Friday, January 6, 2012


 Rock Island scenes given as gift by C.H. Thordarson, March 30, 1920
Washington Island, Wisconsin -

A recent Wall Street Journal article Jan. 5, 2012 described the imminent demise of the world-famous Kodak company:
  "Eastman Kodak Co. is preparing to seek bankruptcy protection in the coming weeks, people familiar with the matter said, a move that would cap a stunning comedown for a company that once ranked among America's corporate titans."

What does this news item have to do with Rock Island and the album shown above?  Likely, nothing, except for the film emulsion or paper, most probably a Kodak Company product.  However, there has been for some time an accreditation to George Eastman for photos taken on Rock Island in the early years of C.H. Thordarson's ownership.   The connection has persisted, but so far, no hard evidence has come to light to connect Rock Island with the famous creator of every day photo products.

The album came to the Island Archives in November this way:   Ingert Johnson, wife of the late Al Johnson, called to say she had a book of photos of Rock Island that had been passed to her by the late Liberty Grove resident Bill Beckstrom.  Bill (we surmise) had been given it by the family of noted Door County Historian, H.R. Holand.   Holand's daughter was either given the album, or it was passed to her in his estate.  H.R. Holand, in his wide-ranging historical interests, had become acquainted with Chester Hjortur Thordarson, who owned Rock Island.  The inside cover of the album has a nice contour map of Rock Island, and the opposing fly leaf has the inscription:
To My Friend                        March 30, 1920 
        Mr. H. R. Holand
        who first told the 
       story of Rock Island to the
       people of Wisconsin
      I give this book.
            C.H. Thordarson

Thordarson purchased land on Rock Island in 1909 and 1910, and so we can estimate that the photos in the album were taken some time in the ensuing decade.  An interesting pair of photos shows a wooden tower (that I estimate to be in the 50-ft. range) in the high-ground interior of Rock Island.  An old fire tower?  Not so, says Kirby Foss, recently retired Rock Island Park Superintendent who worked on Rock Island for all but nine of his 33 years of state park service.

 "Phil Peterson referred to it as a survey tower used in the early survey of Rock and Washington Islands.  But he never found the tower or the exact location.  Neither did Tom Jessen, Phil's successor, or did I.  People who've hunted on Rock year after year, who have pretty well walked every spot of ground, they've never seen evidence of the tower.  Tom always thought it might have been made of hardwood, the fact there are no remains left."

If this was a survey tower, and it was used when the original surveyors were here, could it have possibly lasted some 80 years, when Thordarson came along?  Would anyone have dared climb an old tower, much less a newer one, to take a photo?  Or was it built at a later time, for a related purpose?  But climb the tower a photographer did, obtaining a panoramic shot from the tower's top, overlooking over what Kirby says is the SW notch on Rock Island, with Jackson Harbor in the distance.  (Original surveying was done as early as March 1835, according to notes in his book, Rock Island, p. 25, by Conan Eaton.)

The balance of album photos are of nature, woods, shoreline shots with rugged beaches littered with all types of logs, driftwood, and even identifiable pieces of shipwrecks.  The album also has photos showing old Rock Island's pioneer structures, some of them with repairs-in-progress as directed by Thordarson.  Dewey, Thordarson's oldest son, is shown feeding a young deer from his hand as others in the group looked on.  Early gardens and the beginning of a fountain were also featured in several photos.  These photos pre-dated when Thordarson shifted his development emphasis from the east side fishing village to the SW cove on Rock Island.  However, an old wood-framed boat house used by the Light House Service, NW of the present day Thordarson boat house, is shown in one photo.

Wooden tower on one of Rock Island's high points.
The photos are of very high quality, fine grain, and are backed with linen for durability.  It is possible Thordarson himself took the photos, or a friend who had photographic equipment and skills.

Could they really have been taken by George Eastman?   It's hard to say one way or the other with absolute certainty, however Rock Island from Rochester, NY would be a very long trip for Eastman. He would have had to make the trip several times in order to capture the multiple seasons shown in these photos.  And while the photos are of fine quality, they aren't necessarily outstanding in composition.  A few are blurry on the edges, due to wind movement of trees, etc.  Rather, these photos more closely depict, I think, what we might want to show others through photos if we owned Rock Island.

Tower view, looking toward Jackson Harbor.
When I presented this album from Ingert, our Archivist Janet Berggren showed me another album, this one with even more photo pages, that was already in the Archives vault.  It would seem that Thordarson, as proud landowner, gave these books to friends, and maybe kept one for his own family's use. Had these been Eastman's photos, Thordarson might have given credit to him as photographer, because he would have also been a friend, and an already famous figure in photography and American business.   That wasn't done, nor has the file of archived correspondence indicated exchanges between the two men.

Now, finally, there is an interesting Swedish connection pointed out by Ingert Johnson.  Eastland, she said, was actually Ostland (imagine an umlaut over the "O"), and that Eastland's family was noted in Sweden for starting a school of dentistry.    Having George Eastland as the photographer makes a much more interesting story, but other than for the fun of speculation, I don't think he belongs there.

Yet, thanks to Thordarson's efforts, we do have a great photo history of the island.

Old Rock Island contour map.  Highest point (210) is just above the "N".
One final note:  In some of the Thordarson correspondence he indicates a personal interest in trying to officially change the name from 'Rock Island' to 'Pottawatomie Island,' a name he believed was more historically fitting for the island. Certainly the naming of the lighthouse on Rock, Pottawatomie Light, had followed this path.

Holand, whose writings seemed to often honor early natives, might also have favored the name Pottawatomie.   In any case, Thordarson's photo album cover shows his preferred name in large letters, with top-billing.

Thanks to Ingert Johnson for passing this piece of history along to the Washington Island Archives.
        -  Dick Purinton

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