Reflections on a Quieter Time at Clark Lake
When our good friends Jerry and Mary Brigham invited us to their cabin at Clark Lake we didn’t realize what we were in for. Like many new visitors to Door County we were immediately enamored with the glitzier Bay side and had not ventured along the Lake Michigan side. What we found at Clark Lake was a large springfed lake with a predominately sandy bottom that was shallow enough that swimming could be very comfortable in late June through September. What we didn’t realize at first was that there was a lot more to the story of this beautiful place and the perfect person to tell us about the area was Judy Nash along with her brother John Propsom.
The Brigham’s and the Nash’s live on the west side of the lake along West Shore Road. These tiny cottages were hand-built using locally sawed cedar. Judy’s great aunt Mary Moelleri (nee Propsom) built it in 1922. The design definitely shows its Eurasian roots that harken back to Judy’s great, great grandparents who migrated from Prussia. Judy’s grandparents, Matt Propsom and Viola (nee Lauscher) who lived in Sturgeon Bay helped build the cottage.
These little houses belie the huge estates of wealthy Milwaukee and Chicago stockbrokers, lawyers and the upper crust elite that also live in tonier areas of the Door Peninsula. These little cottages were expressions of the longings for a taste of the good life of the burgeoning middle class of workers such as Roger Nash, Judy’s husband, who was a journeyman machinist at Kearney and Trecker Company. They were people like Cyril Lauscher and Henry Propsom who worked along with Palmer Johnson at the shipyards welding, riveting and woodworking. In those early days, there was no electricity at the cottages so their idea of enjoyment was a mix of hard work hauling firewood, filling buckets of water from the manual pump across the road and sliding it on sleds to the cottage. Judy showed me an old five-gallon stone crock from the Union Hotel in Sturgeon Bay that was used to dispense water. As Judy was growing up she and her siblings worked at the Martin Cherry Orchard during the summer to bring in money for the college fund. Late in the day they would come back from the orchards tired and sweaty and cool off in the lake. At that time there were only four cottages along the west shore and often the migrant orchard workers would come down to the lake as well. The local livestock also regularly got out of their pasture and wandered down to the cool waters of Clark Lake.
There was no electricity at the cottages so their
idea of enjoyment was a mix of hard work
hauling firewood, filling buckets of water from
the manual pump across the road and
sliding it on sleds to the cottage.
In those days there was a fishing village out at Whitefish Dunes. There was also an icehouse that was used to prep the fish for shipment to Chicago and Milwaukee like the old Stop and Shop high-end grocery and European specialty store on West Randolph St. in downtown Chicago.
The Schultz family had a motorboat and Judy and her teenage friends would signal them with a bell when they wanted to hang out at Schultz’s Point or go over to the dunes, by way of Whitefish Creek, to do what young high school kids did: lighting a bonfire and enjoying the evening together. On special occasions the family would get together at the cabin for a fish boil. John Propsom, the little brother, would go fishing and bring back the catch for the boil. The care and tending to these little cottages was constant.
In the spring, there was the early assessment of winter damage from the ice shoves and the freezing and thawing along the lake banks. There was caring for the outhouse, in Judy’s case that meant cleaning out the spiders and cobwebs that she was deathly afraid of. The outhouse needed to be moved every 2-3 years and then there was the job of treating them with lime. Once the banks along the shore had been repaired, the dock had to be put into the water.
During the summer, young John would catch painted turtles and they would have turtle races; tying a colored string to the turtles’ legs and releasing them simultaneously. John assured me that the turtles were always returned to the lake unharmed. On clear nights they could see the Fourth of July fireworks show over the tops of the trees at Baileys Harbor. Judy showed me her collection of memorabilia that she displays in her kitchen and living room. In the kitchen, there were the old tin gallon pails for cherries from places like the Martin Orchard, The Reynolds Orchard and Sturgeon Bay Orchard. Over the sink were Judy’s collection of cherry- pitting machines made out of cast iron and designed for heavy duty cherry pitting with handles like the old manual meat grinders. Out in the living room above the open Scandinavian style wood stove that was burning weakly in the late afternoon, were the lanterns they used before electricity was routed out to Clark Lake. Judy also showed me a much larger lantern that was used at St. Joseph’s grade school at 5th and Kentucky in Sturgeon Bay before they had electricity. As I looked out the picture window at a Jet Ski running by the dock, I couldn’t help but wonder what we are missing from those “good old days”.