Saturday, November 5, 2011


West Harbor Hotel - date unknown, but thought to
be 1900 or shortly thereafter.
Washington Island, Wisconsin -

So many memories accumulate around a piece of property and the people who own, manage and offer hospitality, that it is hard to accept sudden interruption in that flow of history.  We think ... and this is only conjecture, knowing the resilience and resolve of the Gibson family and their close association with their home, property, business and community...that there is more than even chance it will be rebuilt.

But that is a decision that will come after close examination of future plans, including what is possible and practical given today's design and structural codes.  We do know there are a good many people pulling for the Gibsons who still have vivid memories of vacations spent there, playing in the water, tasting the most wonderful chicken dinners, shooting pool or horseshoes (free lessons from the "master"), and visiting with Marianna and the Gibson children, (and before that, with Pearl and Frank.)

My own memories include such arcane blasts from the past as:   our own honeymoon night in room #8 (where else could you get away from wedding revelers?);  playing bunco during the holidays with the American Legion and Auxilary members, and observing a near-fight between hostess Pearl Gibson and other senior bunco fanatics as to which table was the "head" and which one was the "foot;" escorting a frail Florence Bell out the back door to her car one evening during an early December snowfall wearing my leather-soled shoes, departing from a party hosted by Arni and Mary, then slipping and nearly crushing Florence as I fell on top of her;  numerous Ferry Line Christmas parties, most always centered around those delicious meals with games afterward;  knocking on Marianna's kitchen door after driving through West Harbor ice in a pickup truck with Tom Wilson;  and a family Fourth of July in one of the Gibson cabins in 1955, when swimming and flipping over in inner tubes was just about the coolest thing I could imagine.

I understand one or more dining room tables remain relatively untouched from the fire, and maybe even those old dining room chairs, save for smears of watery char, because the intense heat during the balze concentrated upward in the ceiling and attic cavities, not the main floor below.

Our memories are only a very small slice of the nonstop family and community activity that took place for over a century at West Harbor.  I was reminded in checking back that it was in June 2007 when the 60th anniversary of Gibson family presence at the resort was celebrated, an event attended by over 500 people.  And before the Gibsons were the Sorensons, and before them, the Paulsens.

The West Harbor Hotel image (top) is from an Archives post card and we think it was from the Paulsen era, given the squareness and trim of the porch, the look of the windows.   A Paulsen calling card noting special instructions for getting there was also in the archives file for West Harbor.

At some point the Door County Advocate featured an article written by Herb Gibson (date unknown but the HS indicates it may have been Herb's high school history project) about West Harbor Resort.  It was very well done, and given yesterday's events, I'll reprint it here as a refresher on the progression of ownership that took place on that property.

[I would also recommend looking at a video interview with Herb who recounts this history on the Island Chamber web page in story-teller fashion.  With pride, Herb talks conversationally about his family's roots there and those who preceded the Gibsons.]

From the Door County Advocate, by Herbert Gibson, Washington Island HS:

 "My home, West Harbor Resort, has a very interesting history.  It is one of the oldest buildings still standing on the Island.  The main building and the property started out as the headquarters for a lumber camp. After that it was converted into a general store, and then in to a summer resort, which it still is today.
  "About 1860 Frieburg's Lumber Company, one of Wisconsin's leading wood companies of the time, bought a timber contract for removing all the virgin pine from the island.  At that time the island was very sparsely populated, and nearby all  the island was covered by huge virgin pine.
  "The so-called "big pine" of the island which was cut down several years ago was estimated to be about 500 years old and was about five feet in diameter and illustrates the immense size the trees must have been.
  "That particular pine was one of the few survivors of that great lumber boom 100 years ago.  That sawmill was set up at the point of land north of the entrance to West Harbor. 
 "A boarding house for the lumberjacks was constructed from some of the first products of the sawmill, and that building is still standing today although several additions have been added.  A large dock, built out into Green Bay next to the mill, served the ships hauling lumber to all the large cities on the Great Lakes.
  "Traces of that dock can still be found.  The lumber jacks used oxen mostly to haul the logs to the mill.  From dawn until dusk all that could be heard was the ringing of axes and the buzzing of saws. The whole point on which the mill was located became a mass of slabs and sawdust. Even today if you walk on this point the ground is spongy from that sawdust, and if you ever fish in West Harbor, there is seldom a day goes by without hooking into one of the thousands of waterlogged slabs or deadheads that abound in the water.
  "Most of the activity of the mill ceased in the winter.  The lake froze over early and no shipping could get through, also the heavy snows that used to prevail made work in the woods almost impossible in spring.
  "Eventually it became unprofitable to keep the mill running.  All the pine had been cleared off and there was no profit shipping other types of lumber.  Frieburg, still owning the small piece of property on which the mill and boarding house were located, decided to convert the boarding house into a general store.  The upstairs was used for storing 100 pound sacks of flour and feed.  With all this weight continually being stored there, dips in the floor developed, and even today as you walk down the upstairs hall it is like walking over a series of hills.
  "In the store's early days people came from all corners of the island to trade at Frieburg's general store.  They would come for a weekly and sometimes monthly trip in their horse and buggy or horse an sleigh depending on the time of year, and stock up.  But as the population increased, other stores sprang up nearer the centers of population, and began taking the business away from Frieburg's, and it became unprofitable to keep the store running.
 "The store was boarded up and stood empty and deserted for a number of years.  Then, about the year 1900, a fellow by the name of Paulson with the idea of turning the store into a resort bought it from Frieburg. Since that time, it has never shut its door to summer tourists. The only other owners of the resort beside Paulson are Jens Sorenson and Frank Gibson.  Many additions and improvements have been added to make the resort what it is today.  It isn't a fancy or expensive resort, but the people who come there enjoy themselves and a large percent come back every year.  Its purpose is, and has been, to serve the tourist and hopes to go on doing so for many years."

   -  Dick Purinton

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