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.

Norbert Blei | On Poetry

2 11 2013

Emily Dickinson Poetry Series, April 13th 2011. The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Door County

Norbert Blei | The Courage to Create

2 11 2013

The “Courage to Create” is a four part speaking engagement featuring thoughts from a writer, an artist, a musician and a theologian. They respectively include: Norbert Blei, Chick Peterson, Katie Dahl and Phil Sweet.

Norb was the last of four individuals to address the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Door County in Ephraim, Wisconsin on Sunday, September 30, 2012. In essence, Blei is recounting the story of his life.

“The creative impulse is hardwired into everybody; it is not reserved for creative types like inventors and artists. Every moment the brain is connecting something known to something unknown, every moment holds a surprise.”

“Creativity,” Einstein said, “is the residue of time wasted.”

Production Credits: DesignWise Studios, Sturgeon Bay, WI | Stephen Kastner, Video-journalist | Alastair Cameron, Music | Sheila Saperstein, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Recording Engineer

Norbert Blei | Picture the poem

24 10 2013

norbert blei | picture the poem

Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem

with an introduction by
Paul Schroeder University of Maine, Orono

This book is published in part with funds provided by the Illinois Arts Council, a state organization, and by the National Endowment for the Arts. Our thanks.

Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following publications where some of these poems, pieces, and paintings originally appeared: Kayak, Wormwood; Analecta; The Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle; Wisconsin Review; Creative Writing (Laidlaw/Doubleday); Beowulf to Beatles and Beyond (Macmillan); Ace Space Atlas (Ace Space Co.); The Watercolored Word (Quixote Press); The Second Novel (December Press); Adventures in an American’s Literature (Ellis Press); and Door to Door (Ellis Press). “Picture the Poem” (under a different title) originally appeared m Midwest Magazine of the Chicago Sun-Times, August 8, 1971; “Me and My Water-colors” appeared originally in the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine, December 12, 1971; “Poems in the Wind” originally appeared in Insight Magazine of the Milwaukee Journal.

Some of the paintings in this book are privately owned; some are in the hands of the writer for keeps; other poems, paintings, art created solely for the vision of this book have no existence but on these pages.

NOTE: Please address all inquiries regarding acquisition of a Blei water-color to the author himself: Norbert Blei, Ellison Bay, Wisconsin 54210.

Paint Me a Picture/Make Me a Poem copyright (C) 1987 by Norbert Blei. All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced in any manner, including photocopy, without written permission of the author (see address above) except in the case of reviews and articles.

Published by Spoon River Poetry Press, David Pichaske, editor; P. O. Box 1443;Peoria, Illinois 61655. Printed by Rodine the Printer, Peoria, Illinois and M & D Printing, Henry, Illinois. ISBN: 0-933180-97-7

Please listen to Norbert Blei reading Picture the Poem by clicking here…

Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem

warren bluhm | whither the coop?

22 09 2013


The converted chicken coop where Norbert G. Blei worked needs a new home, and the search is turning out to be more complicated than first believed.

The board of directors of The Clearing, the retreat center and artists’ school founded by landscape architect Jens Jensen in Ellison Bay, earlier this month turned down an offer to have the coop moved onto the 130-acre property.

Blei, who died April 23 at age 77, played a pivotal role in The Clearing’s history: A 1985 article he wrote for the Chicago Tribune is credited with bringing new attention and life to the “school of the soil,” then struggling during its 50th year. For decades he was a frequent and popular teacher of writing at The Clearing.

The coop, nestled into the woods behind Blei’s rustic home on Europe Lake Road, served as his workplace for more than 40 years. Filled with books stacked in piles and shelves, since 1978 it was where most of his 17 books, blogs and publishing activity originated. The family decided not to include it in the sale of the property, which is listed for $169,000.

“As a historical building, it has to be preserved,” said Christopher Blei, the writer’s son. Although not listed on any formal historic register, the iconic structure was included in the 1996 “Cultural Map of Wisconsin: A Cartographic Portrait of the State” created by Woodward, Ostergren, Brouwer, Hoelscher and Hane.

Friend and Clearing board member Tim Stone championed the idea of moving the coop there. He formed a committee and developed plans and cost estimates for the move.

“It sounded like a perfect place,” Christopher Blei said this week. “The artists got involved, so we were very surprised; we hadn’t thought it would be turned down.”

Carolyn Kimbell, president of The Clearing board, said the group slowly came to the realization that the idea was not as good a fit as first believed.

“At first we were really excited, thinking ‘this is so cool,’” Kimbell said. “But then we started thinking about where we would put it.”

If the structure were moved onto the secluded Clearing campus, it would be closed to the public Monday through Friday, she said.

“We envisioned people driving up from Chicago and wanting to see it, only to be turned away,” Kimbell said. “If we put it up by the Jens Jensen Center, then it’s not as accessible to the students.”

Jude Genereaux, former Door County administrator and longtime partner of Blei, said the decision may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

“The more I think about it, the more I think that wouldn’t be where he’d want it to go,” Genereaux said. “It shouldn’t be a museum piece … If anything, he’d probably approve it becoming a working ‘retreat’ cove where writers could spend a little time in contemplation. I think that would make Norb happiest.”

One promising alternative would be the new Write On, Door County writing center being developed on a 40-acre tract in Juddville and championed by Anne Emerson of Edgewood Orchard Galleries, where a reception was held after Blei’s memorial service June 29.

“Our focus at the time was on other things,” Genereaux said. “We’ve had no formal thoughts or discussion about it.”

Emerson said she did not want to be presumptuous and has not talked with the family since the Clearing board made its decision, but she added that “we’d be delighted” to serve as the coop’s home.

“Norb and I had talked about this whole project, and he was enthusiastic about it,” she said.

The nonprofit Write On, Door County’s dream of a writing center began taking shape after donors provided the land of woods and meadows, along with a four-bedroom house, just east of Wisconsin 42 on both sides of Juddville Road.

“We hope to have magical spots — places where people can write or read or just be quiet,” Emerson said. “There would be small structures, or they don’t even have to be structures. But the coop would be a perfect fit.”

Other possibilities that have been floated are to move the coop to a spot on Washington Island, where Blei was active in the arts community especially in his later years; to place it in a historical center like the Corner of the Past in Sister Bay or Crossroads at Big Creek in Sturgeon Bay; or even to find a way to leave the entire Blei property intact.

“It would be nice if they could just keep that little place as is,” Kimbell said. “That is SO Norb Blei. We loved Norb, we loved the idea of having it, and we really want to see it preserved.”

The Clearing’s decision caught the family off guard, so a “plan B” has not yet been formed. Christopher Blei reacted positively to all possible options.

“At this point we are open to anything,” he said. “Hopefully in the weeks ahead, a plan can be in place.”

Genereaux was also optimistic.

“I think we’ll come up with the right place,” she said.

by Warren Bluhm


Council for Wisconsin Writers

12 09 2013

Norbert Blei

The Council for Wisconsin Writers,founded to honor Wisconsin writers published in the previous year, has renamed the Kingery/Derleth Award for Book-Length Non-Fiction to the Blei/Derleth Award for Book-Length Non-Fiction. The first time this will be bestowed will be at the annual Awards Banquet in Milwaukee, May 2014, which will also commemorate the Council’s 50- Year Anniversary. The awards are named for prominent Wisconsin writers in their category and include: book-length fiction, short fiction, book-length non-fiction (including outdoor) and short non-fiction, as well as poetry book.

Norbert Blei was presented with the “Major Achievement Award” in 1999 and also won the award for book-length nonfiction in 1981 for Door Way and short fiction in 1978 for A Distance of Horses.

Norbert Blei


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