Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 12/20/13 | Those who left us in 2013 left wisdom behind

31 12 2013
Door County author Norbert Blei filled the living room of his home in Ellison Bay with books.

Door County author Norbert Blei filled the living room of his home in Ellison Bay with books.

Blei left his job teaching English at Lyons Township High School near Chicago in 1968 for what he thought would be the perfect place: Door County. And it was. He took up residence in a classic writer’s lair — a farmhouse in the woods, where he would produce 18 books — short stories, novels, essays — in a career spanning 40 years. Much of the time he worked from a converted chicken coop in the woods, piled high with papers and about 3,000 books. — Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 12/20/13

“I like artists who are almost obsessed with their work — painters who paint, writers who write, potters who make pots. You write to find out about yourself. If you’re in areas where you’re not finding out about yourself, it’s futile. You’re wasting your time.”

— Norbert Blei, on the writing life





Norbert Blei | Christmas Eve in Door

20 12 2013

Norbert Blei

All roads lead,

eventually, to Ellison Bay from here, including Mink River Road which takes me past the house of old Oscar Dysterud, moving slowly through the living room this night, past Gust Klenke’s garage once again, the blue-white neon clock glowing in the window forever, it seems, 8:45 . . . more or less.

The pavement almost dry from the wind by now. But no clearing. No moon. No stars. Just an ever deepening night. The only snow to be seen, patches of it from weeks ago, still clinging to the roadside ditch past the Hartman place and Johnny Fitzgerald, Approaching Timberline, a string of colored Christmas lights brightens the front porch of Loco’s (Robert Cuellar) place. A light, always on, at Uncle Tom’s old Newport School. Turning left . . . darkness … turning right… home.

I make coffee, cut the apple pie, slice some cheddar cheese, light the Christmas tree, put on three albums of classical guitar, sip wine, and open a present I have given to myself: The Letters of D. H. Lawrence. “The great thing is to love—therein lies the excitement, the fundamental vibration of the life force.”

I read in and around a stack of other books, listen to a Dylan Thomas recording of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” answer the phone (the Rausches, extending their greetings from Western Springs, Illinois), then turn on the TV to catch John Paul the II’s mass from Rome (for old time’s sake), to see St. Peter’s Basilica once again, to hear the Latin, the music, to witness the splendor of a ritual I celebrated as a child, a ritual which intrigues me still in different ways.

I think of my family in other places. I think of friends spread out in so many directions. I think of my own journey in place this Christmas Eve in Door.

I think not so much of Christmas as spirit, alive in everyone, in all seasons, in all places, and how it flickers in the darkest recesses imaginable. I think of my work: to find the people, the place, the time, the words and forms to say these things for all, yet make them mine.

Call it Christmas. Call it spirit. Call it love. Call it light.
In the midnight hours I read a Hopi incantation, and turn to sleep:

The day has risen.
Go I to behold the dawn,
Go behold the dawn!
The white rising!
The yellow rising!
It has become light.
And on Christmas morning, on the road, a clarity of sky, a gift of sun.

from the chapter: Christmas Eve in Door – Winter Book

Norbert Blei

Norbert Blei

Norbert Blei - Winter BookWinter Book is a mature performance with a satisfying sense of completion. The season is winter; the dominant theme is the acceptance of small wonders, including decay and obscurity. Like Blei himself, Winter Book is alternately nostalgic, angry, and amusing. It is in some respects a very public book, in others a very personal collection. The journalistic profiles are Blei’s own experiences and friends, including public figures like Chan Harris and Al Johnson, and Door County natives, poets, musicians, and artists. Blei’s fictions explore the Door landscape on a deeper level. Blei is an astute observer whose attitudes are shared by readers inside and outside the County. Once again the personal becomes the public, and Winter Book, like Door Way, records communal experience.
Norbert Blei’s Winter Book is available by clicking here… or just click the book cover on the left.

Norbert Blei





Warren Nelson | To tell the story of a man’s life

27 11 2013

Warren Nelson | To tell the story of a man’s life

To tell the story of a man’s life

To tell the story of a man’s life in a few paragraphs is to skim the wind over the ocean. I was privileged to meet Norbert Blei and become a friend. Obituary Norbert Blei 1935-2013 Green Bay Gazette April 23 Author, publisher and teacher.

Norbert Blei died early Tuesday morning at Scandia Village in Sister Bay, where he had been recuperating from recent surgery. He was 77.A native of Chicago, Blei moved to Door County in 1969 and became a passionate defender of its natural beauty and rural character, working from a converted chicken coop studio in Ellison Bay. He was the author of 17 books, including “Door Way: The People in the Landscape,” “Door Steps,” “Door to Door” and “Meditations on a Small Lake.” He established Cross+Roads Press in 1994 to support the work of local writers and poet. His “Chronicles of a Rural Journalist in America” recounts the furor he created with a satirical piece in the Door Reminder called “Shut the Damn Door,” advocating for sealing off Northern Door’s natural splendor from tourists. For three decades he taught writing workshops at The Clearing in Ellison Bay and was scheduled to return to the front of the class this summer.

In Memory Of Norbert Blei…My late great coyote brother

Norbert BleiI first heard of Norbert in a newspaper article, must have been in the early to mid 80s. Norb’s photo was with the article. He was standing by a newly installed mail receptacle that was there for receiving free shopper papers. He stated that no one asked permission to install any of these beside every mailbox.

They were plastic, ugly, another sore sight in beautiful Door County. I took to him immediately. He looked like me with his furry mustache. He had good solid eyebrows, strong shoulders, a granite bold face and in this photo he was pissed off.

I was impressed that the article was sent statewide. I was more impressed that the eyes of this man paid attention to detail, to any visual despoiling of an especially beautiful peninsula in neighborhood Wisconsin. I had never been to Door County but I clipped the article and vowed to one day meet the man.

I can’t remember the date of our first meeting. Seems like I had known him all my life. I believe our introduction to each other might have been during a weekend that I was playing a concert with Big Top Chautauqua at the Door Community Auditorium in the late 80s. After the show he took me to one of the funkiest greatest bars I have ever been in and I have been in many a bar in my hopping. The A.C.Tap. The place was all soul. Old. The floor was polished by 50 years of beer. Jukebox. Antique stools. Names carved in the bar-top. My kind of bar. One that welcomes conversation and joviality. We stayed till closing time. He invited me to his place the next day telling me about his hole called The Coop.

I went. It was an old chicken coop books galore, wall to wall, floor to ceiling. Paintings. Snippets of poetry. Photographs. An old long-used typewriter. Wisdom in the walls.

He gave me one of his books. I gave him a CD. We both had carved careers out of celebrating a sense of place. We were basically the same guy and would remain brothers throughout our shared time. His recognition of the history of Door County as it yet stood in old people and old buildings was honor to the past and a hope that something would remain of what was because what was authentic. “If God wanted us to have fiberglass boats, He would have given us fiberglass trees.” His written portraits of elders of Door County are priceless. The adage “They don’t make’m like they used to” applies to buildings and people and Norb and I often talked about that, bemoaning the news that an old farmhouse was being torn down, that the old country store was being demolished, that a new Condo development was rising on the heights over Lake Michigan (for me Lake Superior).

He had known about Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua, a Bayfield Peninsula tent show I founded. Years later, I booked him for a reading at the tent along with Jean Feraca. It was broadcast on Tent Show Radio. He had the perfect radio voice that licked his words. You could definitely hear Chicago, his birthplace, in it.

I never saw him enough but when we were together the stories rolled. As much as I wanted to hear all of what he was up to and writing he kept on with new writers he had discovered and wanted to put into print by his Cross+Roads Press. That was his true gift to the forest of literature. He was a great oak standing in the middle of younger aspiring writers. Generous. Encouraging. Critical– knowing truth from bullshit. Those of us who knew Norb remember well his feather-ruffling in the politics of Door County. More like a coyote’s growl. Again, his eye looking beyond himself.

We, of course, have his books to keep us company. And keep his mind and spirit alive by reading his writing. Incredible life of work. Incredible ship of wisdom that went down. I’m remembering a visit I made to Sigurd Olson’s writing shack out behind his house in Ely, Minnesota. It was kept as it was at the last hour Sigurd walked out the door to go snowshoeing and never returned. Typewriter in place. Chair staring at it. Books, snowshoes, skis, a wool hat on a hook. A museum. I wish The Coop could be left at it was on Norb’s last day. It should be on the Register of Historic Places.

There has been some Door County talk for a couple of years about a new show featuring Norb’s work with me putting music under and over his prose and crafting songs out of his writings and story. I had in mind that Norbert would play himself and I would sit and sing beside the source. Photos old and new of the Door County environs and people would be projected behind the staged program. I have to get this show on the boards. I’m casting myself in the role of Norbert Blei. The show would run 90 minutes or so and hopefully play in the summers forever. I love the thought of new people being introduced to Norbert Blei’s writings far into the Door County and Wisconsin future.

Here’s a poem I wrote in early 2012.

NORBERT BLEI

Codger, a dodger, confidence trickster–
Keeper of Wisconsin.
Writer, let’s know, of great Wisconsin wrongs.

I would lay light that his work
Unpaving a road through Door County
Will whisk dust up for young writers to come to
Find voice and camp there in their own
With a consciousness of no conciliations,
Follow their bare bones loosening the bullshit
To fit this new world that frighteningly forgets the old.

Prose man, poet blender.
Sender off to the world
His great working gifts.

A presence lifted from Illinois
Took the flyway of Lake Michigan
And built a nest as eagles do north
Where all can be seen from.

Perched in his coop to
Sway swoop down on any day.
Craft steeped like how-ever- old-he- is whiskey.
You can smell it on his breathway-
The truth.

Honor to the deep in shallow politics.
He is editing our time,
The anger all behind a voice of sweetness.

Plow the road.
Like that crazy crooked county road
That hauls all to the landing across from
Washington Island.
Jesus, who platted that?
Only one who can laugh along the way.

Norbert Blei ferries himself across for
All of us.

Warren Nelson
April 25, 2013





Norbert Blei | Remembering Al

24 11 2013

Al Johnson and Waitresses 1960s

Al Johnson and Waitresses 1960s

Remembering Al

Though the goats continue to appear every summer season on the grass roof of Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant and Butik in Sister Bay, though Al’s wife, Ingert (in her 80’s), may still be seen early in the morning sweeping, sometimes washing the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, though the two sons, Lars and Rolfe, are hard at work in the kitchen cooking, filling orders, and the daughter, Annika, is in the dining room serving customers and keeping a steady eye trained on the tables, on the people waiting to be seated, though it may take over an hour to be seated at the height of summer, though both the log exterior of the building and interior design and furnishings of the restaurant exude a warm, old world welcome impossible to be found with such authenticity anywhere else in the county, though the waitresses are attentive, efficient, friendly, beautifully dressed/costumed in their colorful, European dirndls, though the layers of delicious thin Swedish pancakes dabbed with butter, smothered in maple syrup, lingonberries, and topped, perhaps, with Swedish meatballs, with whipped cream or ice cream and strawberries…though all this (and more) remains the unique Door County dining experience simply described as: “Eating at Al’s,” the single most important factor of this setting is no longer in place: Al himself, who died in June, 2010.

Al Johnson

Al Johnson

There are customers still unaware of his passing. New customers with no memory of Al Johnson on the floor, in total command, no knowledge of the strength and tone of his distinctive voice (both happy and harried) in the kitchen, behind the counter, on the floor, pulling out chairs to a perfectly shiny, table-setting (2-top, 4-top, 10-top), pouring coffee with one hand, holding his famous blue rag in the other, talking a mile a minute to customers while his eyes scour the entire dining room to see what else might need his attention…voicing his concerns to waitresses, bus people, anyone in range. This was classic Al Johnson, ALIVE, in place, on fire! Often ending a crackling customer conversation with a laugh, a hand shake, a pat-on-the-back, and his classic loud and laughing goodbye: “You got that right!”

The way Al Johnson himself had it so right (conviviality, compassion, customer service) that it is difficult for those who remember him to believe, in the height of the summer season, that the spirit of Al is not on the floor, in full command, hands flying, eyes flitting about the room, voice bouncing off tables, walls, ceiling.

Even the goats on the roof, strike a pose, solemnly raise their heads, and affirm their master’s voice: Yes, you got that right!





Norbert Blei | Portrait of a Rare Bookseller: Charley Calkins

24 11 2013
Charlie Calkins with Norb Blei

Charlie Calkins with Norb Blei

Portrait of a Rare Bookseller: Charley Calkins

If you’re the kind of book addict who hangs out in used bookstores, who has a mental map of every used bookstore within a certain radius of wherever you happen to be passing through, who has a certain thing about first editions and signed first editions, who can tell the quality and depth of a used bookstore by the sheer smell of the place…chances are (here in Door County) you may have run into a bookman by the name of Charlie Calkins sometime, checking out the shelves at Peter Sloma’s “The Peninsula Bookman” in Fish Creek, or Kubie Luchterhand’s, “Caxton Wm .Books Ltd.” (12037 Hwy 42 Ellison Bay. Charlie, of medium-build, gray hair, gray beard, friendly smile, hearty laugh, is probably the most affable guy in the shop, looking for anything and everything on Wisconsin.

He’s a kind a peripatetic bookman/dealer. Here, there, everywhere. An affable guy of medium build, gray hair, friendly smile and hearty laugh. No particular bookshop of his own where he can be found on the premises. Just some rental spaces in various malls (the Peninsula Antique Center, 7150 Hwy 42, in Egg Harbor) and a phone number and an e-mail address where you can find him, tell him of your wants and needs. That is all he requires—and he’ll be out there looking/searching for you. Charlie Calkins, bookman extraordinaire, always in the hunt.

Sometime he’s just grazing, looking to enhance his stock–checking for titles he doesn’t have, or doesn’t have enough of; sometimes he’s waiting to be surprised (a rare Wisconsin book he never expected to find); and sometimes he’s on particular mission (notes In hand, memories in his head) looking for a special order–maybe that writer-guy up in Ellison Bay, who’s always got him on the search for something: a signed, first edition, of Hjalmar R. Holand’s autobiography, MY FIRST EIGHTY YEARS, a first edition of Fred L. Holmes’ OLD WORLD WISCONSIN, a copy of Virgil J. Vogel’s, INDIAN NAMES ON WISCONSIN’S MAP, to mention just a few.

People with obsessions always interest me. Especially collectors. Especially the book ‘crazed.’ I relate to those for whom enough is never enough. In Charlie Calkin’s case (Wisconsin books and ‘paper’ his priority) I discovered a very knowledgeable friend with a good nose for obscure books. A rare bird. Not to mention a rare bookman in an odd ‘business’ who is a story unto himself.

How does someone get into this kind of business?

“At the time I got started selling,” Charley will tell you, “ I had been teaching a course entitled The Geography of Wisconsin for about 25 years. During that period I had developed a very substantial professional library of books related to Wisconsin. I would loan books to students, and for whatever reasons the books would not come back to me. As I went to rummage sales, flea markets, estate sales, and library used books sales, I would buy duplicates and triplicates of books loaned to students to maintain my “supply”.

“One day my wife said, “Charlie, what are you going to do with all of those Wisconsin books in our basement?” At about the ’ame time as my wife’s rather pointed question (read “ Get rid of some of those books!!!”), a former neighbor and friend who managed an antiques mall suggested that I begin selling my surplus Wisconsin books through that venue. And so, my life as a used, out-of-print and rare bookseller began. This was in 1994. As a professional geographer, it only seemed natural that I should add a very important tool of our “trade”–the map–to my inventory, and I began selling gently used Wisconsin maps, as well.

“The first request I ever received for a specific book came from a lady who wanted to give it to her father for Christmas. I remember the book very well; the title was TM, THE MILWAUKEE ELECTRIC RAILWAY AND LIGHT COMPANY, an out-of-print book that is a history of Milwaukee’s electric rail network. As I recall the book was selling at the time for $125.00.

“At the outset I had no more than about 500 items in my inventory. That number has grown very substantially over time. Today I would estimate that my inventory numbers about 5,000 books and countless maps and pieces of ephemera. In this regard we are back where it all began. Now my wife has broadened her question asks: “What are you going to do with all of that paper stuff in our basement?” The used book business (the book business period) is not what it used to be, given the internet, Amazon.com, etc. How has all this affected the personal, old fashioned book business of Charlie Calkins?

“When I began buying books, the so-called “bible” of the trade was a national publication called AB Bookman’s Weekly, which offered both books for sale and books wanted sections. The rapid rise of the internet as a formidable competitor in this regard soon brought about the death of that publication, because the internet sped up the process of buying and selling books. Moreover, the internet brought together buyers and sellers from a much larger –actually a worldwide–geographic area”

You don’t enlist Charlie’s friendship and services for any book on the latest bestsellers list, or for whatever book Oprah may be pitching at the moment. Charley’s customers, percentage-wise, probably can’t even be calculated.

But if you’re a lover of Wisconsin history and culture, Charlie’s probably your man, no matter how esoteric the subject, how obscure the publication.

“Any form of the printed word, now, is of interest to me,” says Charlie “so long as it pertains in some fairly direct way to Wisconsin. In addition to books and maps, I look for advertising, photographs, ephemera and a whole host of related material. Of particular interest to me are two related kinds of publications that I look for and in which I specialize. Wisconsin county histories and plat books (which contain land ownership maps) are always on my want list. They are becoming very hard to find in decent condition any more, and, as a result, tend to be very expensive Over the years I have gained somewhat of a reputation as a Wisconsin paper specialist and often get requests for all sorts of both common and unusual paper-related items. As is the case with most dealers, “the hunt” is really fascinating for me. You just never know what is out there waiting to be discovered.

Charlie Calkins, Bookseller

Charlie Calkins, Bookseller

“My customers, in general, tend to be people who have a strong interest in some aspect of the history of Wisconsin or are especially interested in the local history of some place within the state. The interest in some local area is commonly tied to family members who once lived there. I commonly get requests for the history of some town, township, or county that makes mention of a particular family member by name. I guess that you could term this “ the roots phenomenon”. Also people want to acquire plat maps that show grandpa’s farm or the property of some other relative. Genealogists are folks with this kind of interest, especially.”

Let’s suppose one is new to Door County and wants to learn more about it through early books and pamphlets. Where does one begin? What does a Wisconsin rare bookman like Charlie Calkins suggest a new resident purchase?

Or better yet, what might comprise a collectible (highly collectible?) shelf of Door County books that reflect the local history, culture…a real sense of place?

“To begin with, one should know something about the physical fundament of this rather unique place. A good start would be F. T. Thwaites and Kenneth Bertrand’s article titled “Pleistocene Geology of the Door Peninsula, Wisconsin,” which appeared in BULLETIN OF THE GEOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF AMERICA, vol 68, 1957, pp. 831-880.

“For a general understanding of the flora of the area, JOURNEYS IN GREEN PLACES by Virginia Eifert would fill the bill in a non-technical way. Roy Lukes’ ONCE AROUND THE SUN would give one a sense of what might be called the seasonal rhythms of nature in Door County.

“If one was serious about developing a good Door County library, a must would be Hjalmar Holand’s HISTORY OF DOOR COUNTY, WISCONSIN; THE COUNTY BEAUTIFUL, originally published in 1917 and now very hard to find in the first edition. Thankfully this two volume set was reprinted in 1993 by Wm. Caxton Ltd of Ellison Bay and is readily available. On a lighter note, the same author self-published OLD PENINSULA DAYS, more of an anecdotal history of the county, which has gone through several different editions and re-printings.

“To gain and understanding and appreciation for the coming together of land and life in Door County, Norbert Blei’s book–DOOR WAY–is must reading.

“There are several rather unique institutions here and to know something about them is essential. In this regard, for example, Fulkerson and Corsin’s THE STORY OF THE CLEARING and Lukes’ THE RIDGES SANCTUARY are good places to start. One of my favorite series of books is titled DOOR COUNTY ALMANAK. Five different numbers make up the series. Whereas number one deals with a variety of topics, numbers two through five treat orchards, fishing, farms, and tourism/transportation, respectively in considerable detail and from many different angles. Water is a topic of great importance in and around Door County, and it has received considerable attention in the written word. I would recommend Walter and Mary Hirthe’s SCHOONER DAYS IN DOOR COUNTY and KEEPERS OF THE LIGHT by Steven Karges, which treat water-related topics in most interesting ways. The titles suggested would be a good start on a basic Door County bookshelf. There are many other possibilities if one is so inclined. If you acquire all of these titles and still have money left to spend on Door County books, please get in touch, and I will be most happy to sell you other titles.

“One of the titles I could have also recommended for a basic Door County library of books but did not was Charles I. Martin’s HISTORY OF DOOR COUNTY, published in 1881, and this date makes it one of the very earliest books treating the area. It is a very rare book; I have an extensive Door County collection, and I do not own a copy. As a matter of fact, I have been looking for a copy for over 25 years and have never ever seen a copy for sale!”

As to the other increasingly rare and valuable books on the county…and if one had, say, a few hundred dollars to ‘invest: in a rare or rare Door County books, what would Charley advise?

“There are so many very valuable items in this regard, it is difficult to identify just a few. In general though, imprints from the Territory of Wisconsin between 1836 and 1848 are in demand and quite expensive.”

As for one particular Wisconsin item Charlie favors above all others?

“My personal favorite is the ILLUSTRATED HISTORICAL ATLAS OF WISCONSIN, published in 1881 by H. R. Page & Co. of Chicago. Please remember that by profession I was a geography professor with an abiding interest in maps. This atlas addresses that interest in detail for my native state. All of the maps are hand colored and they are beauties. I spend hours studying the maps.”

I wonder about a day-in-the-life of a Wisconsin rare bookman like Charlie. The range of territory he might cover in Wisconsin, the Midwest. How much time he might spend on this a day, week, month? Does he have the territory ‘mapped’ in his own mind? Does he know exactly what he’s looking for? Just browsing, hoping to be surprised? Does he carry a list? A notebook? What’s the joy/satisfaction in all this?

“There is no single ‘day-in-the-life of Charlie Calkins’, “ he explains. “Rather there are several different “typical” days (plural) in my role as a bookseller. One day may be spent at a flea market such as the Elkhorn Antiques Flea Market held in Elkhorn, Wisconsin or Maxwell Street Day located in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, looking for items to buy and resell. Another day may find me at an auction somewhere within a radius of 200 miles of Waukesha, my home. An estate sale within the Milwaukee metropolitan area may occupy a good part of yet another day, because something of interest may be advertised. An antiques dealer friend and neighbor and I will spend a day or two a month going to antiques mall and shops in southern Wisconsin looking for “sleepers” to buy and, in turn, resell. Let’s not forget the possibilities at rummage sales. There is never a dull moment. “The hunt” is really the fun part of this business. No dealer that I know really enjoys spending time researching and pricing items. It’s the hunt!!! You never know what you might find at the next stop.”

This is a fascinating bookman providing a valuable service for a very small minority of customers. And for any reader wishing to make contact with Charlie, the search for him goes something like this—in Charlie’s own words:

“I sell through several different antiques malls. Currently I have booths in malls in Waukesha, Milwaukee, Watertown, and in Door County I am located at Peninsula Antiques Center just south of Egg Harbor. At present I do not sell on the internet and probably will not do so in the future. I do not relish spending time in front of a computer; I would rather be out looking for items. People who frequent antiques malls find my booths, because normally I am the only one selling the kind of merchandise that I do, and my booth kind of jumps out at them. Moreover, people who see my books and maps refer me to family and friends from whom I receive inquiries about items they are wanting to buy. At all of my booths, I have business cards and they find their way into the hands of many people. I get phone calls (262-547-6572) or emails (wibooks@yahoo.com) routinely from folks looking specific items. If I do not have the item in stock, I will search for it. With luck, I can find that elusive title and make someone very happy. Satisfied customers keep returning.”





Norbert Blei | How to Start Reading about Door County

24 11 2013

Charlie Calkins, Bookseller

How to Start Reading about Door County

Door County bookstores are scattered throughout the peninsula. Sturgeon Bay, Baileys Harbor, Fish Creek, Sister Bay, Ellison Bay and Washington Island each feature at least one prominent bookstore, not to mention other businesses that carry significant shelves of books, both local and popular, including Main Street Market in Egg Harbor, Al Johnson’s in Sister Bay, and the Pioneer Store in Ellison Bay.

Given the need of a first-time traveler and long-time visitor to know more about a place, much is on the Internet. Then again…can a blip of info on a screen replace the depth and value of a good book? I would say no.

I rarely visit any place in the world without reading about it first. Once there, I prowl local bookstores and question knowledgeable owners for those books I need to tell me more about the place. The histories, maps, biographies, essays, stories, local poets, even local cook books. I want to see beyond the façade of restaurants, shops, galleries, local entertainment tabloids, and advertising, and purchase books to read while I’m there and then carry them home with me, adding to my own library for future enjoyment and reference. There’s nothing like revisiting a warm summer place on a cold winter night in the pages of a good local book that brings the people, places, history, and culture alive in your hands.

Door County has a wealth of fine books that capture the past and ‘presence’ of this place. Where to begin? I would suggest H. R. Holand’s Old Peninsula Days, a must for your personal library of Door County, Wisconsin books. Originally published in l925, and followed by many subsequent editions, Holand captures the lure, lore, and history of the county’s people and places, references earlier historians from Indian times, even French explorers, and gives the reader a solid sense of our pioneering times. He delves into all of the villages and towns from their very beginnings, including Rock Island, Washington Island, Ephraim, Fish Creek, Egg Harbor…not to mention stories of settlers toiling in the woods and on the waters.

According to noted Door County, Wisconsin bibliophile, part-time Sister Bay resident, and Wisconsin book dealer Charles F. Calkins (The Badger Bibliophile, wibooks@yahoo.com):

Old Peninsula Days, Hjalmar R. Holand

“Old Peninsula Days is a quick but interesting read about Door County, Wisconsin because it is an anecdotal history. The relatively short vignettes do not constitute “hard history” that really details important aspects of the county’s evolution. Holand’s preceding (1917) two-volume History of Door County is the more characteristic “standard” county history of its period.

“I once heard someone say that Holand included “the leftovers” from his 1917 history in Old Peninsula Days, published eight years later in 1925. That is not true, however, as Holand included many of the same topics in both histories. For example, in the 1917 book he had a chapter titled ‘The Belgian Settlement in Gardner, Union and Brussels.’ In Old Peninsula Days It was shortened to “The Belgian Settlement.” In subsequent editions of OPD, Holand shuffled various chapters in and out to make each edition appear to be dramatically different from the previous one. And, this is a major reason this book has been so popular over the years.”

In Chapter II of Holand’s Old Peninsula Days, he details the presence of the Native American culture on the peninsula through the words of 17th-century French historian La Potherie, who beautifully captures life among the Indians upon the Door landscape:

“The country is a beautiful one, and they have fertile fields planted with Indian corn. Game is abundant at all seasons, and in winter they hunt bears and beavers. They hunt deer at all times, and they even catch wild fowl in nets. In autumn there is a prodigious abundance of ducks, both black and white, of excellent flavor, and the savages stretch nets in certain places where these fowl alight to feed upon the wild rice. Then advancing silently in their canoes, they draw them up alongside of the nets in which the birds have been caught. They also capture pigeons in their nets in the summer. They make in the woods wide paths in which they spread large nets in the shape of a bag and attached at each side they make a little hut of branches in which they hide. When the pigeons in their flight get within this open space, the savages pull a small cord which is drawn through the edge of the nets and thus capture sometimes five or six hundred birds in one morning, especially in windy weather. All the year round they fish for sturgeon, and for herring in the autumn; and in winter they have fruits. This fishery suffices to maintain large villages. They also gather wild rice and acorns. Accordingly, the peoples of the bay can live in utmost comfort.”

As Charlie Calkins concludes: “In my view, you have to give credit where credit is due. Holand was one of the first to take the history of Door County, Wisconsin seriously and set about to do something about it — record it in written form for posterity. Holand was educated and had a facility with the written word. At times, I believe, he played “fast and easy” with the facts, and in these instances he did not let the facts get in the way of what he thought was a good story. Much of what we know to be the true history of Door County, Wisconsin, nevertheless, has come from Holand’s pen.”

You can find used and new copies of H.R. Holand’s “Old Peninsula Days” at both Peninsula Bookman in Fish Creek and Untitled Used and Rare Books in Sturgeon Bay.








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