History of Fish Creek, Door County, Wisconsin
From: History of Door County, Wisconsin
The County Beautiful
By: Hjalmar R. Holand, M. A.
The S. J. Clark Publishing Company
Chicago 1917

THE BIRTH OF FISH CREEK

Once upon a time there was a New York Yankee by the name of Asa Thorp. He assisted his father in tending the locks of the Erie Canal at Oswego, N. Y. At that time (in the '40s) a very large part of the traffic on the canal consisted in immigrant passengers bound for the West. They were packed in huge flat bottomed scows, much the same as is now used at Sturgeon Bay for freighting stone from the quarries. These scows were pulled along at a very slow speed by a mule walking on the bank of the canal on either side. As it was very tiresome to sit in the flatbottomed scow all day it was customary for many of the children to scamper along on the bank, picking wild flowers or playing tag. Meanwhile their fathers sedately marched behind the mules, keeping an eye on the youngsters while discussing the crops and the country through which they were passing. Every day or two there was one or more of these scows, loaded with stocky Germans, blue eyed Norwegians or hopeful Irish, and piled high with all manner of painted chests, carpet bags and bundles. It seemed to young Asa, that judging by their numbers and by the variety of their strange and outlandish garb, that all the world was heading for the West. Day after day they glided by, a mighty army of toilers, mostly young people, determined though weary, hopeful though ragged.

What strange attractions that mighty, mysterious West had to draw so many people from the ends of the earth! He began to wonder what possibilities it had for him. Tending the locks of the canal was a job for a machine and not for a man. He began to feel the call of the wild. So, being of an adventurous disposition, he one day in 1844 stepped into one of the passing scows and joined the caravan of fortune hunters bound for the distant West.

Little by little the scow passengers scattered but most of them were bound for Milwaukee or Chicago. They stayed in the scows until they reached Buffalo. Here energetic agents herded them into lake steamers on which they passed up Lakes Erie and Huron and down Lake Michigan to Milwaukee. Here in a crude little town of unpainted shanties and mud, filth and riot, they were routed out and left to their own resources.

Back in Oswego Asa Thorp had learned the trade of making butter firkins, tubs and similar woodenware. Being desirous to see the country he soon started out on a pioneer road that led out into the wilderness, working his way by making butter firkins. The road soon dwindled into a path and after a while was nothing but a blazed trail through the timber. But along this blazed trail he would every little while come to the cabin of a new settler and everywhere the butter-firkin man was welcome. He would stop for a few days with each settler, make up their needed stock of woodenware, inquire into the conditions of the land round about and then push on to the next settlement.

Finally be came to a little settlement in the Town of Rubicon, Dodge County, a few miles west of the present City of Hartford. Here the blazed trail stopped and what lay beyond was a sealed book to all. However, the soil was here so fertile, the timber so tall, the conditions so promising that Asa Thorp was well satisfied to go no farther. He picked out the forty of land that suited him best. Then he hurried back to Oswego, for there was a young woman there by the name of Eliza Atkinson who took the keenest interest in the outcome of Asa's journey of discovery.

Back in Oswego Asa Thorp waxed eloquent about the wonders of the distant Territory of Wisconsin. He told of the fat soil, the gently rolling land covered with huge oaks and maples and told of his own selection of a home for Eliza and him. The result was a rousing wedding participated in by all the members of the houses of Thorp and Atkinson. This was followed by a general exodus from Oswego of nearly all the members of the two families. These were old Truman Thorp with his sons. Levi, Asa, Jacob. George and Horace Thorp, Joseph Atkinson and perhaps some others. These with their families all went to Rubicon, Dodge County, Wis., where they in the spring of 1815 picked out a section of good land.

The land office at that time was in Menasha. Asa Thorp as being the most experienced in western ways was delegated to go there and make formal entry of the lands. He started out ands once more got busy making butter firkins. When he came to Menasha he found it was a small village on the banks of a large river flowing to the north. He was told that there were many settlers on this river and that there was quite a city about thirty miles north at the head of Green Bay. Being in need of cash Asa decided to visit these new settlements and earn some money by his trade before returning to Rubicon. He followed the river down and met with success.

One day as he was sitting in front of a store in De Pere repairing butter firkins a tall stranger accosted him. Say," he said, "you ought to quit that puttering with butter firkins and come with me to Rock Island and make fish barrels. There you will find the boys that. have the cash."

"Rock Island?" said Asa, "what county is that in?"

"Dunno." said the stranger. "We ain't got no county down there."

"What state or territory is it in?"

"Dunno that," said the stranger, "and what's more, I don't care. We have no state, county or town organization, we have paid no taxes, we have neither lawyers nor preachers, but we have fish and we have money. It will keep you busy twenty four hours a day to make fish barrels at your own price. If you want to make money come along with me. It is about a hundred miles down the bay and I have my own boat."

This sounded very interesting to Asa. Big earnings and no taxes. The result was that he went with the stranger, whose name was Oliver Perry Graham, to Rock Island.

He found the conditions on Rock Island as Graham had pictured them. There was a large community of prosperous fishermen on the island and they hailed the coming of tile cooper with joy. While they all could make fish barrels at a pinch it was beneath their dignity when money was plenty to handle other tools than their fishing outfit. On the neighboring island of St. Martins similar conditions prevailed and Asa would have settled there for good if it had not been for Eliza back in the woods at Rubicon.

Late in the fall of 1855 when most of the fishermen left the islands to drink and carouse and spend their earnings of the summer in the saloons of Fort Howard and Milwaukee, Asa Thorp also pulled out. He was fortunate enough to get passage on one of the large steamers that plied between Buffalo and Chicago, making occasional trips up Green Bay to Fort Howard. On the passage he got acquainted with the captain who told of the difficulties of running the boats because of the lack of fuel, Wood was used for fuel and while the entire peninsula that they were passing (later known as Door County) was one vast forest, there was not a pier from Fort Howard to the mouth of the bay where they could take on a dry stick, Sometimes steam failed and they lost much time sending a crew along the beach picking up driftwood and snags whereon to limp along until they could make port,

As the captain was telling his troubles, they were just passing the place where the smoke from Increase Claflin newly built cabin could be seen rising above the tree tops. This was the only cabin on the entire Door County peninsula north of Little Sturgeon and stood on the point of land. opposite the bluff where later the Village of Fish Creek was built. "Now, there," said the captain, "is just the place where a man could build a pier and earn lots of money by supplying the steamers with wood

This suggestion at once took root in Asa Thorp's shrewd Yankee mind. He did not know anything about what town, range or section the harbor pointed out by the captain bordered on but he made careful note of every indentation of the shore line between there and Fort Howard. When he got to Menasha he compared his sketch with the Government plats and recognized the harbor he had selected. This done he entered all the land on the south and west side of this harbor for a considerable distance back,

He was very much elated when he reached Rubicon and told of the coup he had made. It was his plan to return at once to his harbor and build his pier but an insurmountable obstacle had arisen, It took every cent of his surplus earnings to provide for his family at Rubicon and his relatives were all in straitened circumstances. Circumstances had developed which permitted no other course but to stay at home in Rubicon, clearing his land for farming and caring for his family.

Years rolled by for Asa Thorp with drudging work while his Fish Creek dream lay like an unattainable paradise. Finally in 1850 his brother, Jacob, who was unmarried was able to go to Fish Creek to look after his interests. He stayed there with father Clallin, coopering and fishing, In 1854 Asa Thorp was able to move up and at once began to construct his pier, the first to be built on Green Bay between Fort Howard and Washington Island, He after a few years acquired more than seven hundred acres of land surrounding Fish Creek, The timber on this land was very good and Mr, Thorp here gave employment to many men getting out cordwood for the steamboats that called at his pier, In this manner quite a community was soon formed. In 1855 his brothers, Levi and Jacob, bought all the land surrounding the harbor of Egg Harbor where they owned 1,600 acres and created a similar community there.1

A more detailed account of the early history of Fish Creek is given in the next chapter.

1 Asa Thorp died in 1907, having reached the ripe age of eighty seven years, He was a gentle and unassuming man, but intelligent, persevering and progressive, He lived to see the village he had platted in the wilderness become the mecca of summer resorters in many states and his home the favorite resort of hundreds of people fro far and near. The Thorp family enjoy the unique distinction of having owned and occupied the same piece of land longer than any one else in the county.


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