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,

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.




2 responses

24 11 2013

Thanks Klaus, Your support of Blei and Door County writers is appreciated. Gary

30 11 2013
David Dix Sr.

Just tuned you in!

Many thanks!

D. Zep Dix, Waukesha

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