BLOG: Door County History Lessons with my Son

For much of the past decade I’ve spent the bulk of my time teaching adolescents in the field of social studies. Within this field, I have taught courses on psychology, government, sociology, economics, and – what always seems like students least favorite topic – history. Whenever I teach a history course, I consider it my mission to provide sparkling answers to that ages-old question us teachers face; why do we have to know this?

So, when the calendar turned to summer my over-zealous self determined that it’s never too early to introduce a few history lessons to my own son, and I created another mission for myself: to teach some local history to a 2 ½ year old. Why? Because knowing about the past gives us a greater appreciation for the present, because learning how the place we call home came to be opens the imagination, and lastly, because history can be learned when you don’t even realize it.

One of the striking aspects of Door County history is character. This place, and its’ past, are full of stories of people who were unconventional and idealistic, people who braved the elements to make a living and establish communities. Even today, much of the peninsula is populated by folk who must make their livings from May to October, and then survive through the winter. Perhaps Hjalmar R. Holand sums it up best in the opening of his book Old Peninsula Days, “One of the last places in the West to yield to the demands of present convention is the Door County Peninsula…the people have gone about their somewhat unusual daily occupations unembarrassed by a knowledge of outside standards and methods, and thus developed types and a character of their own.” And though these words were written in the early 1900’s, the foundational culture of the Door continues to permeate our daily lives today.

How then to teach all this to a toddler? Well, like any good teacher I developed a lesson plan with the expectation and understanding that I would need to be flexible, have a backup plan, and of course, bring snacks. My lesson plan breaks down into three main activities, and is as follows:

  1. Lighthouses: Perhaps there is no better symbol of the peninsula’s past than the ubiquitous lighthouse. Between the Sherwood Point and Canal Station lighthouses in Sturgeon Bay and Pottawatomie Lighthouse on Rock Island, there are several more lighthouses in between as well. All offer a wonderful opportunity to visit, explore, and ask your children questions about why these stations were for, what kind of jobs people had a long time ago, and what it would be like to live on a boat for weeks on end. Now, I won’t pretend that my son had answers for any of these questions, but I like to think there somewhere in the recesses of his developing brain a gear or two turned, after all, every time we bike past Eagle Bluff Lighthouse in Peninsula Park he boldly shouts to anyone within earshot; lighthouse! And though our visit to the Cana Island Lighthouse was mostly spent munching on snacks, the short walk from the parking lot to the actual lighthouse was one of beauty and excitement.
  2.  Cottage Row: As a parent of a young child (soon to be children) it seems as if sometimes most of the day is spent in kind of a waking stupor – like if there is actually any opportunity to nap, falling asleep would happen instantaneously. So, coffee is of the essence. Further, being up at 5:00 means that by 7:00 you’ve already had breakfast and the kid is raring to go, so why not use it as an opportunity to get yet another cup of coffee and take a walk down quiet Cottage Row in Fish Creek? This has become something of a routine for us lately, and as we walk we notice the old stone wall lining the road, the ancient tennis courts now covered in ivy and becoming swallowed by the woods. We look at the beautiful old homes (and the beautiful renovated ones as well) and stroll along this road of living history. It’s enough for me to see that my son recognizes the sections of old wall (and points out the new sections as well), I sense that he somewhat understands that people were here before, and they left behind a lot of beauty that we get to experience.
  3.  Everywhere, everyday: This is where the flexibility enters the lesson plan. I know that forcing anything upon a child is bound to backfire, and thus I’ve now taken the approach that just by going about our daily lives there will doubtlessly be opportunities to introduce a history lesson or two. This can be as simple as getting an ice cream cone in Ephraim and then walking to Anderson Dock, or perhaps visiting the Sister Bay Farmer’s Market nestled within numerous historical buildings. In the end, I must remember to realize that though spontaneity is obviously unpredictable, when the opportunities do appear to instill some sort of lesson to my son, I must embrace them in small steps on his level. For the more I can open his eyes to other ways of life from different eras, and to the diversity of people and ideas that make up our home (and the world), the greater the chances are that he will appreciate those differences and develop a sense of empathy and altruism down the road. And that’s a lesson worth teaching.