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Door County has a rich history on water and land. The peninsula is steeped in the stories of the first people to arrive here, including Native Americans and European settlers who fell in love with the beauty and natural bounty of the county.
While the community has evolved tremendously in the decades since it first attracted tourists in the late 1800s, the traditions of those early settlers are still celebrated and witnessed in communities throughout Door County.
Door county has many places you can visit that unveil a lot about it’s past and formation. Check out this list of the top historical sites or try these five options to take a dive into history.
5 HISTORIC DOOR COUNTY HIGHLIGHTS
The Island Stavkirke and Boynton Chapel, Townline Rd, Washington Island and 7590 Boynton Lane, Baileys Harbor.
Both of these churches were built relatively recently (Boynton in 1939-47 and The Island Stavkirke 1991-1995), but they both represent the presence of the Scandinavian history in the county. They were each created in the Stavkirke tradition, which was a popular style of architecture in Norway in the late 12th century.
Belgian Heritage Center, 1255 County DK, Brussels
While Scandinavian settlers were inhabiting the northern part of the peninsula, Belgians laid claim in the southern portion of the county. Explore exhibits that highlight aspects of Belgian history in Door County, or take in a traditional Belgian Kermiss that features live music, drinks, and traditional Belgian food like pies, trippe, booyah, and more.
Historic Island Dairy, 1309 Range Line Rd, Washington Island
Now used as an event space, museum, art space, and featuring a lavender farm, Island Dairy used to be the center of Washington Island’s dairy business. Throughout its life on the Island it was a hub for business growth. In 2008, new owners bought it and resurrected it as an incubator for business growth on the island.
Plum Island and Lighthouse, Plum Island, Death’s Door Passage, Lake Michigan
Plum Island has officially opened for visitors in June 2017 after years of neglect. A boat dock was constructed on the north side of the island, allowing visitors to check out the lighthouse that was built in 1896 and has been undergoing renovations since 2013, with the help of the Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands.
Pioneer Schoolhouse, 9998 Moravia St, Ephraim
Built in 1880, the Pioneer Schoolhouse was a one-room school that catered to grades 1-8. As the number of students increased, the school was closed down and a new one was built. The building that stands today is double the size of what the original building was, but it was preserved and turned into a museum with the help of the Ephraim Historical Foundation.
All of these locations have ties to the history of Door County and the people that inhabited it. They are only a small sample of historical locations in the county.
Door County’s history can be seen in the county not only through physical buildings but through the actions, industries, and traditions that thrive today.
Fish boils are a treasured part of Door County vacations and a not-to-be-missed flavor of Door County’s culinary history. The tradition of fish boils started in the late 1800s with Scandinavian settlers, when it was an efficient way to make food for a lot of workers at once.
The fiery spectacle of the boil over awes diners nightly throughout the summer. There are many restaurants that offer the fish boil, each with their own take on the tradition.
Fish boils are entwined with the county’s fishing industry, using fresh, locally caught whitefish. To get a taste of what it’s like to chase our local fish, take a charter fishing tour. Learn more about the tradition and life of commercial fishers in the county here.
There are many festivals in the county and many of them are connected to traditions or the heritage of Door County settlers, while others are connected to a more modern history. Here are a few festivals to check out and see how they are related to the history of the county.
Fyr Bal, Mid-June, Ephraim
Fyr Bal (pronounced feer ball) brings people of all ages to Ephraim for music, food, fireworks, and the large bonfires on the shore all around the harbor. While the festival started in 1964, the designs and ideas of the festival come from a tradition of early Norwegians celebrating Midsummer’s Eve. The celebration is meant to usher in the long summer days, leaving winter behind. Expect to see people dressed in traditional Norwegian clothes, demonstrations, and Scandinavian dancers and singers performing.
Harvest Festivals, September-October, Door County orchards
Each autumn local orchards celebrate the fall harvest with festivals of food, music, and deliciousness. Learn a little about the history of the cherry and apple orchards in this video.
Lighthouse Festival, June & October, Throughout Door County
Lighthouses represent some of Door County’s most interesting architecture and serve as a reminder of the importance of maritime history in the county.
The annual Lighthouse Festival and tour happens twice a year and takes participants to the most of the 11 lighthouses that dot the shores of the county, including lighthouses that are normally closed to the public. The tour takes you by land and water to check out these structures and to learn more about their history.
Lighthouse construction began in the early 1800s when trade between Green Bay and cities on the eastern Great Lakes started to prosper. With more water traffic in the area, the importance of lighthouses for the safety and protection of merchants and ship owners grew. While many of the lighthouses are out of use, they each carry their own unique and interesting history that tells tales of keepers, shipwrecks, and storms.
HERITAGE VILLAGE AT BIG CREEK
Heritage Village is a great place to visit to not only learn about the history of the county, but experience it as well. The village is composed of buildings that each represent a facet of Door County history.
Tour the buildings and interact with people dressed in traditional garb. Visit an old schoolhouse and hear what education used to be like. Stop by the general store or watch blacksmiths at work. This is a great spot for people to learn about Door County history in one convenient place.
There are many other ways to experience the history of the county including tours that teach you about the county’s past. Take your trip into Door County history on your next visit.
Make your way through Door County, one lighthouse and museum at a time.
Locations suggested by Door County locals.
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