History of Libertry Grove, 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


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 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.


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 state.

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 of milk

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.


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 great interest.

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 of.

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 land.

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 and Nasewaupee.

2) See his Report on Wisconsin Territory, printed. Wisconsin Historical Collections, Vol. XV. page 424.

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