History of Chambers Island, 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


Door County's history as an organized commonwealth does not run any farther back than the memory of men still living. Yet within that time it has seen a number of settlements and villages start up, prosper for awhile, and then pass away. Among these defunct villages are Little Sturgeon, Foscoro, Clay Banks, Horn's Pier, Lily Bay, Rowley's Bay, Rock Island and Chambers Island. Not so long ago these places teemed with activities of many sorts, the hope and love of the men that inspired them; but are now entirely forgotten and unknown by a large part of our population.

To most people Chambers Island is but vaguely known as a desert island lying far out amid the heaving seas of Green Bay, the largest private estate in Door County, where the deer roam unmolested through the timbered arches. Fifty years ago, however, Chambers Island was not only a settled community, but was an organized town, where the voters once a year gathered in solemn conclave to discuss the needs of roads and bridges, distribute political honors, and grumble at the state tax. It had a full array of town officers with no less than three justices of the peace, three constables, and even a "'Dealer of Weights and Measures," for a good measure. It had a public school and a postoffice, farms, orchards, livestock; a sawmill and a ship building plant. It had occasional religious services and a good sewing circle, and tea parties met frequently. The distant little island was in all respects a well ordered community.

Chambers Island received its name in 1816. In August of that year Col. Talbot Chambers was sent to Green Bay (or LaBaye as it was then called) to establish a military post there The military force accompanying him with their considerable supplies were conveyed to their destination in four large sailing vessels - the first sailing vessels to sail the waters of Green Bay since La Salle lost his Griffin in the waters of Death's Door in 1689. This party named many of the localities visited by them and these names still remain. The largest island in the bay they called Washington Island in honor of the Father of His Country, and also because the flagship of their fleet was named Washington. The next largest was named Chambers Island in honor of the commander of the expedition.

No further mention of Chambers Island is found in any preserved records until about 1850, when the settlement of the island began.

The first permanent settler on the island was a quiet, meditative old Quaker by the name of Stephen A. Hoag. He came there some time before 1849. In that year Nathaniel Brooks, a ship carpenter from Maine, and a man by the name of Snow came from Milwaukee in a small sail boat on a prospecting tour. They found Hoag comfortably quartered on the island but no other settler. Of all the places visited by Brooks Chambers Island pleased him most. When he returned to Milwaukee he described it to his family as "a perfect paradise."

The next year Mr. Brooks moved to Menominee, Mich., which was just then receiving its first settlers. Here he met another ship carpenter by the name of David Clow. Captain Clow had already picked out Chambers Island as an ideal place for boat building, with plenty of all kinds of timber at hand and Government ]and in abundance. He induced Brooks to become his partner in boat building and they moved onto the island in 185L They were soon joined by many others, among whom were Lewis and John Williams, Robert Bunton, Simeon Loomier, Stephen Burgess, Joseph Winship, James Ferson and David Rice. Most of these settlers had small clearings and farmed a little in addition to their fishing or boat building. Nearly all of these men lived at the head of the harbor on the north side of the island. In 1856 it was included in a ministerial circuit embracing Menekaunee, Menominee and Cedar River. Rev. J. W. Donaldson of Menekaunee, who preached the first sermon here, writes the following account of his visit:

"One Saturday I drove on the ice down the bay thirty miles to Little Cedar River. Preached the next day at the mills in the morning. Then ran across the bay twelve miles to Chambers Island and preached there in the evening. There were at that time eight or nine families on the island and every person save one was present at that service, the first, I was told, ever held there, and I think I never spoke to a more attentive audience. On Monday morning from three or four houses came boys and girls bringing live chickens which they piled under my `jumper' seat, also men brought flour and potatoes, so that my pony had a load behind him. * * *" 1

In 1857 a mill of good size was built by David Rice, but as the notorious hard times just then came on it was not operated until 1863. After it opened up there were about seventy persons on the island, many of them married men.

Upon petition of the local settlers the county board in November, 1858, set aside Chambers Island as a separate town. The next spring a full set of town officers were elected. Regular meetings and elections were held annually for the next ten years but the records are lost. In 1862 the following town officers were elected: Francis Lanning, chairman; Lewis Williams and Stephen Hoag, supervisors; Robert Bunton, clerk; Lewis Williams, treasurer and assessor; David Clow, Josiah R. Brooks and Francis Lannir,g, justices of the peace; John R. Williams, Joseph Winship and Stephen Hoag, constables; and Geo. Jones, sealer of weights and measures.

In 1865 a new schoolhouse was built, no date being known when the first schoolhouse was erected. Robert Bunton, who later became the manager of the mill, was the first schoolteacher of which there is any memory. He was succeeded by old Mrs. Jeffcutt of Fish Creek. In 1866 a postoffiee was established with John S. Ferson as postmaster.

Owing to internal jealousies the islanders failed to elect town officers in the latter '60s. The county hoard in November, 1869, attached the island to the Town of Gibraltar. All books and records were turned over to the clerk of the Town of Gibraltar where they later were destroyed by fire.

The Chambers Island lighthouse was built about 1870 and Lewis Williams became keeper. He devoted his spare time to growing strawberries, of which he had a very large plantation. In those days it was considered the greatest sport in Menominee to make picnic parties to Chambers Island and raid Lew Williams' strawberry patch. To which the good natured owner made no objection.

There was at first no store on the island, the people being obliged to go to Green Bay or Milwaukee for supplies or markets. In the early days this was not considered a serious handicap as the people of Sturgeon Bay or Menominee had to do likewise. Later, however, when the peninsula and mainland began to be settled up and easier methods of communication were opened up, the island's isolation continued and increased by comparison, and this was the chief reason for the gradual dismemberment of its colony.

Captain Clow was the first settler to take up land on the island and was in many ways its most notable and interesting personality. He was a burly, good natured, well informed man of immense energy, and due to his adventures, Chambers Island, his home for awhile, had more publicity than any other town in Door County. His first notable exploit was the building of the Sarah Clow, a schooner with a 120 foot keel, measuring 285 tons. This was at the time the largest vessel that had been built in Door County. Up to this time Captain Clow had been engaged in building small sailboats in company with Nathaniel Brooks. He now conceived the idea of building a large freighter. His partner had moved away and the dull times made it impossible to hire men to assist him. But the captain and his wife went to work undaunted. They went out into the woods and felled the trees. Then they rolled the logs up on high trestles and sawed them into boards and planks with a whip saw - Mrs. Clow being perched high up on the log while the captain stood beneath pushing the saw above his head. Then they laid the keel, fashioned the rigs, bent the planking, stepped the masts and sewed and stitched the sails. It was slow work - it took three years - but the two did it all alone, built her entire, from stem to stern and from keel to truck. Iron was so expensive the captain got along almost entirely without irons, pinning her together with wooden trummels.

Finally the great day came in 1862 when she lay all caulked and painted, every rope, hatchway and cupboard in order. Then the honest captain took a bottle of water out of the rain barrel and christened her the Sarah Clow in honor of his excellent helpmeet.

The Sarah Clow went into commission at once and sailed the Great Lakes in quest of fame and fortune. In the first of these aspirations, at least, her owner was successful. In the spring of 1863 Captain Clow had taken a load of wheat to Buffalo. On his return trip he was overtaken by a furious gale when off Point Belle on Lake Erie. As the boat was running very light it was a mere plaything of the storm. The captain saw himself drifting helplessly toward the booming shore and expected every moment to be dashed to pieces on the beach. To his amazement, however, just as the crash was to come, a bigger sea than the others came along and tossed the schooner clear over the beach into a marsh beyond. There she lay on her side in the slimy ooze, her rigging entangled in the brush, safe to be sure from the roaring storm but apparently doomed never again to ride the waves.

This at least was the opinion of the insurance company. whose agent, after visiting her, reported her a total wreck. The insurance money was paid and David Clow purchased the wreck for ten dollars or some small trifle.

Captain Clow stood on the bowsprit ruefully inspecting the plight of his beloved schooner. In retrospect he saw the sturdy oaks and tall waving pines of Chambers Island. With his mind's eye he saw. himself and his wife toiling with dauntless energy and herculean labor to shape those monarchs of the forest into the vessel that lay in the marsh before him. That vessel was to be a monument to all his wife's virtues - to her fortitude in the wilderness, to her endurance in toil, to her youthful grace and her abiding love. Now the vessel lay half submerged in the slime of the swamp, her white decks smeared with black muck. Was this to be the end of her? Was she to lie thus, a hive for hedgehogs and water snakes, soon to be covered with green moss and trailing creepers? Nob, never! In honor of his wife and bairns at home who thought their father was sailing the great waves, he would make his vessel sail again. Let her meet her doom, if need be, in the roaring floods which was her element, but he would never suffer his vessel to sink out of sight in the mud of a nameless swamp!

There was a shallow bayou or slough in the swamp where the vessel had been tossed. The captain found that after it had meandered through the swamp for some distance the slough communicated with Lake Erie about a half mile away. At that point, however, it was obstructed by a bar whose dimensions utterly precluded its being crossed by either steam or sail vessel. The captain decided, however, that if he could get his vessel to that point he could cut a canal through the bar and thus slip out into the lake.

To appreciate the difficulty of this task the reader must bear in mind that the projected canal was not only a full half mile distant, but that the draught of the vessel exceeded by twelve inches the depth of the slough! However, the captain was dauntless. With the help of his crew of six men and some extra men from the interior he got his vessel rounded into the slough. Thereupon he proceeded to heave the vessel for the entire distance by means of her anchors! Some days he accomplished six feet, some ten, some sixty, and on some unlucky days it was found after tugging hard from sun to sun he had gained only a dozen inches.

After this had continued for about a month, Captain Clow had the satisfaction of seeing the bows of his beloved schooner in close contact with the bar. The digging of the canal, although large, proved a light task contrasted with the difficulties over which he had already triumphed. He cut a wide channel three feet deep, then planted his anchors, rove his purchases and waited for an easterly wind to raise the water. The wind came and the schooner glided smoothly and triumphantly out. Owing to the soft, sandy nature of the bottom through which he had worked no injury had been sustained except a broken centerboard.

In 1868 Captain Clow launched another vessel, the Lewis Day, named after a prominent Green Bay citizen. This vessel was 155 feet long and was at that time one of the largest vessels on the Great Lakes. Captain Clow was not finicky about the material in his vessels. It is said that almost anything that grew out of the ground would go into them, but once put in the captain made it stay.

After a few years more of storm and stress the captain gave up seafaring and purchased a dairy farm in McHenry County, Illinois. Milking cows, however, was too tame an occupation for an old sailor like him and before long he left the farm to join his sons in battling the storms of the Great Lakes again. In 1892 he was again heard from when he was on a vessel, the A. P. Nichols, commanded by his son, which was totally wrecked at night on Pilot Island. The crew, including Capt. David Clow, were rescued in a thrilling manner by the lighthouse keeper, Martin Knndson.2 He had a large family but none of them are now in Door County.

Chambers Island has been a good field of operations for lumbermen. The mill of David Rice and most of the island passed to Lewis Day of Green Bay after the war. He cut some of the timber, but soon transferred his rights to Leathern & Smith of Sturgeon Bay. They cut about twenty million feet of pine. They had a large store and warehouse on the east side of the bay which cuts into the island on the north side. The water has washed away the land where this store building stood and Leathem & Smith's big safe is now lying right on the beach near the water.

Toward the close of the century the island was bought by the Wisconsin Chair Co. of Port Washington (F. A. Dennett). They sawed up into lumber on the island about three million feet of oak and about five million feet of hemlock. Part of the hemlock was sold to Pankratz Lumber Co. of Sturgeon Bay when it was sawed.

Chambers Island is at present a forest of young pine except for Mr. Dennett's extensive summer home and grounds on the shore of the beautiful little lake in the northeastern corner of the island. The whole island is a private game preserve of Mr. Dennett's where deer by the hundreds roam in peace.

Chambers Island was in early days a favorite haunt for Indians as many mounds have been found there. When Mr. Dennett was leveling off the ground for tennis courts a large mound was encountered in one corner. Here eight or ten skeletons were found close together in an upright position. Other skeletons have also been found in a large mound close to the cottage. Mr. Dennett writes: "I wrote to Professor Thwarts of the State Historical Association at Madison and he advised me that these were probably Indians that died in the winter time while the ground was frozen and temporarily hung up in trees awaiting the earth conditions so that they might be buried; that they were stood in this position, probably partly under ground and mounds heaped over them."

1 From letter printed in Door County Advocate, February 14, 1878.

2 For an account of this rescue see the chapter on Lighthouses.

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