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Limestone bedrock here rises 220 feet out of Lake Michigan; it’s part of the same Niagara Escarpment that stretches south to Lake Winnebago (and east all the way to Niagara Falls). Eons of waves have carved rough sea caves into the multihued red and smoky black cliffs. (The shores on the western side of Green Bay are dramatic in contrast—mostly low-slung topography crawling toward the shore through marsh or beach.)
Porte des Mortes
At the tip of the peninsula is the only major gap in the escarpment, Porte des Mortes, the fabled “Door of Death”—so named by petrified early French explorers. The ferocious local climate has devoured hundreds of ships here. Accounts vary wildly (travelers will believe anything—and pass it along at the next inn) regarding which tragedy gave rise to the name Door of Death, but all are remarkably harrowing. Most accounts point to a band of 300–500 Potawatomi—some say Winnebago—who were dashed against rocks. Before the advent of modern navigation and large, diesel-driven screws, most ships could not overcome the shifting currents or conflicting wind shears (and shoals).
Human habitation at what today is Whitefish Dunes State Park dates back to 100 B.C. to judge by traces of the North Bay People, who spread from the mouth of the bay all the way to Rock Island. Woodland Indians arrived in the mid-1600s, when hostile, large-scale Iroquois expansion in Acadia forced the Hurons to flee. They likely arrived on Rock Island, which had been populated by Potawatomi, who would later return to open the doors to the Europeans. With the aid of Winnebago and Ottawa Indians, one of the largest ramparts in the New World was constructed on Rock Island to repel Iroquois invaders. (The U.S. government would later forcibly evict the Potawatomi from Rock Island so lumbermen could enter.)
On Washington Island in the late 17th century, the Potawatomi would initiate commercial operations with Pierre Esprit Radisson, who considered the island one of his favorite sites in all New France.
Fishermen were the first to occupy most points along the Lake Michigan coast, including Rock and Washington Islands. Some of the largest fish ever caught on Lake Michigan were landed off Rock Island. Those communities, which also began commercial shipping and shipbuilding, cemented the regional economy in the 1830s. In shipbuilding, Sturgeon Bay always played second fiddle to Manitowoc farther south, but it still managed to parlay its ship factories into one of the major facilities on Lake Michigan.
The Door’s microclimate fostered the county’s remarkable fruit-growing industry—one of the top in the United States for a solitary county.
In the 1850s, a Swiss immigrant disembarked and found a remarkably equable climate. The land was already rife with wheat farmers, so this farmer planted an orchard. Yields were so astonishing that the University of Wisconsin came to investigate—and went away impressed. By the turn of the 20th century, the first commercial apple, plum, and cherry orchards were established, and cherries eventually became a large-scale industry.
The UW kept up its involvement, in 1922 establishing a research station near the original cherry orchard. By the 1930s, the peninsula had more than 10,000 acres of orchards, including what at the time was the world’s largest cherry orchard. Crop picking being so labor intensive, German prisoners of war were used to harvest the fruit during World War II, along with migrant labor from south Texas, which is still used today. Door County maintains more than 100 orchards totaling 2,100 acres, which ranks it the third-most productive county in the United States.
The total take tops out at more than 4,200 tons per year. Some are worried, however, that corporate farms are bleeding the county of much of its charm; only five large farms produce the bulk of the county’s cherries. In addition, when relentless widening and improvement of WI 57 between Green Bay and Sturgeon Bay is finished (if ever), farmers could be forced to sell their smaller properties to developers. For now cherry and apple orchards are equal with dairy farming as economic mainstays in the county (and around here you don’t dare think of attending a fish boil without finishing it off with cherry pie or cobbler).
© Thomas Huhti from Moon Wisconsin, 5th Edition