THE GOLDEN AGE OF LITTLE STURGEON
About a mile west of Little Sturgeon Bay the shore rises boldly from the water's edge to a perpendicular cliff
about seventy feet in height. This cliff has a most picturesque location commanding nearly all of Green Bay. Off
to the right lies Sturgeon Bay deeply indenting the land. To the left lies Green Island and the cities of Marinette
and Menominee. While straight ahead lies headland after headland that marks the bold shore of Northern Door County.
Backed up against the base of this cliff stand two huge cylinders, resting upon a massive masonry foundation, 75
feet long. The cylinders are 40 feet in height and 15 feet in diameter. It takes but little imagination to see
in them two huge howitzers uptilted against the sky, ready to pour out their burden of destruction as soon as an
enemy appears on the waters of distant Death's Door.
But these ominous looking cylinders were not engines of destruction but of construction. They were erected to help
rebuild Chicago. Half a century ago when the great Chicago fire laid that city in ashes, there was a great demand
all over the middle west for material with which to rebuild the city. Stone, brick, lumber and lime were needed.
It was to partly fill this last want that these cylinders were erected.
One day in the fall of 1871 a steam yacht containing a party of Chicago business men with their ladies, floated
by this cliff They were the guests of F. B. Gardner. As they came abreast of this romantic headland a big contractor
who was a member of the party exclaimed:
"See what waste of good material! Here is a mountain of limestone and in Chicago we are at our wits end to
"No waste at all," replied Mr. Gardner. "This cliff stands here in reserve, awaiting our need. One
kiln is ready and more can be built. If you need lime I will send you 1,000 barrels a week. I own that cliff."
The price was quickly agreed upon and Mr. Gardiner at once took steps to erect two more modern patent process lime
kilns. Skilled mechanics were engaged, the material assembled and soon the lime kilns built on the most improved
scientific lines, stood complete.
A driveway was built to the top of the kilns, while at the bottom were three openings through which the lime was
drawn every six hours. A big boarding house was erected on the top of the bluff and at base of the kilns a substantial
pier was built, 75 by 300 in size. For many years vessels made weekly trips from this pier to Chicago, with their
cargoes of lime. Wm. Anger who used to be employed at the kilns, says they used to burn about one hundred and sixty
barrels per day.
Long since the business days of these old lime kilns have passed away. Their very existence is unknown to the greater
part of the people of Door County. The old boarding house, where once resounded the jests of the workingmen, is
now a crumbling ruin. The old trails, once deeply rutted by the creaking stone wagons, are now grassy lanes, studded
with bluebells and buttercups while birches and dogwoods now grow out of the crumbling masonry that line the mouths
of the giant cylinders.
This Mr. Gardner, who built and operated these lime kilns, was one of the most remarkable men who have come to
Door County. Little Sturgeon Bay has once more lapsed into its primeval peace of reeds and rushes and sloping meadows,
but in Gardner's time it was by far the busiest place on the peninsula He came here in the early '50s buying the
old homestead of Increase Claflin, October 18, 1854. On this point of land where a few years previously stood the
first cabin erected in Door County, he built up an industrial plant which at the height of its activities employed
about four hundred men.
Mr. Gardner's first venture was a. sawmill which employed about fifty men, and a grist mill. This was the first
grist mill in the county and was a great boon to the farmers. Sometimes forty to sixty farmers at a time would
come creaking through the timber with their slow oxen from Red River and Clay Banks and Luxemburg, to meet at the
mill the distant pioneers of Washington Island and the north, who brought their grain in pound boats. To accommodate
these men Mr. Gardner built a roomy house where they could cook and sleep, while waiting for their grist. He also
built a three story store building, 30 by 60, with basement, filled with all manner of implements, merchandise,
vehicles and farm machinery, needed in a new country. All kinds of produce were taken in exchange. lip to within
recent years this was the largest merchandise establishment in the county.
In the winter of 1868 a lath and a shingle mill was added, the shingle mill had a capacity of 80,000 shingles a
day. A store house, 425 by 40, was erected for them.
Ship building had been going on for some time but about this time it assumed new proportions. At one time Mr. Gardner
employed about a hundred ship carpenters at Little Sturgeon, besides hundreds of other men in the woods, teaming,
milling, etc. Wm. Baptist was general foreman.
The shipbuilding was under the immediate management of Thomas Spear, an old ship builder from the State of Maine,
where he had built many salt water vessels. He was draughtsman and boss. His son, Marshall, was expert carpenter,
and his son, George, was expert caulker.
Among the vessels built at Little Sturgeon were the John Spry, the Ellen Spry, the Halstead, the Norman, the Ozaukee,
the Pensaukee, the F. B. Gardner and the J. W. Doan.
After the Chicago fire business had a great revival and freight rates were very high. It took about ten days to
make a round trip to Chicago and Mr. Gardner needed many vessels to carry his lumber. Shipbuilding was therefore
pushed with all possible speed. When the keel to the J. W. Doan was laid Mr. Gardner half jestingly offered Tom
Spear a bonus of $1,000 if he could launch it in sixty days. For two months there was a whirlwind of hustle at
the shipyard infecting all from the boss to the water boy. Finally it came to a triumphant climax on the fifty
ninth day when the new boat slipped into the water all ready to be towed to Chicago to be equipped with rigging.
She did not go empty, however, but took 700,000 feet of lumber on board, for which Mr. Gardner was paid $7 per
1,000 in freight charges, or a total of $4,900 for less than a week's rent.
The J. W. Doan, in spite of the record breaking speed in its building, proved to be one of the smartest schooners
on the Great Lakes. At one time she was loaded at Buffalo ready to sail for Chicago at the same time as the Annie
M. Peterson - a boat famous for its fast trips. The captains wagered $200 apiece on the speed of their boats and
started from Buffalo at the same time. All through the voyage it was nip and tuck, the vessels passing each other
several times due to skillful maneuvering. Finally, however, the J. W. Doan pulled into the Chicago River two hours
ahead of the Annie Peterson.
With all this business Little Sturgeon was a most active place. Many old settlers claim that it was more of a business
place at the time of the war than Sturgeon Bay. "Sturgeon Bay was the county seat," they claim, "but
Little Sturgeon had the business." For years at least one vessel per day during the season of navigation took
on her load of lumber, lime or produce and sailed off. In 1862, when Hon. Joseph Harris started the Door County
Advocate it was seriously debated whether it would be wise to move the newspaper to Little Sturgeon. As the only
road to Green Bay at that time passed through Little Sturgeon it was just as accessible there as Sturgeon Bay.
Besides so many other first things Little Sturgeon also had the first base ball club in the county. A club was
organized here in 1869, called the Empire Base Ball Club. The same spring Sturgeon Bay followed suit and organized
the Peninsula Base Ball Club. The muscular millmen of the peninsula challenged the brawny huskies of the Empire
to a game to be played July 3d. The challenge was accepted with a whoop.
On the morning of July 3d, the eager batters of the Empire embarked with a whole flotilla of ardent fans for Sturgeon
Bay, when the greatest game in the history of Door County was played. Unfortunately the Empires were so sure of
victory that they began to celebrate before the battle. As a result the game was lost to the score of 63 to 92!
On February 1, 1868, Mr. Gardner sold his Little Sturgeon plant and property to Bailey & Vincent. No consideration
is recorded. Bailey & Vincent, however, gave Mr. Gardner a mortgage in the property to the amount of $54,000,
which, according to the usual computations, would indicate that the property was worth more than one hundred thousand
This sale was not of lasting duration as the property reverted to Mr. Gardner November 11, 1869. It now remained
in Mr. Gardner's possession until 1875 and the business was pushed with great energy.
The business at Little Sturgeon was only a small diversion for Mr. Gardner who had many and far greater projects
in hand. At Pensaukee he was operating the largest sawmill in the northeastern part, if not the entire state. This
mill cut more than eight hundred thousand feet of lumber per week. Chas. Scofield, the father of H. C. Scofield,
was his foreman at Pensaukee. Mr. Gardner left him in complete charge of the business for several years while he
spent the time in Europe. It is said that during this time the mill earned for Mr. Gardner a profit of $1,000 per
With such profits the desire for expansion was, no doubt, irresistible. The Menominee River was just being developed
as a highway for the logging companies and Mr. Gardner therefore decided to erect a mill at Menominee or Marinette.
However, all river frontage was bought up and the owners combined to keep Mr. Gardner out. It was therefore impossible
to buy a foot of land. Nothing daunted, Mr. Gardner sunk a series of mammoth cribs in the river and upon these
he erected his mill This was later the Ludington, Wells and Van Schaack Co. Mill and is now the site of the mammoth
million dollar beet sugar factory.
Besides mills and shipyards Mr. Gardner was also interested in building hotels. In Chicago he built the finest
hotel of its time, The Gardner, later known as The Leland, which even today survives on Michigan Avenue as one
of the more elegant hotels of the city. At Pensaukee he built another which was even more of a marvel. This little
town in the wilderness was very dear to Mr. Gardner as being the place of his first real successful business. He
therefore determined to erect a hotel there which would be an honor to Pensakuee even after it should become the
city he dreamed of making it. He spent more than a hundred thousand dollars in erecting a four story brick hotel
said to have been equal to The Beaumont of Green Bay before the latter was remodeled. It had marble fireplaces,
porphery pillars, and other wonderful trimmings scarcely equaled in the entire state. But this amazing hotel, the
talk of all travelers, met a sudden and disastrous fate. Hardly was it completed when in 1878 it was struck by
a cyclone and completely demolished. A 6,000 pound safe went spinning over the ground Checks, papers and account
books, out of the safe, were picked up by the wind and carried clear across Green Bay and later found in the fields
around Sturgeon Bay. Capt. Ed Cox picked up a piano screen near the Parkinson place in Sevastopol, which had been
torn out of a piano in the Pensaukee Hotel. A large store building, also belonging to Mr. Gardner, was whirled
away by the wind and never found. Planks from the mammoth lumber yard were picked up in Jos. Dalemont's field near
This disaster, following upon a series of heavy business reverses, was a heavy blow to Mr. Gardner. His health
also failed. Not long after this he was suddenly struck dead by apoplexy while walking to the station in Pensaukee.
Mr. Gardner was a quick, dapper little man of instant decisions. He was careful in little things but bold and adventurous
in big enterprises. He was very popular with his employes as he was sympathetic, generous and always ready to help
an unfortunate whether he was an employe of his or some poor struggling Belgian pioneer back in the brush. Many
of these had bought their farm lands from Mr. Gardner, paying for them in work. In one thing, however, he was stern
and that was in permitting no drinking around his property. When their thirst became ungovernable it was necessary
for the men to march two or three miles down the road to Henry Gigot's to get it satisfied.
In spite of this to them strange prohibition he was very popular with his Belgian associates and when the town
was organized in 1862, he was honored by having his name bestowed upon it.
In 1875 the boom following the Chicago fire collapsed and a disastrous panic followed. Lumber and timber were almost
unsalable and many lumber concerns failed in business. Such was also the case with Mr. Gardner and he sold his
Little Sturgeon plant to Albert Marshall Spear. He pushed the business energetically for a year or two, sawing
vast quantities of lumber and shingles. Much of the lumber was shipped direct to Europe. He also cut and stored
50,000 tons of ice for shipment. One night in February, 1877, a fire broke out in the blacksmith shop. A strong
wind was blowing and the fire soon reached the mill by means of connecting slab piles. The entire manufacturing
plant was destroyed. This proved too great a loss to the owner and he sold his interests to William Anger who in
turn sold to the Piper Ice Co. The ice company erected five large ice houses on the point north of the mill site
and employed about a hundred men during the winter in cutting ice. They also had a fleet of five schooners during
the summer engaged in carrying the ice to Chicago.
In 1898 this ice company was absorbed by the ice trust and business at Little Sturgeon came to a standstill. Little
by little the evidences of its old time activities disappeared. The huge ice houses were torn down. The large store
building was bought by Louis Reichel of Sawyer and the material used in building his canning factory. Several other
buildings were moved to Sturgeon Bay on the ice Among them was a large building now used as a warehouse by Young
Bros. & Co., at Sawyer, next to the railroad tracks. The big piers built of huge pine logs have crumbled down.
The stones of the old grist mill that fed our first pioneers have been chipped up and carried away by relic hunters.
Scarcely a bolt or a board remains of all the equipment that once made Little Sturgeon famous as the busiest place
on the peninsula. The peace and quiet of an obscure summer resort has descended upon it, and it lies almost as
tranquil and primeval as the day when Increase Claflin first settled on it in 1835.