as 400 BC. Pottery shards and other artifacts indicate the area – in particular, Nicolet Bay – was used as a summer fishing camp by native people. Later, in the mid-nineteenth century, a mosaic of log cabins and small farms replaced the bark and skin-covered wigwams.
Land purchases to create Peninsula State Park began in 1909 from a community of 35 scattered family farms and a small school. Most of the Scandinavian families living within the present park's 3,776-acre boundary accepted a pittance of payment (an average of $20 per acre) and signed quit-claim deeds to their land. A few negotiated lifelong leases and the property was later turned over when the occupants passed away. The community cemetery is still maintained onsite. The property is also the site of the original State Game Farm that operated here from 1928-32.
In Peninsula's first half-century, several of the abandoned, aging cabins were leased to families for $60-75 a season. The Weborg Point area was especially popular and several skilled artisans from the Chicago area set up an artist's colony here, including a portrait artist, a weaver and pianist Agnes Kuechler. She lived year-round, with neither electricity nor running water, in Swen Amundson's log cabin at Sven's Bluff. In 1913, the State appointed Albert E. Doolittle, a forester from Trout Lake, as Peninsula's first superintendent. "Early days were primitive," wrote Doolittle's son, Jay, in undated correspondence in the Peninsula archives. "There was no electricity and 'roads' consisted of two ruts made by horsedrawn vehicles. My father took care of the park while riding horseback. The State did not buy an automobile for his use until 1916."
Within two decades, Peninsula designated camping areas at Weborg Point, Nicolet (Shanty) Bay and Welckers Point and established 63 campsites, according to the 92-page Peninsula State Park Centennial Reader written and issued for the centennial celebration. The booklet and an accompanying list of park historic sites are available at park concession stands and the park office.
In 1921, it cost 50 cents to camp for a week or five dollars for the season. Many families would bring up camping gear around Memorial Day, rent one of the wooden tent platforms and stay in a large canvas tent all summer until Labor Day. Camping "conveniences" circa 1933, might seem like roughing it by today's standards. Lorraine Ost Busscher recalls in the centennial reader, "My father would dig a hole in the ground and line it with canvas to make a crude ice chest to keep perishable food cool." Lorraine’s family used old screen doors to keep bugs out of the tent. An old piece of linoleum lined the tent floor. A small kitchen and eating area in the tent was divided from the sleeping quarters.
The campgrounds also contained cooking shacks where visitors could share use of a communal wood-fired stove. As you read through the diaries and stories compiled in the reader, you get a sense of both the relaxed atmosphere and the variety of services that local businesses were only too happy to offer to the seasonal resident campers. Peddlers made the rounds of the campgrounds selling fresh produce, fresh cherries and berries in season, and raw milk that campers kept cold in boxes set in spring waters. Laundry service, boat rentals, ice delivery and fresh bakery were also available. Coopers, farmers and carpenters also sold their services in the early years. Cooper Peter Weborg made barrels for large catches of herring that were caught in pond nets off Nicolet Bay. Farmers rode the muddy, rutted park roads.
"My father, Orrin Thomas Malmer, drove a lightweight wooden wagon through the park twice a week, peddling Fred Larson’s home-butchered meat," recalled Thelma Erickson. Superintendent Doolittle was also known to deliver sundries to campers. Many local men earned wages for maintenance work. Several helped rebuild both towers in 1932 (Sven's was dismantled in 1947).
By 1935, a different kind of camp was "pitched" at Peninsula – the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). "It was located on park property across from where the YMCA is now, near the Gibraltar School football field," recalled Itsie Krause, born and raised in Fish Creek. At the time, Krause was 10 years old. "Big army tents were erected. These men were brought here to work. Times were tough during the Depression, with little work and very little money to be made." The CCC constructed Eagle Panorama, built stone walls along roadsides, planted trees and cleared 100 acres of poison ivy at Nicolet Beach. [My cousin Harry Pelke] and I "would go into the CCC kitchen and they would give us food, sometimes better than we had at home. One time when we came, they gave us each a shirt. They were very big, but we were proud to wear them."
Another Fish Creek octogenarian, Buck Eckert, recalled that CCC enrollees scrimmaged the high school football team. "I remember the CCC boys played in their bare feet. I guess the work boots they'd been issued were just too heavy."
Besides being a work site for the CCC (1935-37), the state park provided jobs for local residents and has continued to do so throughout the decades. State relief paid the Depression-era wages. Masonry skills were in demand, especially outside the park along Fish Creek's Cottage Row. Here, wealthy summer residents built elaborate homes. "When they needed sand for masonry on various job sites," wrote Thelma Erickson, "Emil Krause would haul it from the depression that now shows across from the Nicolet campgrounds, where the cars now park for the American Folklore Theatre shows. That was solid sand, and it was all removed. It was a long haul, my husband remembered, as he rode on the wagon behind draft horses driven by Krause, a very able, hard-working, reliable employee – one trip in the a.m. and one in the p.m., starting at 7 a.m. and ending at 6 p.m. on summer days!"
Today, more than 100 people are employed by Peninsula State Park, its concessionaires and on-site partners. Peninsula's economic impact in local communities exceeds $30 million annually in providing lodging, food, entertainment, shopping and services (according to the State Parks and Their Gateway Communities Report, 2002).
Back in the park's first years it also hosted a summer camp. Local girls earned money for books and clothes by working in the kitchen at Camp Meenahga (1916-1948), which once stood near Skyline Road parking lot. Evelyn Franke worked in the kitchen in 1927. She earned ten dollars a week to start. "I [bought] clothes, mainly, because we were a big family and not that well off. All summer I stayed in the tent house with five other kitchen girls. It had flaps on the side and when it was nice you could roll them up." Mrs. Franke described visits by parents of Meenahga girls. "The chauffeur would be standing there. He always opened the door for them. They were very rich ... There was a Kimberly [Clark] girl. Many of the girls were from St. Louis." (Peninsula Archives interview in 2003).
Eric Beckstrom also remembered Camp Meenahga. Beckstrom’s father was Peninsula superintendent during the camp's final years. After the season was over and the tents taken down, Eric would crawl under the wooden platforms to look for any pennies or nickels that had fallen through the cracks. He was about five when Camp Meenahga closed.
Beckstrom remembered a park ranger who worked for his dad, too. "Kenny Nash drove a Nash Rambler and worked as the park constable. In those days, the [ranger] didn't wear a uniform, just a hat and a badge. He had a crank siren [hidden] under the Rambler's hood. One time, local kids got hold of another crank siren and pulled Kenny over. They didn't recognize his car and thought he was a tourist. They were going to give him a ticket. Boy, were they surprised to find out it was the park constable!"
Superintendent Doolittle welcomed Camp Meenahga, knowing it would mean local jobs and bring attention to the wonders of the park. Superintendents who followed him continued to demonstrate public relation know-how. They answered diverse questions. Peninsula Superintendent Ralf Halverson (1968–74) shared some of the memorable funny letters at a 1973 community program:
Dear Mr. Halverson:
Today's questions seem more straightforward. Can we bring firewood into a state park? The short answer is "only if it has been harvested within 50 miles of the park," explained present Peninsula Superintendent Tom Blackwood. The emerald ash borer beetle and other forest pests warrant restrictions on moving firewood in state parks. Other questions relate to changing RV rigs that are getting higher, wider and heavier. "We’ve had a few campers ask us to cut branches and trees in order to accommodate RV pull-outs," Blackwood says. "We generally don’t oblige that kind of request."
Peninsula does oblige gentle use of resources and especially encourages sustainable recreation, such as biking and kayaking. About 11,000 people attend nature programs each year and volunteers help control invasive species by hand-pulling weeds and grubbing out roots on work days. Thousands more tour the park on their own since Peninsula is considered the gateway to other Door County natural areas. How many people first fell in love with Door County after a trip to Peninsula State Park? It may have been a drive along scenic Skyline Road, a visit to the historic gravesite of Potawatomi Chief Simon Onanghissee Kahquados, or a tour of 1868 Eagle Bluff Lighthouse.
Perhaps a round at the only Wisconsin state park golf course was the driving force. The course opened in 1921 with six "sand and oil" greens. (Turf came later, with an irrigation system.) It later grew to two nine-hole courses and, eventually an 18-hole course. An annual tournament on the challenging course began in 1925.
Such unique features peak interest, boost numbers and place high demand on precious park resources. Peninsula's master plan, up for revision in 2010, directs use to specific places at specific times. Peninsula State Park is considered fully developed.
Key park features are remarkable at Peninsula and natural attributes keep drawing visitors for a closer look. One-hundred-fifty-foot bluffs cut across the park. They represent Wisconsin’s largest, contiguous, protected tract of the Niagara Escarpment. A suite of species associated with the limestone rock face include red-backed salamanders, goshawks (which have nested in Peninsula), and populations of endangered land snails established after the last glaciers scoured the landscape.
Wildflowers, too, are surprisingly diverse. Robust Canada anemone and more fragile Kalm’s lobelia both thrive here. More remarkable are colonies of federally endangered dwarf lake iris, sustained along the sunny openings of Sunset Bike Route. Peninsula's Wildflower Checklist ($2) lists best wildflower sites and seasons.
Birds can be easy to spot as well, with just a small investment of time. Pileated woodpeckers are more abundant as Peninsula's second growth forest has reached maturity. Mergansers are often spotted along the park's eight-mile coast.
That first summer, my family camped four times. Now that my sons are teenagers we are lucky to squeeze in a two-day trip. Our family is entering a different era of camping. Gone are days of amusing ourselves with sidewalk chalk and wearing cartoon pajamas. Instead, it's cell phones and boxers. Any year now I expect the boys will ask to camp on their own; of course, I will agree (wistfully). Then, at least for a while, camping will be set aside. Time will pass. I'll mull over memories of sitting by a blazing "chimney log" campfire after ordering six noisy boys into the camper and craning my neck to listen as the 14-year-olds whispered conspiratorially to the younger ones, first, "Do you like any girls?" and then "Have you had your first kiss?"
But I know my kids will come back. Maybe after a grueling stint at a city job. Maybe just to catch a sunset from the top of Eagle Tower for old time's sake. Maybe to introduce their own children to sparking campfires, or to jog along side as they wobble on bikes without training wheels for the first time.
People return to Peninsula State Park and we invite you to join us for special events during our centennial year.
Kathleen Harris has been chief naturalist at Peninsula State Park in Fish Creek in Door County since 1998.