Liberty Grove, the largest town in Door County, may be divided into three parts. In the southern part of the
town is the large and compact "German settlement," lying between the villages of Ephraim, Sister Bay
and Baileys Harbor. In the center, east and northeast of Sister Bay, is a large Swedish settlement with a few Norwegians
mixed in. In the northern part, extending to the very tip of the peninsula, is a large Norwegian settlement with
some Swedes and Germans mixed in. Representatives of other nationalities are few and far between.
THE GERMAN SETTLEMENT
The present settlements of Liberty Grove are largely outgrowths of the early Norwegian colony at Ephraim. The
first settlers were originally members of this colony. Among them was John Thoreson, a Norwegian who settled at
Little Sister Bay in 1854. He was for many years a prominent man in the town, was a political boss and had a pier
over which he shipped much cordwood and other timber products. Another well known early Norwegian was Zacharias
Morbek. He was a member of the original Norwegian Moravian colony which settled in Ephraim, was a man of some education
and for some time held most of the town offices in the Town of Gibraltar. Later other candidates for political
honors began to usurp what he considered his prerogatives. In disgust he complained that liberty was dying out
in Gibraltar and in order that he might again have matters under his own hand he got a portion of Gibraltar set
off in 1859 as a separate town. This he called Liberty Grove, meaning by that that liberty (the Morbek brand) had
there found a home. For many years he was very successful and had the office of clerk, treasurer, assessor and
justice of the peace.
Byron (Bjorn) Aslagson was another very early Norwegian settler, settling there in 1858. He lived two miles east
of Ephraim. Like his neighbors and countrymen, Morbek and Thoreson, he was also a very prominent figure in early
town. politics and was a very competent man.
In the first company of Moravians who settled at Ephraim in 1853 was one German. His name was Gottfried Matthe,
from Bavaria. In 1857, while on a trip to Green Bay, he met some German emigrants looking for land and persuaded
them to accompany him to Ephraim. These were Wilhelm Dorn and Christian Hempel. They were from Pomerania, or Hinter
Pommel, in East Prussia. Dorn and Hempel took land in Liberty Grove back of Ephraim and became the founders of
the large German settlement of whom nearly all are from Hinter Pommel. Among the earliest were Carl Stoever and
Wilhelm Sturm who came in 1865, August Stoever, and Fritz, Frantz and Ferdinand Schmidt, who came in 1866; August
Rowe, Ludwig Heling, Carl Mogenburg, and Herman, Ferdinand, Fritz and Johan Mueller, who came in 1867. Albert Schmidt
came in 1872, Henrik Strege in 1873 and Carl Schultz in 1874.
All these people were from Pomerania in Eastern Prussia, where the people were kept in conditions of great servility
and poverty due to the all powerful domination of the Grafs, or landlords, who owned all the land. The bulk of
the population had no chance to acquire farms but were compelled to spend their time as humble laborers or tenants
on the estates of the proud junkers. (1)
When, therefore, Wilhelm Dorn wrote to his friends in Hinter Pommern that here in America all men were equal; that
fertile land in large areas could be had for nothing; that laboring men received as much per month here as they
received per year in Prussia - the news seemed too good to be true. "Surely," thought some, "Wilhelm
Dorn has become the unscrupulous agent of some greedy concern or power that wishes to entrap us!" But little
by little the more venturesome followed his advice and emigrated. And here in Liberty Grove they settled around
him and converted a very stony tract of timber into a beautiful farming community. They now maintain two churches
in their midst and have one of the best graded schools in the county.
Among the early German settlers was also Carl Seiler, a son in law of Gottfried Matthe. He settled on the present
Seiler farm, one of the best in Liberty Grove, in 1860. This farm lies high up on the ridge about a mile and a
half from the Ephraim bay. Carl Seiler, Jr., who now lives in Gibraltar, tells how he made a rough wooden wheelbarrow
on which he placed a half barrel. This half barrel he trundled every day through the woods to the bay for water.
On washdays he made two trips.
One of the bitterest memories of pioneer days that these settlers recall is the cruel fleecing they suffered at
the hands of a pair of unscrupulous horse traders. In the '80s, when they were just emerging from their first struggle
with the forest, two smooth tongued Jews by the names of Henry Hamill and Leopold Jacobs appeared among them. They
had horses to sell and as the pioneers needed horses to haul their cordwood and do their farming a rushing business
in horses was soon made. The price of the horses was not unreasonable and was paid for in notes secured by real
estate or chattel mortgages. Soon, however, a serious defect developed in one or both the animals. They were badly
mated, balky, or suffered from some disease or other. At intervals the Jews came around, sympathizing and helpful
and soon a trade was arranged with a large amount of money to boot. The new animals, however, quickly developed
new defects. The Jews again came around, telling of a splendid lot of horses just received and a new trade was
arranged. In this way the pioneer was lured on adding note to note until he discovered that his third rate team
of horses had cost him from a thousand to fifteen hundred dollars. A great many were unable to pay these notes
when due and were ruthlessly sold out, farm, stock and implements, to pay for a pair of indifferent nags which
were also swept away in the deluge. On the state road north of Baileys Harbor there were in 1890 no less than thirteen
deserted farms in one neighborhood whose owners had been sold out on mortgages given to these unscrupulous horse
traders for their worthless animals.
It is estimated that these crafty rascals despoiled the unsuspecting, trusting farmers of Liberty Grove of almost
a hundred thousand dollars. The bitter agony of seeing the fruits of their best years of toil swept away to pay
for a fraud will never be forgotten.
SISTER BAY AND APPLEPORT
The Swedish settlement lying between Sister Bay and Appleport is one of the prettiest farming sections in Door
County. The land is gently rolling, comparatively free from stone and apparently very fertile. The improvements
are substantial and neat. Altogether this little part of the county will compare favorably with any part of the
When viewing this beautiful section of the county it is hard to believe that practically all of it was a timbered
wilderness as late as 1880. Yet such is the fact. The first settlers came there about ten years earlier with no
thought of farming. They came to make a temporary living as woodchoppers, believing that when the timber was cut
the value of the land was exhausted.
The history of the Swedish settlement begins with Gustav Carbon who in the fall of 1867 with a dozen other Swedes
came to Ephraim to cut wood for John Anderson, a member of the Norwegian community at Ephraim. He lived within
a mile of Sister Bay but at that time there was no business of any kind at Sister Bay. These thirteen Swedes the
following winter all bunked in a shanty which stood on the land now owned by Charles Magnet. Gustav Carlson was
far sighted and bought a tract of land north of Sister Bay. However, he and the other twelve woodchoppers left
Door County in spring and did not return for many years.
In 1868 came another contingent of woodchoppers. Several of these bought land and became permanent settlers. Among
these was Andrew Seaquist whose descendants are still living in the settlement. Andrew Seaquist was therefore in
one sense the father of the settlement. He was a quiet, deeply religious man, unlike most of his woodchopping countrymen,
who, under the conditions then existing, were a boisterous, carefree class of people.
In 1870 Sister Bay was opened up as a shipping point. A firm known as Henderson, Coon & Dimond built a pier
at the head of Sister Bay. Thomas Dimond was the leading man in this business. A large sawmill and grist mill was
built and two or three stores and a hotel were opened up. The company also owned much land. About 1878 Andrew Roeser,
who came from Belgium, became the owner of the property. His son Adolph Roeser still owns and runs the mills and
the pier. Due chiefly to the business brought in by Roeser's grist mill and sawmill Sister Bay became a place of
great importance in the county and much business centered there. Being ambitious to magnify itself the village
was incorporated in 1912. Since then, however, the village has rather gone backward than forward.
Across the bay on the east side, at the place still known as Wiltse's pier, Judson and Archibald Wiltse built another
pier about 1870. These brothers were from England and Judson Wiltse was one of the first to clear a farm near Sister
Bay. It is still in the possession of his son. Patrick Dimond had the farm now owned by John Lagerquist and built
the house which is still in use and is the oldest house in this part of Liberty Grove.
With the opening of shipping facilities at Sister Bay there was a great demand for woodchoppers in the forests
of Liberty Grove. A great many Swedes came over from Marinette to fill this want. As land was very cheap many of
them bought land and stayed to become substantial farmers. Among these were Charles Apple, Sr., with his sons,
Axel, Charles and Sander, August Kellstrom, Fred Dahlstrom, Sven Hilander, Henry Larson, Louis Peterson and John
Evenson. There were, however, scores of others who came only to cut wood and having no faith in farming, faded
away to other slashings. They were big, strapping fellows, chopping wood from fall to fall, often making four cords
per day, drinking, fighting and eating what they liked. Among them was in particular a Swedish giant by the name
of John A. Johnson, but commonly known as Long John. He is famous as the champion woodchopper of the region but
is equally famous for his tremendous appetite. James Hanson, a storekeeper of Sister Bay, had a case containing
five dozen eggs standing on his counter. To test Long John's appetite he wagered $5 that Long John could not eat
them up in one meal. Long John accepted the wager on condition that he be allowed a pint of whiskey. This was granted.
Long John consumed the entire sixty eggs, drank his whiskey and then went home and ate a loaf of bread and a pan
Those rough and ready days, however, in due time came to an end. In 1877 a few Swedish families organized a Baptist
congregation which little by little grew until it supplanted all other interests in the community. This congregation
is now one of the most energetic churches in the county. Largely through its influence saloons have been banished
from Liberty Grove and Sister Bay. Under its efficient leadership the young and old for miles around gather in
church for moral uplift and new ideas. The healthy atmosphere of the church and the splendid singing, characteristic
of Swedish voices, make it one of the most interesting places in the county to visit. Besides the Baptist Church
there is also in the same vicinity a Lutheran Church and a Moravian Church, chiefly made up of Swedish membership.
In the Village of Sister Bay there is a Catholic Church. The history of these churches is given elsewhere.
North of Sister Bay about a mile, at a place now known as Liberty Park, quite a summer resort colony has sprung
up. The founder of this was Abraham Carlson, a son of Gustav Carlson, who opened a hotel about 1900. For many years
it was considered a foolish venture to open a summer hotel so far from any village center. However, while the Village
of Sister Bay is still waiting for its first summer resorter, there are now at Liberty Park three large summer
hotels and a number of cottages.
ELLISON BAY AND BEYOND
Far back in 1854 there was one day in the spring great activity on Door Bluff. A party of Green Bay promoters
had visited the place the year before and believing they had discovered evidence of a rich marble deposit they
had now returned with many men to open a marble quarry. A large pier was built, a village was laid out on top of
the bluff and soon was heard the lively blasts of powder used in quarrying the stone. The marble proved, however,
to be in too thin layers to make quarrying profitable and after a couple of years the quarry was abandoned. Before
the place was entirely deserted, however, something occurred which for a long time made Door Bluff famous among
mariners and in newspapers.
About a hundred years ago there was on the face of this or Table Bluff an Indian painting, undoubtedly made
to commemorate the disaster which gave rise to the name of Death's Door. Samuel C. Stambaugh mentions it in 1881.
He writes, "On the face of the rocks fifteen or twenty feet above the surface of the water, there are figures
of Indians and canoes painted Indian fashion, which must have been done with much difficulty, and by the help of
scaling ladders, during a dead calm on the lake." (2)
It is probable that in 1856 these tracings were still partly visible or at least remembered. At any rate there
was a man by the name of Charles Schulten who at that time lived in one of the houses on top of the bluff. He had
a small vessel which he used in trading among the fishermen and in which he carried a few supplies needed by them.
Having on hand some red paint and having some ability in wielding the brush he determined to do what he could to
preserve an ancient tradition. Accordingly he devoted part of his idle hours in painting a thrilling scene of considerable
magnitude. It represented a violent storm on the water. In the midst of it was a fleet of canoes filled with men
whose costume indicated that they were Indians. Some of the canoes had capsized and left their occupants struggling
in the water. Others had reached a rocky shore up which they were clambering only to be killed by other Indians
evidently a hostile force, who clinging to the rocks and bushes with their tomahawks, dispatched the Indians in
the water as fast as they reached the shore. Roughly executed but with bold strokes and a free fancy it soon attracted
the attention of the seafarers. Having some resemblance to the famous pictured rock of Lake Superior it was supposed
to have had the same origin and for many years the pictured rocks of Door Bluff were viewed and described with
The Sturgeon Bay Advocate as late as May 20, 1886, states that there were still some traces of the painting left
at that time.
The waters of "the Door" bordering on the northern part of Liberty Grove have from time immemorial been
a favorite fishing place. Many early fishermen have therefore, no doubt, had their homes in this part of Liberty
Grove. The earliest of which we have any record is Allen Bradley, who in the early '50s had a home at Gills Rock.
It is very likely he was the first permanent settler in the town. An account of him is given in a separate chapter.
The next one of whom there is any knowledge was a Norwegian who at the time of the Civil war lived on top of the
hill east of Gills Rock. His name was Ayle Simonson and he had previously been a member of the early stone quarry
colony that had a village on Door Bluff. He is remembered by few, however, as he came to a tragic end in 1877,
when the town was still sparsely settled.
One morning in February, 1877, Avle Simonson and his son, Alfred, sailed from Ellison Bay in their fishing boat
with a passenger for Detroit Harbor. The passenger was Miss Dora Higgins (later Mrs. Albert Kalmbach) who was going
to Washington Island to teach school. They arrived at Detroit Harbor about noon and as the wind was fair they started
immediately for their home. They had not gone far. however, before a blinding snowstorm out of the northwest descended
upon them, shutting out all vision except immediately around the boat. Huge ice floes were encountered barring
their progress, making it necessary for then to lower the sail and by help of the bars to make detours to the right
and left. Sometimes open lanes of water were found, promising an exit, only to prove a blind pocket in which their
boat was in danger of being crushed.
So often had they tuled and twisted in the blinding snow storm that they no longer knew in which direction they
were going. They became dizzy and the storm seemed to buffet them from every quarter of the compass. Finally after
hours of struggling with their ice laden boat they could no longer struggle with the oars but pulled them in and
huddled up to withstand, if possible, the bitter cold of the night that was descending. Keenly they stared out
through the gloom of the storm and the night, hoping to see a headland or hear the surge of the sea upon the beach.
Nothing was seen, however, but the snowflakes driven slantwise into the choppy sea. And while they drifted and
stared the numbness of death gradually crept upward and inward upon the two fishermen until it changed the keen
look of their eyes tuled landward into a glassy stare.
Their friends in Ellison Bay waited in vain for the return of the fishermen. The wind which had been from the northeast
had changed to the northwest but was still favorable for a speedy return providing no obstacles were encountered.
In "the Door," however, where the drifting ice floes from many directions met to jostle each other; no
man could rely on the wind or the ice for a safe retul. Several days went by and the two fishermen were finally
given up as lost.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
About the middle of the following March the ice began to break up and was driven southward into Lake Michigan close
to shore. One day Wm. Sanderson, the lightkeeper of Cana Island, chanced to look out and saw a boat drifting by
imbedded in the ice. In the boat sat two men and their positions were so natural that the lightkeeper at first
thought they were alive. As the boat approached nearer he saw that they did not move and soon he realized that
the two mariners were both dead. In the stern sat an old man with his arms folded, slightly bent forward, resting
them upon his knees. His face, with the expression of one straining every nerve to see or hear something, was tuled
toward the shore. On his cap was some frozen snow, and from his gray hair and beard hung icicles. The young man,
like his father, had his arms folded, looking directly before him out of glassy eyes, which had the same expression.
They had abandoned the oars, but not hope. The bodies drifted by and were never found nor was the boat again heard
Such has been the experience of many a man in "Death's Door." Valiantly but vainly he has struggled against
the wind, the current and the ice until finally he has been carried a captive into Lake Michigan there to be engulfed.
The chief factor in the promotion of the settlement of the northern part of Liberty Grove was a Dane by the name
of John Ellison (Eliasen). After him is named Ellison Bay. He came to Ephraim in 1854 and was for many years a
member of the Ephraim community. At Ephraim he owned an exceedingly poor and stony forty of land and made but little
progress. By 1870, however, he must have accumulated some means as we then find him at Ellison Bay preparing to
build a large pier and systematically advertising in the newspapers for settlers. The pier was built in 1872 and
also a store. One or both of these must have been profitable as Ellison in 1878 was the owner of 8,000 acres of
Among the settlers who came to Ellison Bay as a result of his advertising were a number of Norwegian woodchoppers
from Ephraim. These were Hans and Ole Tostenson, Martin Olson and Lars Larson. These bought land in the vicinity
of Ellison Bay in the early '70s. Hans Tostenson soon opened a store and built a pier for shipping wood at Gills
Rock. Here he became a person of great importance and was called the "King of Gills Rock." Andrew Weborg,
another Norwegian who had bought out Allen Bradley's claim in 1874, was another man of influence at Gills Rock.
This harbor, formerly known as Hedgehog Harbor, received its later name in honor of Elias Gill, a timber operator
who also had a pier there and about thirteen hundred acres of land. At Newport was another pier, store, mill and
postoffice. Hans Johnson and Peter Knudson, both of Danish extraction opened and operated this business. The Newport
pier was built in 1879 and in 1882 a postoffice was established there.
At Garrett Bay another pier for shipping timber, with its accompanying store were built in 1882 by Andrew Nelson,
another Dane. He shipped about 3,000 cords of wood annually and personally owned about 600 acres of land. In 1887
he also opened a stone quarry. Andrew Nelson was a prominent factor in town politics and for many years was register
of deeds. He died in 1909 while holding this office. His widow has now (in 1916) built a pleasant summer hotel
at Garrett Bay.
At Rowleys Bay, Daniel H. Rice started to get out cedar about 1857. He gave up the business soon which was later
taken up by Osbole, Coxwell & Co. from Racine. They shipped a large amount of timber until 1876 when the lands,
about four thousand acres, were bought by S. A. Rogers. He built a large mill there which is still in operation
and is one of the oldest mills in the county.
Rowleys Bay, or rather Mink River, a sluggish stream emptying into it, bears evidence of having been a favorite
camping place for Indians. Many relics and evidences of village sites have been found there. When D. H. Rice settled
there in 1857 he found a large cross planted near the path which led across the peninsula at this point and he
reported that the Indians showed adoration for the cross. This cross may signify that here had been a chapel established
by the early French Jesuits or it may be the survival of a memento to mark the visit of a Jesuit missionary.
Further facts of Rowleys Bay's interesting history are given in another chapter.
North Bay was another great shipping point in early days. As early as 1870 a postofflee was established there with
J. L. Ramsay as postmaster North Bay did a large business for many years and its enterprising promoters hoped to
make it the business center of Northern Door County. In 1880 Richard Erwin & Co. owned 5,000 acres of land
there and systematically advertised for settlers. Wm. Marshall was their manager. Now he is the only remnant of
the business that once made this picturesque harbor famous in marine circles.
Due to its long shore line which made all tracts of land easily accessible, Liberty Grove was a famous place for
woodchoppers and cedar workers. In 1882 there were no less than thirteen piers in the town all actively shipping
timber products. The gross income from this business in that year was $250,000. Commission and freight took the
greater part of this income but a little was left for the woodchoppers who toiled in the timber in winter and hoed
potatoes in summer. Now the timber is practically all shipped and Liberty Grove is an excellent farming town.
An interesting fact is the discrimination which used to be shown against Liberty Grove by the county board when
equalizing taxes. For instance, the assessment of Liberty Grove's real estate in 1874 was fixed by the county board
at $92,709 against Brussels $42,390 and Sturgeon Bay (including the city) at $68,675. The entire county was assessed
at only $702,415 for its real estate. Yet Liberty Grove in that year had the smallest population of any town in.
the county, having only one third as many people as Brussels which had been largely settled for almost twenty years.
This soak-it-to-Liberty Grove attitude continued for many years. It originated in the '60s when the county's affairs,
were in the hands of three commissioners who did as they pleased. In 1867 Liberty Grove, having no representative
on the county board, was assessed $83,481 which was twice as much as Sturgeon Bay, four times as much as Brussels
and one sixth of the entire county's assessment. In 1869 its assessment was $102,218, which was three times the
assessment of Brussels, the oldest farming town in the county. In 1870 the commission form of govelment was discontinued
and each town had a representative on the board. Byron Aslagson represented Liberty Grove and succeeded in getting
the assessment materially reduced. It was still higher, however, than any town in the county with the exception
of Sturgeon Bay. In 1871 Aslagson was succeeded by M. Kirsch and Liberty Grove's assessment shot up again. It continued
near the bead of the list, frequently even overtopping Sturgeon Bay for a great many years. For further information
on this discrimination see the chapter on "Assessed Valuations of Door County Towns."
Liberty Grove is a very religious town, having no less than eight churches and congregations and four resident
pastors. A fifth minister and a ninth congregation, a German Moravian Church known as Manasseh, until recent years
was to be found two miles east of Ephraim. However, the church membership dwindled, the pastor moved away and the
church was torn down to help in building the large Scandinavian Moravian Church at Appleport. The new graded school
of District One now marks the site of Door County's Manasseh.
1) For a further account of the conditions of life in Pomerania see the chapter on the German Settlement in Forestville
2) See his Report on Wisconsin Territory, printed. Wisconsin Historical Collections, Vol. XV. page 424.