Today is a travel day – from Bayfield on Lake Superior to Sturgeon Bay on Lake Michigan, about a 6 hour drive. The drive is leisurely, and wet. Most of the way, we are able to see color in the trees, but the going is as happy as long, boring road trips usually are. We get to Sturgeon Bay in the late afternoon, checked into the B&B Gwen had reserved for us, and then went to a local restaurant (John Martin’s) for dinner. It turns out to be OK; fish-based soup for a starter, and then a kobi-burger with cherry BBQ sauce for me, and a very warm chili (chemically, that is) for Gwen. It made for a nice start to the evening, and to our visit.
Today the rain continues. We decide to go out and see the local museums, a winery, and (if we can find it) a cheese place – it is Wisconsin, after all! The rain does dampen the color visibility, so it is fortunate our tour goals for today are mostly inside.
The first stop is the Door County Maritime Museum. This is a specially-built building on the south side of Sturgeon Bay, just below the bridge across the bay as it narrows. The town of Sturgeon Bay is just north of this bay, and the B&B we are staying at is just two streets up from the bridge itself.
The Maritime Museum has a number of great exhibits each focused on a theme. The first one I spend time in is about the boat-building businesses around Sturgeon Bay. Two major ship-builders had grown up over time, the first one of the 20th century ones was the Bay Shipbuilding Co (1918), and the second the last being the Peterson Boatbuilding Co (1933). They built wooden boats but once WWII started, the Peterson company built primarily minesweepers and small craft of many different varieties for the US Navy. Displayed were materials and scenes concerning the various elements of shipbuilding from architectural prints to engines. One of the displays was about the wooden boat building industry, and Chris-Craft, one of the most famous names in elite-type boats in the early to mid 1900’s.
In another area, there were a variety of model ships, built to enable the boat designers to see what they were headed toward before they built the real thing. These models are small, but in many cases artistic. The picture shows some examples of sail boats, but many of the models were of powered ships, including everything from tugboats to ore carriers.
Another display area (upstairs) is all about pirates, including a series of paintings about pirates, descriptions of the pirate life, and detail on Blackbeard, one of the more famous (and infamous) pirates to stalk the Caribbean. Each time I see one of these exhibits I learn something. This one talked about the democratic way the pirates ran their operation. The ship’s captain was elected, and rules were written up so that each man (and in a few cases, woman) knew what they could expect from the venture. Each role on board was defined, with the quartermaster as the one who divided up the spoils of the captures according to the agreements made. The exhibit includes games for children, and the opportunity for them to ring the bells and blow the foghorn, both of which could be heard all through the museum.
After our visit there, we go back up to the north side of the Bay, and visit the Door County Museum. This is a much more eclectic collection, including everything except ships and shipping-related things. The first room you go into as you go into the museum is a marvelous woods-and-stream theme diorama with many animals, deer, wolf, otter, and many, many birds. A local taxidermy artisan provided the whole diorama including all the animals. It was very well done, including laminated-page booklets describing each animal and bird distributed around the exhibit.
After this exhibit, I stumbled upon a video presentation concerning the cherry-growing history of Door County. And here I thought MIchigan was the cherry capital of the US! In the late 1800’s, after exhausting the fur trade and cutting down all the virgin timber in the area, the newly arrived citizens were looking for a profitable use for the land. The land is not very useful for normal farm crops, as the topsoil is thin and covers a limestone base. One lucky farmer started planting fruit trees, and sure enough, this worked. In the very early 1900’s, a pair of agricultural professors came through, tested the soil, and suggested cherries might work. They bought some acreage and tried it. Sure enough, the harvest of cherries turned out to be very profitable. The area has grown cherries ever since. The business has had its ups and downs, of course. The best years were the 1920’s and the 1950’s and 60’s. In the ‘20’s, the cherry was a real treat, and with the advent of canning, the product of the area could be sold all across the country. The depression hit the cherry industry hard as it was not considered a necessity. In WWII, the Door County area was home to one of the many German POW camps here in the US. The POW’s were ideal cherry-pickers, and that helped improve the availability of the product. After the war, Mexican braceros came in to handle the cherry picking, which lasted until the cost increased beyond what was economically feasible. Fortunately, a device attached to tractors provided the answer. Two tractors come up to a tree from opposite sides. Each one has a rubber-based landing platform that when overlapped completely covers the ground under the tree, with a conveyor belt. One of the tractors provides the shaking ability to drop the fruit from the tree. The fruit is then conveyed to a container for transport back to the processing plant. It’s about this time, Michigan determined it had good soil conditions for cherry orchards as well, so the competition arose. Expansion of the cherry market through the development of new ways to eat use them (dried cherries are a large and growing segment of the product line) has enabled Door County to continue to be one of the largest economically profitable cherry growing areas in the country.
On one side of the building is an old firehouse, recreated from the one that sat across the street from the current museum location. Inside are three old model fire trucks, as well as displays of fire fighting equipment both old and more recent. (Again, I learn something new every time: early fire trucks often specifically carried fire-retarding chemicals to be mixed with the water they sent jetting through the hoses.)
Upstairs was a video of a uniquely Wisconsin fish-fry called a “fish boil”. An enterprising restaurant owner came up with an idea for this approach to cooking fish in large quantities. In a large metal pot set in an outdoor BBQ pit, he put potatoes for 10 minutes in water already brought to a boil over a cedar-wood fire. He then dumped in cut up onions, and then put in a wire basket with the sturgeon filets. Letting that boil for 12 minutes, he then dumped fuel oil on the fire to burn off the scum on top of the water. He then removed the food from the fire, and served it to as many as 700 at a time, along with roll, vegetable and of course a piece of cherry pie. This area includes displays about the various men (and now women) who have gone to serve in the military and the equipment they use in their jobs.
Downstairs in the basement were displays of all sorts of antique paraphernalia. Old typewriters, musical instruments, woodworking tools, coins, medals, pictures of various events, and all of it related to Door County in the 20th century. It was fun to see, but too much for a quick tour. For a small museum, it contained much that I would like to go back and see in slower time. This is one of the best museums we have seen.
We are getting hungry, so head towards what we thought was a cheese factory about 20 minutes further north. The Rusty Tractor turns out to be a great restaurant, but not a cheese factory. Gwen has a patty melt, and I have a chicken salad. Very good food, and they do specialize in signs of all varieties, and that other ubiquitous product: chocolate. Many market stores we’ve visited here sell chocolate on the side.
From there we go to what we had heard was the best wine seller in the area, the Simon Creek winery. It is clearly popular. We get our glasses at a crowded bar, and try several of the reds and whites. Gwen finds a couple of the whites she likes, and I find a couple of reds, so we buy one each, and move on. On our way back down to the B&B, we stop at a “pumpkin patch” store, with a country band out front (playing while they try to dodge the rain) and what is getting to be the usual variety of fruit-related products, again in hopes of finding cheese unique to Wisconsin. Nope, not here! We do get to see how they milked their cows. In a room at the end of the building where the store is, the back wall has floor to ceiling glass. Through this, we saw two lines of 10 cows each with the automated utter-suckers ready to be attached. While we watch a man goes down the line on one side, washing the utters and then attaching the tubes and starting the machinery. Milk started to flow almost immediately, and we were informed by the signage that they could milk 60 cows an hour with this technique, as opposed to the 6 cows an hour possible using hand milking techniques. Amazing!
Tomorrow we travel to Milwaukee.