Meet the Mother
of Door County Conservation

From grassroots movements like Care for Door County to plentiful nature preserves, nature centers, and state, county, and municipal parks, there’s no question Door County is a place where nature and the environment are highly valued. This ethic of environmental conservation has long pervaded our communities and dates back to some of the county’s earliest days and residents.

One of Door County’s first nature crusaders was Emma Toft, who was born in Baileys Harbor in 1891 and lived there most of her life. Her best-known accomplishment is her lifelong fight to protect her family land, now Toft Point State Natural Area, from loggers and commercial development.

 

Toft’s Early Years & Influences

Toft grew up on 300 acres of ancient, unsullied forest land that her father owned and would later be named in his honor.

Thomas Toft was passionate about leaving nature untouched and shared this love and reverence for the natural world with his eight children, including Emma, his wife Julia’s seventh-born.

Black-and-white shot of Emma Toft in her later years.

Photo provided by Charlotte Lukes. Photo credit: Herbert Horn.

Thomas not only extolled the virtues of the natural world and valued its aesthetic beauty, he truly lived these values and built only a small homestead on the land to keep the family’s footprint small. And although there would have been big money in logging the trees or selling parts of the land, Thomas instead opted to protect and preserve the woods that contained so much meaning for him, his family, and eventually his community.

His refusal to sell, log, or otherwise harm the family’s land, along with his naturalist ways of life, is likely what inspired Emma’s lifelong commitment to the environment.

Conservation Work & Later Years

After her father’s death in 1919, Toft and her mother and siblings opened a rustic resort on the land, called Toft Point Resort, where the family housed guests in cabins with no running water or electricity, fed them with food grown on the land, and shared their love of Door County’s natural riches. The resort remained open for 50 years and always remained a rustic, pastoral place where travelers could escape city life and get back to basics in the wild.

Toft also participated in many local nature and conservation groups throughout her life and, alongside local legend Jens Jensen, fought hard to preserve sites like The Ridges Sanctuary and The Clearing Folk School.

Over the years, the Toft family would be approached to sell their land, sometimes by loggers in search of abundant lumber, sometimes by real estate developers looking to open a new luxury resort or golf course.

But Emma always refused.

Her insistence that the land remain natural, wild, and undeveloped earned her a reputation as a passionate defender of nature as well as the nickname “Wisconsin’s First Lady of Conservation.”

 

Toft’s Legacy: Toft Point State Natural Area

Toft’s life’s work protecting her family land in Baileys Harbor can still be seen today.

In 1967, she sold the land, which was soon donated to the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. The university and the Wisconsin Chapter of the Nature Conservancy continue to study the land and protect it from development and degradation.

Today, visitors can explore Toft Point State Natural Area, a 1-mile-wide, 700+-acre peninsula on the Lake Michigan coast—the very land where Toft grew up.

This lesser-known spot offers stunning views, multiple forests, more than 400 species of plants, an approximately 2-mile hike or snowshoe to rocky shoreline, an old stone quarry and lime kiln, and remnants of the resort’s guest cabins and barn.

Nature enthusiasts can also check out The Ridges Sanctuary and The Clearing Folk School, both of which are open to the public and offer hiking trails and environmental programming.

 

Protect Your Mother: Get Involved

Another way to appreciate the work and passion that go into preserving natural spaces is to volunteer your time with a nature organization or otherwise support local conservation efforts.

 

Sources

The Toft Family: Preserving a Piece of the Peninsula (Door County Pulse)
Hike This: Toft Point State Natural Area (Door County Pulse)
Emma Toft (Wisconsin Women Making History)
Friends of Toft Point (UW-Green Bay)

 


Headed to Door County this spring? Be sure to read and sign the Door County Pledge and commit to exploring our parks, preserves, and outdoor spaces safely and responsibly.