Friday, October 17, 2014


Washington Island, Wisconsin -

When I've read about our early history, whether as a boy or more recently, my fascination with the earliest European explorers was kindled.  A part of that, I think, is because my family occasionally stopped on our way to Green Bay at the roadside memorial to Jean Nicolet along highway 57, near Dykesville.  I imagined Nicolet stepping ashore, his arms aloft, firing his pistols as I had seen in a painting reproduction.

French explorer Nicolet was in 1634 supposedly the first white man to visit Green Bay waters and come ashore, and that statue and painting were strongly etched in my mind.  Dressed in a splendid red robe with what appears to be gold applique, his show of fire power as depicted by the artist caused natives to cower in fear and uncertainty, and listen in awe to his message of greetings.  Nicolet's pistol attention-getter would have preceded the message that these inhabitants were now subjects of New France.  Then Nicolet, or a priest traveling in his company, would very likely have baptized the heathens into membership in the Roman Catholic Church.

Memorial to Nicolet that was erected
along Highway 57 near Red Banks,
near what is now near the town
of Dykesville.

Over the years, a Wisconsin bank, a high school (perhaps more than one), a Wisconsin National Forest, the Rhinelander Technical College, a restaurant and perhaps many, many roads … were named for this explorer as a way of honoring his visit, Wisconsin's earliest European connection.

Never did information contradict this general view of Nicolet's  appearance along the shores of Green Bay…until now.

Ronald J. Mason, Lawrence University, carefully points out corrections to the record in his article "Where Nicolet and the Winnebagoes First Met," published in The Wisconsin Archeologist (2014, 95(1):65-74.  Mason, a Professor Emeritus in Anthropology and a name familiar to Rock Island and Great Lakes anthropology, uses scholarly language and exacting logic, to be expected.  To paraphrase his article here will seem incomplete and lacking in respect for the supporting statements Mason makes.  Mason is most careful to close loopholes in his challenge to the existing notions of Nicolet's journey.

However, condense we must, and using his information we begin with his opening statement, one that sets the stage for a convincing argument:

 The surviving descriptions of Nicolet's 1634 or 1634-1635 exploration west of Lake Huron were not written by the explorer himself, but by the contemporary Jesuit fathers Paul Le Jeune and Barthelemy Vimont in subsequently edited segments in published collections of extracts from the annual reports of the Jesuit mission in Canada.  These substitutes have thereby become the definitive sources on Nicolet's travels.

A number of years passed, according to scholars, between the actual 1634 exploration and the written compilation of that accomplishment, based, it is presumed, on a journal of Nicolet's that might have "later been lost."  What survived may have been "delivered orally or in writing."  Mason cautions about the sources:  "However that many (years) have been, the record of where the explorer actually had gone has survived only indirectly and partially, thus requiring a measure of diffidence not always exercised by scholars appealing to it in their own reconstructions of history."

The descriptions of location that survived, then, "apart from the few snags in translating seventieth-century French" of which Mason gives examples, are a much closer fit with the rapids of Sault Sainte Marie, which is a major river that opens up to "the little lake," possibly today's Whitefish Bay, and then to a "second fresh water sea," most likely Lake Superior.   Information about a such large inland sea would have come from the earlier explorations of Champlain.  Mason writes, such "knowledge doubtless communicated to Nicolet before his departure, of the existence of such a big, even if not yet formally named, lake beyond Sault Ste. Marie…depicted on both the 1616 and 1632 Champlain maps."   Certainly Nicolet would have taken advantage of all prior knowledge before setting out on his journey.

One "snag" that may have thrown off earlier scholars, Mason acknowledges, was the notion that Nicolet met with members of the Menominee and Winnebago tribes.  Formerly scholars believed this would eliminate Lake Superior, but not the shores of Green Bay which was traditionally where scholars believed those people called home.  Mason takes pains to describe the various tribes inhabiting this area, their various native names, and those names given by Nicolet (who was fluent in Algonquin dialect).  It is also possible, Mason thinks, that one named native group could have been confused with another, and also that Nicolet may have repeated names he overheard that were commonly used by those he met to describe "diverse foreign groups" of natives.

Mason also points out hat natives may not have been closely associated with just one geographic area, as we might assign them today, or that this area may have changed over time.   We think of Lake Winnebago today as being the traditional home of the Winnebago people (why else the name?) but naming on a U. S. map shouldn't exclude the possibility that members of this tribe, or the entire tribe for that matter, might have traveled or lived elsewhere, well beyond a location that we may today consider their geographic or tribal boundaries.  Purposeful relocation (or displacement forced by other tribes), or trading opportunities with other tribes, or seeking a more plentiful food supply might also have been real reasons for moving about.

Mason writes:

This does not mean that Lake Superior was the "homeland" of the Winnebagoes and that they did not inhabit other areas instead or as well.  It simply and importantly means that Nicolet met Winnebagoes in 1634 on the shore of Lake Superior and not on Green Bay or Lake Michigan."

A part of his argument Mason bases on his extensive reading and study of the various ethnic cultures of the Great Lakes. He then cites the description of Father Claude Allouez, who wrote "some thirty years after Nicolet, about the cosmopolitan habits he witnessed on Lake Superior":

The lake is, furthermore, the resort of twelve or fifteen distinct nations coming, some from the north, others from the south, and still others from the west;  and they all betake themselves either to the best parts of the shore for fishing, or to the islands, which are scattered in great numbers all over the lake.  These peoples' motives in repairing hither is partly to obtain food by fishing, and partly to transact their petty trading with one another when they meet.

The geography of his travels as described by Nicolet (and compiled perhaps years later by his transcribers) depicted "a great river."   Mason points out that neither the Fox, Menominee or any other Green Bay river meets the true test of a "great river." But, the St. Mary's River that connects Lake Huron with Lake Superior would so qualify.   Had Nicolet found Green Bay's Fox River, its mouth near the present city of Green Bay, Mason believes Nicolet would surely have been informed by natives of the relatively easy route up the Fox, and the short portage to the Wisconsin which flows to the Mississippi River.

Readers may say, "What difference does it make, after all?"

It's unlikely that an institution in northeastern Wisconsin will change its name in light of new scholarship from Nicolet to something else, especially when that name was based on an historic event that for many years has been unassailable.

But, Nicolet's expedition is a record unknowingly embellished through the years by honest people who repeated mistaken assumptions.

Those assumptions have led, among other things, to the erection of a bronze statue and an accompanying historical plaque (as I remember these were made possible, in part, through funding by penny donations from school children).  A consideration by state highway officials to move or raze this monument was challenged by newspaper readers before the highway underwent reconstruction a few years back.  I believe it can still be seen from the highway, if you look carefully as you drive by at 65 mph.

And then there are the historic oil paintings that became popular and lasting records of Nicolet's exploits, great teaching tools to tell "the Wisconsin story." But, what if they depict the wrong geographic location?  One such painting, by Hugo Ballin, hangs in the Governor's Reception Room of the State Capitol in Madison.  A similar painting, in which Nicolet is again displaying his authority with raised pistols on behalf of France, was commissioned in 1904 by then Wisconsin Historical Society President, Robert McCormick, with artist Edwin Deming.

Such well-intended efforts perpetuate the erroneous assumptions made over generations, dramatizing errors made by earlier scholars.  For his research and his boldness, it may be Mason who deserves a monument!

 -  Dick Purinton

Saturday, October 11, 2014


Kathleen Dixon, left, will soon turn the keys to her store over to new
owner Deb Wayman.
Washington Island, Wisconsin -

When Island Time Books closes on October 15, Kathleen Dixon will retire from the business she started 11 years ago.  The shop's new owner will be Deb Wayman, who was on hand in the closing days of the 2014 season to meet customers and learn about the business in preparation for next year, when she'll reopen the store Memorial Weekend.

Her customers would liken Dixon's personality to that of a speed reader:  rapid, engaging conversation, seldom dropping in velocity, filled with information; a scanning of authors, books, and events; the trending of reader habits and the book industry - all within a short visit.  But, because of her love of what she does, Kathleen's been a great resource, and for those same reasons, her customer base, both regular and the drop-in visitor, has grown over the years.

Retiring after 30 years as an emergency trauma nurse - much of that time as a member of an ambulance crew - Dixon started a new pursuit as the owner of Island Time Books.  For two years it was located on Main Road across from Karly's, and then for the past nine years in its present location, nestled between the Red Cup and the Island Post Office.  As anyone visits with her knows, her mind is rapid-fire, enthusiastically promoting authors, books, her store, and the Island.

She's always loved books.  "We were readers.  My sisters and I used to walk to the libraries," Dixon remembered, noting the many neighborhood branches of the Chicago Public Library in the city where she grew up.

"Day trippers and others are thrilled to see an independent bookstore, with good coffee next door," she said, "great for browsing on rainy days.  They like the Independent Bookstore list that comes out monthly, with its many new recommendations."

Dixon prides herself in the fact she could recommend books to readers who least expected to find such a wide range of titles in so small a shop - on an island, no less.   She would often special-order books requested by visitors who stayed only a week or two, receiving their requests within two days via UPS.  Many loyal customers, she noted, buy books at the close of the season to read during winter.  Physical books, as opposed to e-books, she noted, are still very much a part of the public's reading habits.

Dixon kept current on new titles and authors, in part, by attending the annual Key West Literary Festival, where many of the nation's leading authors would gather each January.  (Key West was her former winter home, but she's now moved to the Naples area.)  At the Key West Festival, Dixon volunteered for several years at their book sales table, in addition to being a registered participant.  She's a member of the Island Literary Festival committee, involved since its inception.

This winter Dixon and Wayman plan to travel to the American Booksellers Conference in Asheville, North Carolina, where Dixon will introduce Wayman to her industry friends and contacts.

Dixon still plans to visit the island in summer.  "I'll be back," she said.

New owner Deb Wayman and husband Bob, an engineer and production manager, own a summer place along the eastern shore of Washington Island, on Wickman Road.  However, their year around home will continue to be York Center, Illinois.  Their two children, Alan, 23, and Shelby, 20, are enrolled in college.  

-  Dick Purinton

Thursday, October 9, 2014


Shown on the former Hansen / Standard Oil pier are Ferry Line
Vice President Rich Ellefson, Coastal Engineer David Wentland
and Ferry Line President Hoyt Purinton.
Washington Island -

Changes may appear to happen slowly on Washington Island, but they do happen.

The major news in this entry is about a change of hands on the property that was Ray Hansen's, most often referred to as either the Hansen Oil or Standard Oil property.

The pier and the upland property that supported the oil storage and transfer business, so critical to the island these many years, had been cleared of tanks and associated pumps and piping quite a few years ago, when storage was moved to a new Hansen tank facility near East Side Road and Town Line Road.

Except for an old shed containing a few related fuel transfer items, and seasonal boat moorings, the property has been mostly vacant since that time.

As adjacent landowner, and a business dependent upon water frontage and mooring for its vessels, the Ferry Line had expressed interest in purchase of the property, a transaction that was accomplished in the early days of the fall season.

While no long term plans have yet been made, initial efforts will stabilize and repair the pier.   Coastal Engineer David Wentland, of Docks & Marinas, Inc., Green Bay, will offer a plan on how best to repair the pier, work that could be done yet this winter from shore.  Attention will then be turned toward the treatment of upland property, how to best to mesh with adjacent properties, and whether safe public access opportunities, such as pier fishing, can be included and managed.

Historical note:   Hoyt Purinton, great grandson of J. W. Cornell, received the Title papers on the property intended to be purchased September 12, 2014.  This was exactly 104 years - to the day - from the date when John W. Cornell purchased the same land from Bo Anderson and Ole Christiansen.  Cornell, we presume, later sold to Standard Oil, and more recently the title was transferred to Ray Hansen who assumed ownership of the property along with the Standard Oil distributorship he already managed.

Season about to close

This week marks what for all purposes is the last of the "busy" fall tourism weeks, although we anticipate lively traffic yet through the end of the month, especially while fall colors are vibrant.

Our schedule for the ferries to and from Northport cuts back Oct. 20 - from eleven to six trips.  Many island retail shops will soon operate with curtailed hours or days of the week.   The Cherry Train - an air conditioned ride that can be miserably cold on certain fall days - is nearing the end of its 2014 track, soon ready to head for the roundhouse.  And at Jackson Harbor, the Karfi's schedule to Rock Island ends Monday.  Columbus Day is the last day of service.

I took my last turn at the Karfi's wheel Tuesday with Tony Woodruff as my crew.  The time seems to fly each one of those days I've been aboard.   I've enjoyed the full schedule of Rock Island trips - when campers and piles of gear await us on the docks at either end for a quick turn-around - as well as the softer fall schedule, when Tony and I pass the time between trips talking sailboat designs and past cruises with nostalgic regret for the short summer just passed.  (If we were tuned in to the ice boating season, our regret would soon be replaced!)

The fall weather and shorter days make the realism of camping or tramping on Rock Island less appealing to visitors.  It was just yesterday (Wednesday) that high velocity westerly winds and the small handful of Rock Island travelers, led to cancellation of the afternoon's two trips.   But overall, 2014 ferry traffic made it a good tourism season, and we look forward to seeing the next one roll around.

Apple cider at the Farm Museum and the Fall Harvest Festival Dinner at Trinity mark two major events on the island this weekend, paired with outstanding tree color everywhere.   Hardly any leaves have so far fallen, and the tree colors now may be placed in the 40% range, turning much later than many other island autumns.   There are still plenty of great fall days to enjoy.

 -  Dick Purinton


Marnie Mamminga, author of Return to Wake Robin, talked about
her family's history at their cabin near Hayward, Wisconsin.
She was one of many writers who spoke at the recent
Island Literary Festival.    

Washington Island -

Eleven authors / writers were featured at the recent Washington Island Literary Festival, the second year of the event.   It was a success in several ways.

First, besides drawing writers of considerable acclaim to this event, readers were also attracted, along with aspiring writers interested in learning from veteran writers.   The range in talent and material presented was wide:  poetry, fiction, non-fiction, investigative journalism, personal memoir.   There were plenty of opportunities to meet and speak with individual authors, and to hear them read and comment on their work.  Several workshops were held prior to the main presentations on Friday, October 3, and these were also well received by those who signed up for them.

I attended Max Garland's poetry workshop and learned from his comments and easy manner regarding his own work.  Garland is a professor at UW Eau Claire and also the current Wisconsin Poet Laureate.   Afterward, I followed him to the Island School where he spoke to freshmen and sophomore students about why poetry matters, the forms which it may take, the human need for poetry, and how it provides an important means of self expression.

Although I consider my own skills to align more closely with journalistic writing and reporting (such as I'm doing here) I can't deny the interest and mystery poetry seems to hold as an outlet for expressing ideas either too complex or too difficult for linear writing.   I'd like to think that Garland's school visit will have planted a seed or two that some day - perhaps some decade - will inspire those present to seek their own expression through one of the many shapes and forms loosely identified as poetry.

Presentations during the three-day festival varied from a panel discussion to author readings followed by question and answer, but always there were plenty of opportunities to engage an author backstage on a one-to-one basis.

Guest authors were provided courtesy lodging, and Mary Jo and I were pleased to host Larry Watson and his wife, Susan.   Aside from the fact that Larry's birthday is just one week and one day before mine (I learned we were both born in 1947), Watson's book Montana 1948 remains a favorite book of mine.   I've recently read several of his books in fact, and I enjoy getting inside the lives and minds of his characters on the Montana and North Dakota plains, a spare and tough people with few frills in their lives.   It reminded me, as I read them, of my grandparents and their neighbors farming stony land on Old Stage Road near Sister Bay in the first half of the 20th Century - minus the violence that frequently emerges in Watson's characters.

Adam Schrager, a Madison television news journalist, described in his book Sixteenth Rail the
crime, investigation, capture and prosecution of the Lindberg kidnapper, using
the advanced science to examine the homemade wooden ladder used
by Bruno Hauptmann.    

I particularly enjoyed Adam Schrager's presentation of his book Sixteenth Rail, the story of a meticulous solution to the prosecution of the Lindbergh baby kidnapper by Arthur Koehler, leading wood scientist of his day, who worked at the U. S. Forestry Laboratory in Madison.  Koehler's examination of the kidnapper's ladder came amid tremendous pressure from the public and the press to nail key suspect Bruno Hauptmann.  Schrager's logical and easy-to-read book provides a fascinating look at the rise of exacting science in crime investigation to solve the nation's most publicized crime.

Poet Laureate Max Garland visited with freshman
and sophomore students at school.

Festival venues were varied.  The Farm Museum Barn, the recently reopened Washington Hotel, the Red Barn, the Island Dairy - all were utilized in addition to the TPAC, where main events were held.  At the TPAC, between events blocked for speakers, the Backstage Bookstore featured books for sale with the authors on hand to sign them.

The Literary Festival is far from a strictly "highbrow" weekend.   Events are accessible for anyone who enjoys reading, writing, or who aspires to do more of each.  Next year's festival dates have yet to be set, but several themes are being considered along with possible author names, and we're confident, based on the success of the past two festivals, an exciting slate of writers and poets will again be attracted to Washington Island.

We should also mention that the Literary Festival's goals and efforts are closely joined in spirit with Write On Door County!, an organization that fosters writing at their center near Judville.  Anne Emerson is founder and creative force, and Jerod Santek, Director.  Both Anne and Jerod were participants in this most recent Literary Festival.  Collaboration between these two organizations will help in highlighting writing as a creative force, and in the encouragement of new and aspiring writers.

 -  Dick Purinton