Thursday, May 11, 2017


Members of our group posed beneath the flag of Iceland in the Thordarson
artifacts room of the Boat House on Rock Island.  From left:  Craig Welt,
Laurie Latimer, Amy Welt, Jeannie Hutchins and special guest,
Almar Grimsson of Iceland.

Washington Island, Wisconsin -

Nearly 150 years ago, in 1870, four men from Iceland came to Washington Island, encouraged by William Wickman who purchased Island property here and offered the men the opportunity to work for him in his woods.

One of the men was Jon Gislason, who began working in the Danish outpost in Eyrarbakki at age 14, and who had come to know fellow store employee Wickman.  At the time, Eyrarbakki was a small seaport, but a major shipment point for exporting wool and cod from Iceland's southern coast.  It was Wickman who, removed to Milwaukee a year or so later, encouraged his Icelandic friends to join him in America.   These young men might have gone on to live productive and relatively comfortable lives in Iceland, but it was the adventure as much as anything that encouraged them to leave their homeland and seek new opportunities.

This past Tuesday, the Washington Island Archives held an Open House in the Rutledge Room of the Community Center, welcoming members of the community to learn more about the Archives, but foremost, to greet three guests who are descendants of Jon Gislason.

Almar Grimsson, Iceland, recently traveled to Grand Fork, North Dakota, to attend a convention celebrating Icelandic roots in North America.  He's been to the U.S. and Canada numerous times, tracing his ancestry and meeting with others of Icelandic immigrant descent. A common goal is to maintain strong ties with Iceland, the mother country, its history and culture.  Grimsson then drove from North Dakota to Washington Island for his first ever visit here.  He met up with two Gislason cousins of his, Amy Welt, joined by her husband, Craig, of Iowa City, Iowa, and Laurie Latimer, Evanston, Illinois.

Archivist Steve Reiss prepared a Gislason genealogical tree, based on information available in the Island Archives, and with help from Jeannie Hutchins and others, connections to Jon Gislason were made.  In Almar Grimsson's case, his great grandfather was a brother to Jon, and as a Lutheran minister, slightly older than Jon, that brother chose to remain in Iceland.  Amy is a great-granddaughter of Arthur Gislason, and Laurie is a great-granddaughter of Esther (respectively, brother and sister to Lawrence Gislason.)  Island residents may remember best Lawrence and Ruth Gislason who continued to run the Gislason family store in Jensenville, situated along the shores of Detroit Harbor.  This building later became the Island's first Community Center.  It was later demolished, and there is a sandy playground today where it once stood.

After closing their store in the 1930s, Lawrence and Ruth then sailed on Great Lakes vessels as a couple, for a time.  Gislason Beach, across the road from the present day Red Barn facility and adjacent to the Shipyard Marina, was the site of Gislason pier, once used by freighting vessels for the shipment of potatoes and lumber, and for receiving incoming products and visitors around the turn of the century, in the early 1900s.

One daughter of Jon and Augusta Gislason, Evaline, married Ben Johnson ("Hotel Benny" as he became known) who built Hotel Washington next door to the Gislason residence and boarding house.  It was at this same boarding house that a young couple, Julianna and C. H. Thordarson, for several years stayed when visiting the Island. This was before Thordarson purchased his property on Rock Island.  At the time, Julianna's mother and father lived on Washington Island.

Jeannie Hutchins adds meaning to what seemed like a mile-long
list of family names provided by Archivist Steve Reiss.
All named are descendants of Jon Gislason, one of
four earliest Icelandic immigrants to settle here.


On hand during Grimsson's visit, and most helpful in sorting out the often confusing family lines of descent (not to mention the many other associations and connections made in a small community over the decades) was Jeannie Hutchins.

Jeannie is both an Archives volunteer and a volunteer docent at the Jacobsen Museum, and she can claim perhaps the closest association of any Island person to the Thordarson family.

It was Jeannie's Aunt Helga (Lindal) who married the Thordarson's oldest son, Dewey.  Dan Lindal, Jeannie's father, answered an ad placed in the early 1920s by Thordarson in an Icelandic newspaper published in Gimli, near Winnipeg, Canada, and Lindal (and later his sister, Helga) came to Washington Island, working first as a foreman on Rock Island for C. H. Thordarson, and then as an Island fisherman.

Jeannie (Lindal) Hutchins poses with the traditional
 Icelandic wedding dress of Julianna Thordarson,
on display at the Thordarson Boat House.

My first association with Almar was through filling his email order for a book about Thordarson and Rock Island.  Several exchanges and several years later, and serving as an Island Archives representative, I offered to prepare an agenda of activities during his two-day stay that might prove meaningful in connecting with his family Icelandic heritage, and also with the Rock Island and Thordarson history.

Looking back at the opportunity to visit with each of our guests, I believe we had a most rewarding time, during which new bits of information and history about the Gislason family or Rock Island came to light.

Casual conversation revealed that Almar and Mary Jo are also cousins, through a Dane named Knudson who came to live in Iceland.  Shown photos from our recent, 2015 family trip to Iceland, Almar recognized several faces, including   Mary Jo's Gudmundsen cousins, Dora and Bjorg Thorsteinsdottir, who were also his relations.  So, in this way our visiting was both enlightening and entertaining.

Grimsson, who is a retired pharmacist, is also a past president of the Icelandic National League of Iceland. He became actively interested in pursuing general Icelandic genealogy and emigration, and in particular his own family ties, approximately 20 years ago.  But until a colleague asked him a specific question about Washington Island, he was not aware of the Jon Gislason family connection, or of the importance of Washington Island's place in the minds of fellow Icelanders.

This Island is considered the first, true settlement location by most Icelanders (although there was also a large group who left from southern Iceland in the 1840s, following a Danish Mormon leader to Spanish Fork, Utah).  The arrival and subsequent settling here by those first four men then became a wave of emigration to North America - many settled on the plains of Canada - that spanned approximately 1870-1914.

Having gained deeper knowledge about his family and this island community - the one Icelandic settlement location he had yet to visit in the United States - Grimsson hopes to return again some day, along with his wife.

Welcoming Almar Grimsson (center) at the Archives Open House
Tuesday, May 9, were Karen Jess, Connie Sena and Judie Yamamoto.

Wednesday, May 10, we stopped at points of interest that aren't typically open to visitors until later in May. We were accompanied by videographers Brett Kosmider and Andrew Phillips, of Peninsula Filmworks, LLC.  Their company is associated with Peninsula Publishing and Distribution Company and was commissioned by the Door County Visitor's Bureau to produce short video segments on Door County culture and history.  These productions, approximately five or six minutes in length, play on the DCVB website. The topic chosen by Phillips and Kosmider to air in June will describe Washington Island's Icelandic connections.

I received Andrew's email contact out of the blue, at about the same time Almar's plane touched down at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.  Through this coincidental timing, we linked up and were able to provide timely opportunities for them to witness Icelandic connections as they unfolded.  We look forward with interest to viewing the results of their interviews and photography, based on our day together at various Island locations.

*        *         *

For the fine welcome given our Gislason relations guests, I'd like to thank Archives committee members and volunteers for helping to prepare the Open House event.

Also, I must give special thanks to Rock Island State Park Supervisor, Michelle Hefty, who allowed us the opportunity to visit the Thordarson Boat House prior to its official opening date.  And to Terri Moore, who prepared the pioneer buildings and opened up especially for us at the Island Farm Museum.  And Jeannie Hutchins, both for knowledge shared over the days during our guests' visit, and also for the private opening of the Jacobsen Museum at Little Lake to see artifacts there.

Each of these above-named facilities, as well as the Stavkirke, display facets of Island history and culture, and each helps to educate and interpret Washington Island's development as a community over several generations.  These institutions become important stops for Island visitors, but also for residents, especially during the "warm months" of the tourism year.  

-  Dick Purinton

Tuesday, May 2, 2017


Detroit Harbor, Washington Island, Wisconsin -

Realizing that it's been nearly two months since my last posting, this blog will touch on a variety of topics.

The photo that begins this column is of the Stavkirke when folks gathered for the Saturday evening Vigil Service, on the eve of Easter.

Rain had let up by this time and a light haze hung low over fields, but the temperature was moderate, in the 50s, making this a pleasant evening.

Inside the Stavkirke, electric baseboard heaters that were turned on well in advance helped warm the space.

I had a second reason for attending this service.  My goal was to obtain a few good photographs to include in a book I'm working on about the Island Stavkirke.   Low light photos, and photos of worship activities were shots I hoped to add as contrast to the many others that will appear in the book.

Photos will comprise the primary content, with text and comments made by those closely involved with its design, construction and use.  No exact publication date can yet be determined, but I'm hoping for a late June or July book launch, if all goes well.  Over 100 photos and illustrations, in color, will be featured, that reflect back twenty five years or more.

Trinity Lutheran Church Pastor Alan Schaffmeyer led
the Vigil Service in the Stavkirke.  Dan Hansen (not shown)
helped lead musical selections by playing an electric keyboard.
(Note: Open flames are generally not permitted on the
Stavkirke grounds or in the church, but use of candles during
this special service is one exception.)

At my prompting, Steve Waldron also took photos that same evening, and his results with a quality Canon camera were far better than mine, both in composition and technical quality.  However, I'm saving Steve's photos for the book.  These photos should give you a sense, at least, of what the service was like with low candlelight, in a quiet setting (Quiet, except for the occasional squeak of floorboards and hymns that were sung).  

By coincidence, two of our grandsons, Aidan and Magnus Purinton, were baptized in the Stavkirke the following Saturday with family members present, a pleasant and intimate setting for their ceremony.

Increased, dedicated Stavkirke parking 

Last January a plan was announced by the Trinity Church Council to create a new parking lot for Stavkirke visitors.  By creating dedicated parking to the west of the Stavkirke, with entrance from Town Line Road, more spaces and safer access should result.  Currently, vehicles including buses and tour trams park wherever space is available along the Town Line Road, where already many vehicles may be found,  parked by those using Trinity's facilities.

A fund raising campaign was begun following January's approval by the Trinity congregation. To date, approximately $11,000 has been raised, with $25,000 being the stated goal.

In addition to the already donated dollars, a most generous offer was made by David Small, Island contractor, to provide excavation labor and equipment.  David's offer was accepted, with thanks, by the Church Council.

At this point, it seems certain that work can begin within the next several months.  Possibilities and choices now exist for an improved sidewalk surface (concrete vs. gravel or woodchips), plus the eventual need to blacktop the parking surfaces and driveway.  The $25,000 figure may be still be a conservative goal, given the long-term list of requirements.

Therefore, funds continue to be sought for this project.

Future parking lot diagram with entrance at Town Line Road.
Stavkirke is to the east (right) and Trinity Lutheran Church to the south
(bottom), across the road from the Stavkirke property.

The attached graphic shows a loop-style parking area that will undergo slight modifications prior to actual construction, to account for several existing, large spruce trees, but as a general plan it shows how the new parking design will look.  

Donations for the Stavkirke parking improvement can be made c/o:  Stavkirke Fund, Trinity Lutheran Church, 1763 Town Line Road, Washington Island,
Wisconsin 54246.  

Ferry Washington gets new wheels

In late November a loud "thunk" was heard by the crew of the Washington as the ferry backed toward the Island pier.  Afterward, the vessel's starboard shaft produced a profound shudder.  The noise and vibration was traced to the starboard propeller, resulting when one of the propeller blades came in contact with a sheet of steel that had been placed on the end of the pier to prevent loss of fill from the dock.  That sheet of steel, it is believed, came loose from the pier structure at an earlier juncture. It then lifted from the bottom with the suction and turbulence caused by prop wash, rising from the bottom enough to contact one of the blades.

The ferry was rendered inoperable following that incident, due to the significant vibration.  It was decided then to winterize the vessel and order a replacement propellers, with a dry docking scheduling for early spring, once the bay was ice-free.

Chris Swanson holds the broken
Washington propeller blade, weighing an
estimated 80 pounds.  Impact point that
separated blade from hub can be
on the left.

The subject blade shown here, and the steel sheet, were recovered by Hoyt Purinton, who dove to attach lines for retrieval.  While the remaining three of four blades appeared intact, consultation with propeller manufacturer Kahlenberg indicated that repair of this broken blade wouldn't be possible.  And. since propellers come as a matched pair, replacement with a new pair would be the best option. This necessitated several months lead time for production.

So, during the first week of April, with only mushy ice remaining in the lower bay, the Washington ran slowly on a single, port prop to Sturgeon Bay, where it was dry docked and new wheels were installed.  As it happened, stainless was quoted cheaper than nickel-bronze, so that the new propellers would be sturdier and more resistant to errant objects, such as deadheads, than the old set.  

In addition to propeller replacement, a U. S. Coast Guard, five-year hull inspection was also conducted ahead of the required due date.  This inspection activity is required for each ferry at five-year intervals, and doing so whenever a dry dock opportunity presents itself hopefully extends the time to the next required docking deadline.

Also, prior to this yard visit, it was determined that a slight widening of the stern ramp would facilitate the loading of long and large vehicles, such as semi trucks and trailers.    The ramp opening was therefore increased by one foot on each side - and the ramp leaves were widened accordingly - by moving of the uprights, hydraulic piping, and cable arrangement to accommodate this change.  Now repainted, the average traveler won't notice the change unless the area is examined closely for signs of metal work.  All such work, of course, requires both naval architect plan detail and U. S. Coast Guard approval prior to actual work being done.

With all work completed in approximately eleven days, the Washington sailed back to Detroit Harbor, where it was cleaned, touched-up and placed into service.

Antler hunting as a sport

What Island bucks lose over winter, antler hunters hope to find.

But such a search can be compared with looking for a needle in a haystack, with miles and miles of deer trails in the woods and no rhyme or reason to where an antler might be found.  Following predicted routes of deer travel may help increase the odds of finding an antler, but that is about the only helpful tip we can give readers.  Otherwise, it is luck + time spent searching.   

Hoyt Purinton enjoys hunting antlers in late winter, sometimes with his sons, as a winter or early-spring outdoor activity. It's also reason to get outdoors and walk in the woods during the time of year when other outdoor activities are at a low point.

Antlers found over a two-day period in spring by Hoyt Purinton.  Dark antler
at top shows signs of mice gnawing, and may have been in woods for a
full year or more.

Sometimes, Hoyt has learned, where one half might be discovered lying in snow, or among leaves, (depending on the time of winter or spring, and recent weather) the other half could be found nearby.  But there's no certainty, no rules.  Hoyt happens to possess a lucky eye, and he's often successful at locating antlers.  An antler dropped randomly by a buck can look much like dead cedar branches that litter the forest floor.  It's easy to walk right past despite keeping eyes trained on the ground.  A light snowfall can help by providing contrast, covering the otherwise dark ground. Too much snow will bury an antler, unless it is recently dropped or its tines are large enough to project upward.  

Losing antlers, beginning in January as a rule, happens when bucks renew antlers for the coming season.  A new set forces out the old, which then fall, more or less at random, when they're no longer attached to the deer's skull.  With rare exception, such as in an old or unhealthy buck, the new set will grow in larger and with more points added in each successive year.  Finding an antler with four, five or more significant points per antler may bode well for seeing trophy bucks in the coming year.

Why aren't antlers more commonly seen when strolling through the woods in summer, given the number of possible bucks on Washington Island?   Squirrels and mice like the mineral content and unless an antler is well-buried in debris, few antlers remain intact in the woods throughout a full year.   Another reason may be that we just aren't attuned to spotting them among the typical forest floor debris.

If you're interested and need advice, ask Hoyt or Kevin Krueger, both of whom enjoy antler hunting.

What to do with collected antlers is another question.  Hoyt displays dozens in his home and garage, given Kirsten's generous approval.  Artists and craftsmen (some of whom teach such crafts at Sievers School) incorporate them into a chandelier, lamp or piece of furniture.  If antlers are kept away from rodents, they will last indefinitely.

Get out in the woods and look!  

That's a wrap for this blog!  -  Dick Purinton