Writing: Door County Stories (Summers in the Nineteenth Century)

I came to know Door County and its people in a series of time-lapse images skimming by, summer by summer, beginning in 1949. It was an odd, jerky portrait, viewed by an outsider as if from the seats in an early silent movie theater. Certainly my picture is romanticized; but it is the only picture I have and I am grateful for having even that, for it changed me forever. That world is gone now and there is no cure nor remedy that will bring it back. But I want to revisit it one more time, to have it live like Brigadoon, for just a day, once, in this century.

Although my parents retired there and I saw many a cold and sparkling winter frost our meadows and woods, my memories are always of our small summer cabin perched on the edge of a dark-green leafy world of young maples and birches. In these memories I am always a child, somewhere between the ages of eight and twelve. And I am usually alone in this landscape, our pastures clinging to the side of high bluff that was good for downhill skiing in the 1940s, before the trees partially covered its ski-able slopes.

My parents and their friends purchased a forty-acre tract for $10/acre some time in 1940. Even then that was a bargain. Each ten-acre strip was like a terrace, perched high above the next, and our view overlooking the valley, and the nameless white gravel road cutting through it, in those days was clear of trees. Cattle had stripped the land bare, leaving only mullein, daisies, ragweed and white-boned sumac to sprout from the fossil-coral limestone reefs of the former lake bed of a post-glacial “mega-lake”, ancestor to the Great Lakes we know today. The cattle continued to graze into the 1960s, as my parents let the neighbors use our land on the condition that they paid our modest property taxes.

The Door Peninsula was late coming to the rural electrification process; and those of our neighbors who stubbornly continued to live in the log cabins in which they had been born used kerosene, even as we did for our lights and our stove. Running water was unknown to many of us, as well. We relied on friends who either had it or had an electric pump to a well where we could fill our large drinking-water cans. Sometimes we even went to the gas station in Fish Creek for fresh water. For washing, we collected rainwater off our roof into large tanks, and it was wonderfully soft water that easily foamed.

Indoor plumbing was replaced by outhouses: our second and newest had its back to the house, and was on a small hill with a lovely view to the east. My father usually claimed this one and used it as a reading room, leaving us to the older, smellier one in the woods below. The patterns on the knotty-pine walls and doors of each outhouse were distinct: I clearly remember the shape of a torso of a large collie dog in a trailing robe outlined in brown sap stains on the door of the “lower” toilet. The “collie”, rising from the waters, was crowned with what looked like seaweed, and was blessing a smaller animal by placing one paw on its head. This changed a bit each time I saw it, but the essence of the picture remained the same over the years.

When the first outhouse in the woods was being built (before my time), my mom was filing the seat to rid it of splinters, and managed to drop the file down the hole. She and my dad grabbed their friend, Roby Bach, by the heels and lowered him down the hole headfirst to retrieve it. When they heard a muffled voice cry out from the depths, “Thank God it’s a virgin!” they almost dropped him in.

The "Virgin" Outhouse

The “Virgin” Outhouse

The plan for the land, hatched by my father and Roby, was to build an Arts-and-Crafts commune in the style of the global Art Nouveau /Prairie School/nascent Art Deco movement that dominated the turn of the Twentieth Century. There were models for this idea, to be sure. Roby’s mother and father had commissioned a lovely Frank Lloyd Wright house on Sheridan Road that was ultimately destroyed by the city. The much uglier Otto Bach house a few blocks further south, built by Roby’s uncle, remains to this day. When Robert Bach died, Roby’s mother and sisters spent the better part (and in some case, all) of the year living in log cabins, cooking on wood-burning stoves. They celebrated the crafts of Mexico, Wisconsin, Italy and the world in their everyday china, serving bowls and furniture, collected on Mama’s travels with Frieda Meyer Collins (of the Oscar Meyer sausage family: mom always said Frieda even looked like a sausage).

Roby Bach, photographed by August Hoffmann

Roby Bach, photographed by August Hoffmann

In the commune, Roby would have been the weaver (emulating his “Tante” Marie) and dad would have built houses and furniture out of wood. Indeed, when my father stubbornly retired to the “north woods” decades later, he began his long-delayed second career as a cabinetmaker for real. But in his twenties, living off the land and falling off the “money grid” seemed both possible and desirable. (I’m not sure what role my mom or Roby’s wife, Jessie Woerfel, would have played in this. Mom hated cooking; but maybe she would have grown their vegetables? It always remained unclear. This was a man’s dream, it seemed, in spite of the female role models).

Jessie Woerfel, 1948

Jessie Woerfel, 1948

Mama Bach’s log cabin — which seemed palatial in size to a child and sported a two-seater(!) indoor “outhouse” — was located on the shores of Green Bay in what is now a State Park, with a view toward the Fish Creek Bluff. Roby, as a bachelor, lived in a smaller cabin of vertically arranged logs next to hers. With him were also a dog with floppy ears; two crows (named Porgy and Bess); a duck (named Donald), plus whatever other creatures (such as deer or raccoons) that would happen to drop in to visit him.

I’ve forgotten the dog’s name; but my mother said Roby would clip up its ears when it sat at the dinner table with them, so they wouldn’t drag in the gravy. Then he would chide my skeptical mother by saying, “Really, Mary, he’s no dirtier than you are!”, as the birds strutted and pooped among the diners. Roby’s specialty was pork chops fried directly on a cast-iron stove top, with a heavy old-fashioned iron plunked down on top of them to keep them from curling. (This era was clearly before he married Jessie!)

He had an uncanny way with animals and they never seemed to fear him, no matter how wild they were. My mother told me of a walk the three of them took in the woods one day, when they came upon a skunk with its head caught in a jam jar. It was frantically trying to free itself and was on the verge of actually hurting itself when Roby gently laid a hand on it. The skunk became motionless and allowed him to carefully remove the jar from its head. Then it went about its business without a backward glance.

He also would drive the poor duck nuts by swimming out into the Bay and then diving down deep to the rocks at the bottom. Donald would frantically paddle in circles quacking distractedly until Roby resurfaced.

Dinner at Mama Bach’s was always eventful, especially when Roby and his lovely younger sister, Paula Jeanne, were in attendance. Mama also had two other children: Marjorie and Otto, who later became the curator of the Denver Museum and made it into a world-class institution in the ‘60s. But they were healthy and darker in coloring — Roby and Jeannie (or Paula) were her favorites.

Roby was a “blue baby”, with a heart that could today be stitched up a birth, but in 1912 there was no heart surgery. As a consequence, he knew that he would die young of a heart attack, and so he lived out most of his fantasies before his death in 1951 at the age of thirty-nine. Paula (or Jeannie) had osteomyelitis, and in spite of Mama’s therapies, grew to have one shorter leg. This never prevented her from fully participating in life, including skiing, sailing, dancing and doing everything anyone else could do. In fact, she was so blonde and bright and beautiful that most people never even noticed that she walked with a slight limp. In fact, in spite of knowing her for years, I was in my late twenties before even I noticed something was wrong.

To ameliorate these conditions, Mama, who was a widow most of her married life, would somehow cram all four children into her car and drive them to Cuernavaca, Mexico, for the winters. The art scene in Mexico in the 1920s was lively, to say the least, and everyone profited from it. At one end of Mama’s huge log cabin, to the right of the dining table, was a window overlooking the Bay, and in front of it were glass shelves with jewel-toned Mexican glassware crammed onto them to catch the light of the setting sun. Her kitchen was filled with Mexican pottery, and from the age of six I knew I would go to Mexico and bring home similar treasures for myself. Mama also would make trips to Chicago and study the silver pieces in the window of Georg Jensen’s shop on Michigan Avenue. I still have a lovely gravy boat of hand-beaten silver she had copied and then had made up in Taxco as a wedding gift to my parents. Mexico to me wasn’t just the land over the rainbow: it was the rainbow!

Roby and Jessie Bach: 2/12/44

Roby and Jessie Bach: 2/12/44

The dining area was located under a sleeping loft at one end of the long living room; at the other end was an enormous fireplace big enough to roast the better part of a steer. And apparently she did just that, to celebrate the engagements of Roby and Paula Jeanne to another brother and sister, Jessie and Blake Woerfel. It was a large and exuberant party, with the Woerfel siblings trying to be at their best and most ingratiating with their new mother-in-law-to-be. So when Mama picked up a morsel of beef that had dropped to the hearth and popped it into Blake’s mouth as a treat, he gamely ate it — even though it turned out to be a burning hot coal instead. You just didn’t argue with Louise Bach!

As evening descended — and there wasn’t much to do (except drink cocktails) while Mama prepared dinner — bats would often swoop into the two-story living room, to the amusement of the Bach children. Roby would race up into the sleeping loft with a can of tennis balls, and from the window would hurl the balls at the bats to stun them, so he could remove them to the great outdoors. Years later, his niece Christine and I found a bat neatly tucked away in a dresser drawer in that same sleeping loft, appropriately napping. We put it in a shoebox and took it outside, to the consternation of our mothers, who knew we would surely get rabies.

"Tante" Marie Gatter at her loom

“Tante” Marie Gatter — Mama Bach’s sister — at her loom in her cabin, The Owl’s Nest

The war years were an era of meat rationing, and my mother recounted yet another dinner at Mama’s that had an odd twist to it. All of the guests had put their ration coupons together to buy a big roast, and Mama had fired up the wood stove under the kitchen skylight and was presiding over it. Among the guests was Mama’s sister, “Tante” Marie, and her brother, “Uncle” Lincoln. Aunt Marie had brought her beagle, Mein Herr, to the party, as well. When Louise grandly removed the roast in all its glory from the oven, set it on a platter of vegetables, and brought it to the dining table, Mein Herr didn’t hesitate for an instant. In the blink of an eye he had the roast between his teeth and was heading for the door at a gallop.

After a flying tackle by several of the men in the group, he was relieved of the roast and Mama dusted it off with a napkin. It was left to Tante Marie to chastise the animal, and she did so with great aplomb. Picking up a tiny stick off the floor, she held in front of the dog’s nose and said in what she thought was a severe tone, “Naughty Mein Herr!” The dog thumped his tail and continued to look very pleased with himself. The younger members of the group were secretly quite put out with Marie and Mein Herr (coupons were hard to come by!) But that was the end of it.

So many characters and so many small adventures come to mind as I return to this wonderful place in my heart. There were the Ohnesorges (German for “Sans Souci” or “No Worries”), who ran a small grocery in Fish Creek. They were Seventh-Day Adventists and closed up shop at sundown; but they had ice cream. So when dessert came around, my parents, Roby and Jessie (and/or Jeannie) would pile into Roby’s convertible roadster and race to the Ohnesorge’s before the sun set. The roads weren’t paved or graded in those days, so as Roby would accelerate like mad over each hill, the passengers’ stomachs would seeming to fly away as if on a roller coaster. These hills were steep on both sides and plentiful, so the entire trip was like a grand roller coaster ride. Even in the ‘50s and early ‘60s we could get the same effect with mom’s ’57 Chevy or dad’s ’60 Corvette. Who needed Coney Island?

Then there was the eccentric doctor-neighbor who had taught Roby to do lovely watercolor paintings. He would ride by on his horse at various times of day, tipping his hat like the gentleman he seemed to be. But he firmly believed in the magical powers of vaccination, and this almost proved to be his downfall. In order to avoid the perils of poison ivy, which grew in thick bushes all along the shores of Green Bay, he made a salad of it to immunize himself. Roby barely got him to the hospital in Sturgeon Bay in time to save his life. He was an internal mess for many days after this near-fatal experiment. The saddest moment was the day Roby discovered him face down in the Bay, dead from suicide.

Roby and Augie (my father) were inseparable, and Mama welcomed my dad into her family as one of her own children. When my parents were engaged, Louise warned my mother that she would have to “share” my dad with Roby, with whom he had an almost telepathic friendship, if she wanted her marriage to last. But my mom had already figured that out and was a good diplomat, so she was at peace with the arrangement.

Dad at the Bach's cabins by Green Bay

Dad at the Bachs’ cabins by Green Bay

The two men had met in Chicago when my father was Director of Photography for the quirky Sicilian, Valentino Sarra. Eventually the stress of advertising took a toll on Roby and he wisely retreated to his cabin in the woods. But before that happened, Sarra fell in love with the gorgeous sometime-model Caroline Fisher, and things took an interesting turn. Caroline and her sister had dreams of becoming actresses, so Sarra agreed to build them a theater in Door County in 1935. Today the Peninsula Players is one of the foremost summer-stock companies in the country — as well as the oldest — and is still outdoors (though now under a roof), complete with bats swooping through at sunset; but in the 1930s, it was still only Caroline’s dream.

Caroline Fisher

Caroline Fisher

*    *    *

[Stay tuned for future chapters: The building of the Players; Roby Insists I Learn to Ride Horses; Neva & Jerry; Bill West; the Building of the Little House; the Vandals, the Mouse and the Bullet; My Friends’ Visits; The Merchant, the Deacon and the Viking; and much more.]

Note to Stephanie Woerfel: please correct my spelling and fill in any names of people I couldn’t remember. I also need to get photos of your parents and grandmother at this time (plus any others that might be relevant). I’m finally writing that book, I think!

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