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President of the Gibraltar Historical Association
Name: Barb McKesson
Occupation: Owner/Manager of Holiday Harbor Cottages, President of the Gibraltar Historical Association
Lives in: Born and raised in Fish Creek; moved to Milwaukee for school and work, then returned permanently seven years ago.
Claim to fame: Childhood adventures, including carrying a snapping turtle, hanging from a stick, from the slough in the park down Main Street in Fish Creek on a hot summer’s day; tobogganing down the alley hill and across Highway 42; cranking circles on the ice in my dad’s car; and having “breakfast” with “Baldy” Bridenhagen and my father on several occasions, discussing some ill-advised teenage pranks.
Favorite Door County activities: I love being on the water whenever possible. I enjoy gardening, reading, and meeting new people. I also enjoy the art world of Door County — the music, theater and visual arts. I love watching sunsets and sunrises, and walking in the woods.
Q. How did you become interested in local history?
A. Our family has a long heritage in the historic town of Fish Creek, located in the township of Gibraltar. Growing up here, my parents always told the stories of some of my ancestors, including Increase Claflin, my great-great-great-great-grandfather, who was the first white settler in Door County. He was a hunter and trapper born in New York, who heard of the Great Lakes region when in New Orleans, and decided to move to Door County with his wife, Mary Ann, and their family. In 1842, they settled at Weborg Point, which is now part of Peninsula State Park just across the harbor from Fish Creek. That story always intrigues me because I wonder how the lady of the household must have felt, traveling across the ice in a sleigh with the family and furniture and a team of horses, moving to a very isolated place at the time in the middle of winter without so much a roof over her head — how did she manage a family that time of year in the wilderness without shelter? There weren’t other settlers in the county then, either.
Not long after that, Asa Thorp, a great-great-great uncle of mine who was a cooper, claimed land around Fish Creek. Growing up here, we always heard the stories of Increase and Asa and Jacob, my great-great-grandfather, and Roy, my great-grandfather. So some of my history comes from books, and some comes from the oral history told to us about our family and extended family.
Q. How did you become involved in the Gibraltar Historical Association?
A. In 1984, the old town hall was scheduled to be taken down and replaced by a parking lot. My mom was very upset about that. She wanted to make sure the character of the village was maintained, and thought we shouldn’t part with our old buildings. She gathered a number of people in our home and they founded the Gibraltar Historical Association. Soon, with the support of residents and the town board, a movement to renovate and restore the town hall was launched. It was the group’s first project.
Soon after that, when there was talk of putting a gas station in the place of the old Noble house, the group again sprang to action to save the historic home. The historical association raised more than $400,000 and gave it to the town, which bought the property, which is located in the middle of the village at the intersection of Highway 42 and Main Street. The historical association has restored the home — most of its furnishings are original — so it’s quite a treasure.
I personally became involved when I moved back to Fish Creek from Milwaukee seven years ago, and was elected president a few years ago.
Q. What can visitors expect during a visit to the Noble House?
A. The Alexander Noble House Museum is open for tours during the summer and early fall from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Every year, there is a different theme that allows visitors to experience Victorian life first-hand; this year’s theme is “a house in mourning” and the home is prepared as it would have been for a funeral at the turn of the century, with the customs and conditions of the day. You walk in, and find a casket in the parlor!
We also host “Gibraltar Talks” once a month from May through October, for which we invite historians and other expert speakers to lead discussions about historical events and topics. Walking tours are held at 10 a.m. on Wednesday (focusing on Downtown Fish Creek history, led by me) and Friday mornings (focusing on churches and resorts, led by Ron Dammon).
Q. What, to you, are the most remarkable facts or aspects relating to Door County’s history?
A. Some of these little facts are so intriguing! Like the fact that the lighthouse on Chambers Island and Eagle Bluff Lighthouse are sister lighthouses — they’re identical. A lot of people don’t know that Chambers Island was settled long before Gibraltar or Fish Creek. It was a populated, relatively busy place in the 1850s, well before the turn of the century. At one time, a very fine resort was slated to have been built there by people from Chicago. There was, and still is, an airport on the island. It always makes me smile to know that some of the old buildings in Fish Creek were constructed elsewhere. The Whistling Swan, for instance, was built in Marinette and transported over the ice by teams of horses. The “pioneering spirit” and sense of community that is so apparent in the towns and villages throughout Door County make it a friendly, intriguing place for people to visit. “Characters” still exist and there is always something to learn, to enjoy, or to experience in Door County.
Q. Why is it so important to preserve history?
A. If we don’t know where we came from, we don’t know where we’re going. We make the same mistakes if we don’t know our history. And when families have a sense of their own personal history, there’s more meaning in their homes. I often tell my grandchildren that their great-grandfather, in his 80 years, traveled from Montana to Wisconsin in a covered wagon and also lived to see a man walk on the moon — I tell them their lives are going to change, and to capture what they have now and to hold it dear.
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