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 Retrospective

2 11 2013

This is a compilation of three readings by Norb Blei, who passed away in 2013. He was an important writer of and in Door County, Wisconsin. Included are excerpts from his performances at Miller Art Gallery on 03-13-11 as part of a Frances May celebration, and two Christmas shows at Door Community Auditorium on 12-23-09 and 12-23-10.

Warren Bluhm | Coyote at rest | Norbert Blei remembered as teacher, writer, advocate

2 11 2013
Norbert Blei's poetic and sometimes brutal prose defined Door County for more than 40 years. Blei, seen here in June 2010, died Tuesday at age 77. / Mike Brisson/For the Door County Advocate

Norbert Blei’s poetic and sometimes brutal prose defined Door County for more than 40 years. Blei, seen here in June 2010, died Tuesday at age 77. | Photo by Mike Brisson for the Door County Advocate

Coyote at rest | Norbert Blei remembered as teacher, writer, advocate

by Warren Bluhm Apr. 27, 2013

For years he howled; oh, how he howled.

He howled about the beauty of his adopted land and the special people who lived here. He painted images with words to capture that beauty and the character of Door County’s people. Most memorably, it seemed, he howled in anger and indignation when the beauty was endangered, and he howled with loss when those characters passed on.

Tuesday, Norbert Blei, who adopted the persona Coyote in one of the incarnations of his newspaper column, came to the end of his remarkable life as a result of complications from recent surgery. He was 77.

His writing style was an amalgam of the two places he called home, the rough and tumble streets of blue collar Chicago and the unspoiled natural beauty of Door County. After graduating from Illinois State University in 1956, he taught high school English and worked as a reporter at City News Bureau in the Windy City.

Then in 1969 he and his wife brought their two children to Ellison Bay, where Blei would write in a converted chicken coop for the next four decades — most notably collections of essays and character profiles like “Door Way” and “Chi-Town” and “Meditations on a Small Lake.” His work was published in numerous literary magazines and national newspapers — and also local publications like the Door Reminder, Door Voice and Door County Advocate — often sounding a warning about protecting the fragile Door County environment against development.

“He had a love/hate relationship with Door County since he first came here,” said Lars Johnson, whose father had opened Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant and Butik a decade before Blei moved north. “What attracted him to this place was the same as my dad, a place to escape city life, the hustle and bustle.”

He wrote about Isle View Road in a piece called “The Death of a Country Road”: “It’s a road that runs mostly straight, with a few gentle dips — that I’m sure our highway engineers will love to fill in and level. It’s a road that in summer, with trees in full leaf, you sort of entered a long cathedral of branches, of dancing light. You were not only on the road, but in it. It both carried you aloft and carried you quietly from side to side like the movement of the river.”

One of his most notorious columns in the Door Reminder was called “Shut the Damn Door,” a playful and biting satire that purported to be a master plan for the county. It called for converting the Bayview Bridge into an outdoor walking mall park, tearing up the paved roads and converting them to dirt and gravel, and encouraging vandalism of commercial road signs and plastic newspaper tubes.

The Reminder’s pages exploded with letters that both applauded Blei’s columns and condemned them, especially some of his more bawdy efforts. One of his sharper critics was Tom Felhofer, a longtime resident of the town of Union on the other end of the county.

“Blei’s career was proof that if you churn out enough words, and your moustache is long enough, you might be able to eke out a living by selling fairy tales to fellow Chicagoans who believe they are reading about Door County,” Felhofer said.

But Johnson said Blei’s status as a transplant helped define how special a place Door County is.

“As someone who came here from elsewhere, I think sometimes he understood Door County better than the locals,” Johnson said. “Because he was an outsider, he was wary of outsiders — especially developers. He was very fearful of where Door County was going.”

His lifetime of work in the coop netted him a Gordon MacQuarrie Award from the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters in 1997 for his “deep environmental ethic and journalistic integrity.” But his work as a teacher may be his most lasting influence. For four decades his writing workshops at The Clearing Folk School have been legendary.

“Writing has become one of the major areas of study at The Clearing, but it started with Norb,” executive director Michael Schneider said Friday. Blei taught his first Clearing workshop in 1973 and came back most years since then.

He was slated to be back this summer teaching one of the eight or nine writing workshops offered at the Ellison Bay school founded in 1935 by landscape architect Jens Jensen on 128 acres of forests and meadows. Several other Clearing teachers are Blei’s among past students.

The focus of the weeklong workshops was the writing life — and the focus of Blei the teacher was helping his students to understand the dedication and focus needed to be a true writer.

“He spent a lot of the week in one-on-one consultation before, during and after class,” Schneider said. “Nobody worked harder for his or her students.”

Several teachers at The Clearing have come back to Blei’s classes five, 10, 15 and even 25 years later, “almost like a reunion,” he said.

“He was dedicated to The Clearing, he was dedicated to his craft, he was dedicated to Door Couty,” Schneider said. “First and foremost, he was dedicated to his students.”

In 1994 Blei established the Cross+Roads Press to highlight and champion the work of new and local artists. He made the transition to the Internet, where his Poetry Dispatch and N.B. Coop News, among other sites, made his work available to an even broader audience.

In recent years he fought and beat cancer — he was cancer-free for the last three years of his life — and he continued to frequent Al Johnson’s and update his blogs. He sent an occasional email to his list with a photo he had snapped of a pristine Door County image, titled simply, “Good morning, Old Picker Shacks” or “Good afternoon, Shadows, Stone Fences, White Birch.”

He lost a great deal of weight in recent months and had stomach surgery in March, then contracted pneumonia which took a great deal of his remaining energy. At 8:18 a.m. Tuesday, he passed away at Scandia Village in Sister Bay.

“Blei was lucky in that he was able to spend most of his life doing exactly what he wanted,” Felhofer said. “And at the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s all about?”

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


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