Door County, Wisconsin

A winter wonderland weekend full of seasonal magic

Photo: Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Hillside Inn was at one time a Norwegian immigrant’s homestead.

Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American

Door County, the 70-mile long peninsula that juts north into Lake Michigan, may conjure up spring cherry blossoms, grazing dairy herds, and myriad tourists. However, winter has its own special memorable charm. Walk in a fairy-­tale-­like snowy wood, join a snowshoe hike or get cozy by a fire. View acres of sleeping orchards, explore shops and art galleries, eat cherry pie, try local wines and fruit brews, or stroll in quaint villages. No matter that it’s cold outside, there’s lots to do and taste and people to meet.

Image: Door County Visitor Bureau
Map of Door County

Historical beginnings
Door County gets its name from the Potawatomi tribe, who called the perilous waters between the northern point of the peninsula and Washington Island, “Door of Death.” Translated into French, it became “Ports des Morts,” meaning “Death’s Door.” The earliest inhabitants or Paleo-Indians date back some 2,000 years, according to unearthed artifacts. French explorers followed Native American tribes, and as time lapsed, the fur trade led to migration inland. Then came the French Jesuits, followed by the first permanent settlers around 1763. Many pioneers were French Canadians. After Wisconsin became a state in 1848, fishermen, lumbermen, and Europeans, attracted by the rich natural resources, homesteaded land.

Capt. Justice Bailey founded the oldest town, Baileys Harbor, in 1848, after a rough storm forced him to seek refuge. Upon landing, he reported on excessive timber and limestone, and soon settlers built a pier and sawmill. A year later, the town’s inhabitants were shipping nearly 2,500 cords of lumber.

Irish settlers originally established Carlsville, followed by a greater number of Germans. Ephraim was the first religious settlement begun by Rev. Andrew Iverson, an immigrant Moravian evangelist, who was born in Norway and had been ordained as a Lutheran minister at the Norwegian Mission Society, where he learned about the Moravian faith and served as a minister. In February 1853, he and three followers walked north over the ice from Green Bay to the wilderness that later became Ephraim. With a $500 loan, he purchased 425 acres of government land. His home was the second constructed in the village. Church services and school classes were held there until the construction of the church. Designed by Iverson and built by him and the congregation, this first church on the Door County peninsula was completed in 1859.

Around the same year, French-speaking southern Belgians called Walloons (different from the northern Belgians who speak Flemish, similar to Dutch) established the communities of Brussels and Namur (capital of Wallonia). This area holds the largest concentration of Belgian Americans in the United States.

By 1870, Door County had nearly 5,000 residents. Today, the number is around 28,000 and swells another 25,000 on summer weekends. Lumber, fishing, and farming continue to contribute to the thriving industries you find today.

The Scandinavian settlement
My visit began at the Hillside Inn in Ephraim, a building whose roots are Norwegian to the core. Norwegian-born Pastor Iverson built a log cabin on land below the church, the site where the Hillside Inn now stands. He rented it and then in 1866 sold it to Maria and Morton Oleson (Olson) with son Ole who emigrated from Trondheim. Ole later married Serena, herself born in a village near Oslo. Serena began the resort business, when she rented out rooms to improve finances. Soon there were more requests for lodging than available rooms. The rest is history. Innkeepers have changed through the years, but Diane Taillon, the present owner and exceptional steward, is very proud of the inn’s Nordic heritage.

Door County became a large Scandinavian settlement in the mid-1800s, as Swedes were reminded of their homeland by the bountiful fishing and picturesque countryside. Norwegians appreciated the same attributes as well as logging opportunities and religious freedom. From red barns with white window frames to wooded forests lining the rocky shoreline, the peninsula is dotted with Scandinavian architecture and customs.

Photo: Cynthia Elyce Rubin
Say “cheese” at Renard’s Cheese in Sturgeon Bay with Franca Bueno, store manager.

Cheese, candy, coffee, & other delights
It is said that Wisconsin dreams in cheese. If you’re a cheese lover, Renard’s Cheese, established in 1961, family-owned and operated, now on its third generation of cheesemakers, is a must-visit. Selections include 50 flavor-­infused specialty cheeses, farmer’s cheese with pesto, fresh cheese curds daily, and, of course, cherry cheddar.

At Sturgeon Bay, the world-renowned shipbuilding hub, small-town charm is found in a variety of boutiques and cafes, with a visit to Door County Candy for holiday treats and house-made chocolates, the Dancing Bear, a year-­round toy store filled with a colorful assortment of plush animals, and the Novel Bay Booksellers, where recent retirees Liz Welter and John Maggitti have full-­time jobs managing their dream of an independent bookstore. Then off to the Door County Maritime Museum and Lighthouse Preservation Society, with its historic tug, the John Purves, decked out in lights and exhibits explaining the history of shipbuilding and shipwrecks from 1600 to the present.

Photo: Cynthia Elyce Rubin
Vicki Wilson, founder of Door County Coffee & Tea, salutes all readers of The Norwegian American with a hearty cup of coffee.

The next day, founder Vicki Wilson taught Coffee College at Door County’s premier coffee roaster, Door County Coffee & Tea Company. I sampled holiday flavors, watched the process through an observation window, and had a special original breakfast, the “kitchen sink,” an apt name for a loaded dish of waffles, sausage, bacon, eggs, and cheese, layered and baked, and topped with Wisconsin maple syrup. Wow!

Fueled by my protein-packed power breakfast, I then visited the Door County Distillery, the first in the area to produce gin and fruit-infused vodka. Next to the Door 44 Winery, where owner Steve Johnson discussed his passion introducing Wisconsin grape varietals or “cool climate grapes,” the Marquette and St. Croix, to the wine world. Then off to the Plum Bottom Gallery, where potter Chad Luberger creates handcrafted porcelain and curates a collection of Wisconsin and other artists who work in stained glass, gold, textiles and paints. Shopping is a No. 1 activity here!

At the Macready Artisan Bread Co., I warmed up with delicious tomato soup and egg and chicken salads, along with homemade flax and sunflower seed bread and cherry scones. I left with a goody box that inspired me to go home and bake—or maybe just eat.

Photo: Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The fish is cooked outside in boiling water by a Door County master boiler.

Afternoon adventure & a fish boil
In the afternoon, I visited Björklunden, Swedish for “Birch Grove by the Lake,” a preserved property in Baileys Harbor that includes the Boynton Chapel, a small wooden structure built between 1939 and 1947 in the stave church style by Winifred and Donald Boynton. Its architectural inspiration stems from the Garmo stave church at Maihaugen in Lillehammer. The Boyntons greatly admired Norwegian folk art, inspiration for the carving and painting they personally accomplished in the lodge. The Boyntons later donated the property to Lawrence University (Appleton, Wis.), which uses it for students as well as adult learning, conferences, and special events throughout the year.

Nature is important here. The Ridges Sanctuary, Wisconsin’s first land trust, was founded in 1937 to conserve the original 40-acre parcel and today protects some 1,600 acres of one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the state, conserves wildlife habitat, and provides scenic landscapes for the public to enjoy.

Photo: Cynthia Elyce Rubin
There is nothing like an old-fashioned Door County fish boil dinner of whitefish and potatoes.

Then off to a Scandinavian dinner at the White Gull Inn, established in 1896, and offering traditional fish boils on winter Fridays. A Door County fish boil features freshly caught Lake Michigan white fish cooked outside over an open fire, just as it was 100 years ago by the Peninsula’s Scandinavian pioneers. The fish is cut into chunks and cooked in boiling water with small red potatoes. Salt is the only seasoning. Fish oils rise to the surface of the boiling cauldron, and when the fish is perfectly done, the master boiler tosses kerosene on the flames under the pot. The resulting burst of flames causes a boil­over, spilling the fish oils over the side of the pot and leaving the fish perfectly cooked and ready to serve.

Christmas finale
The next morning began with tasting at Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery & Market. The Montmorency cherry crop is picked and packaged during summer harvest, later appearing in bottles of fruit wine, cherry pies, and fresh-­pressed jugs of tart cherry juice, dried cherries, and cherry jams and pie fillings.

Photo: Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The red barn at Lautenbach’s farm in the bright winter snow.

The waterfront village of Sister Bay presents the Tannenbaum Holiday Shop, originally a Lutheran church built in 1879, that today echoes the meaning of Christmas, with its mecca of Christmas trees and ornaments celebrating the holiday. Pipka, German­-born artist and baker, owns Pipka’s, a fascinating shop with old­-world figurines, eclectic gifts, and homemade almond cakes. She sells the German Rehrücken (saddle of venison) pan, along with an original mix and recipe, so that you too can be a champion baker.

The finale of the “Julbord” dinner at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant & Butik was the ultimate feast. At this Swedish family-­owned restaurant, where you find goats grazing the sod roof in summer, one weekend a year, you can sample the multi-course Christmas buffet, immersing your senses in traditional Scandinavian fare.

Photo: Mike Brisson
The Door County Community gathered to kick off the 8th Annual Merry-Time Festival of Trees and light the Tug John Purves at the Door County Maritime Museum.

Soon it was time to leave after the whirlwind weekend. I was laden down with purchases, including artwork, a chunk of cherry cheddar, jars of chopped cherry jam, apple and cherry butters, souvenirs that will re- mind me of my Door County journey long after I arrive home. Buy jam and spread joy, I always say!

For winter activities, check out the 2019-2020 Winter Guide at or call (800) 527-3529. The Door County Welcome Center in Sturgeon Bay is open daily, with personal assistance available typically 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

This article originally appeared in the December 27, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Cynthia Elyce Rubin

Cynthia Elyce Rubin, PhD., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history. She collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See