In Door County, the definition of what makes someone a “local” seems to fluctuate depending upon who you ask. For some, it’s a title given to all babies born north of the county line; for others, it’s a designation reserved for those whose family trees have roots on the peninsula through multiple generations; and then there are people who feel it’s a status earned after a certain number of winters spent in the county. Despite the definition’s inconsistency, it’s not an easily achieved moniker. Few people, however, would argue with the contention that James “Digger” DeGroot is a man who fully illustrates what it means to be a Door County local.
For Digger, his initial stint in the county was more than a get-your-feet-wet-and-see-if-you-like-it experience; it was a full-fledged soaking. Beginning in 1969, Digger was stationed as a member of the United States Coast Guard search and rescue crew on Plum Island, located in the straight of Death’s Door between Northport and Washington Island. Digger was part of a ten-man crew that resided on the island from April until October. While performing search and rescue operations, he saw both the best and worst of what the county had to offer. According to Digger, “After spending four years in Death’s Door on that island – surrounded by waters, bluffs, sunsets, sunrises – you either fall in love [with the county] or you hate it. I fell in love.”
While his schedule with the Coast Guard required six consecutive days on duty, it also afforded him three days off duty during which he could explore Door County. It was on these days off that Digger became entrenched in another fundamental facet of Door County: Peninsula Players Theatre. Digger volunteered his time as an apprentice, receiving merely meals as payment while living at the theatre day and night. The tasks he performed ran the gamut from parking cars to building sets, and when his commitment with the Coast Guard was done, Digger became an acting apprentice in hopes he’d one day grace the stage as something more than a stagehand. And that he did, appearing in a number of plays with small roles, as well as performing in larger roles in Anything Goes and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Although Digger resisted the urge to pursue an acting career because it would mean relocating to a big city, he did leave the county for a period to see what else the world had to offer. In 1975, Digger moved to Alaska to work as the Recreation Director for a work camp of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline located in Fairbanks. Digger was responsible for providing entertainment opportunities for the workers, and as the head director for the management group, he’d fly up and down the pipeline replacing other directors while they were on vacation leave. After two years of this extreme-northern, jet-setting lifestyle, Digger returned to Door County because he was still in love with this place.
Digger worked a number of odd jobs, as many people do, trying to make a living in Door County. From bartending at the Omnibus and the Bayside, to dabbling as a lumberjack, Digger realized if he wanted to make a living in Door County he’d need to run his own business. So, in 1978 he bought the Feedbag Gourmet Drive-In across from the Fish Creek entrance to Peninsula State Park and re-named it Digger’s.
“My acting buddies thought it was great,” Digger stated. “It was a ‘real job’ and my name was up in lights.”
Even though it was a “real job” Digger didn’t take it too seriously, understanding he was a rather casual guy and that’s what his restaurant should reflect. After only a slight hesitation, Digger hung a sign in the window that he’d received from his friends. It read: “No Shirts, No Ties, No Rednecks.” Taking the chance that he might offend someone with his sense of humor paid off as it got people talking about the new restaurant in town.
Over the course of the 22 years that Digger owned the restaurant, the original sign was joined by a few other choice words: “Park employees must have a Digger’s sticker” and “Bus drivers must have correct change.” A dose of humor and an attempt to push people’s buttons was the perfect complement to the long hours – oftentimes from eight in the morning until midnight – Digger spent at the restaurant.
While admittedly sometimes struggling to maintain a balance between work and play, Digger relied on the off-season in Door County to regain some sanity. He feels that we’re fortunate because “we get two years to everyone else’s one.” It was this mentality about the good fortune of both the busy season and the off-season that helped Digger establish permanency in his Door County life. The solitude of the off-season helped him achieve a sense of harmony, as well as a little downtime to cook up his next prank.
It was during the winter that Digger and a group of his friends concocted an Evel Knievel-inspired stunt. For months leading up to July 4, 1973 it was all people in the village could talk about. Word of Digger’s intent to perform a death-defying act, riding down the Fish Creek hill and jumping six cars in the intersection of Main Street and Spruce Street, had even traveled as far as a television news station in Green Bay. So, on Independence Day when Digger was perched atop the hill, amidst the pleas from concerned friends and even the sheriff to back out of the stunt, he carried on with it. He pedaled his ten-speed bicycle down the hill, traveled smack down the center of the six-inch tall ramp and easily cleared the six Matchbox cars “parked” in the intersection. After “pleasing” the crowds who lined the streets and sat on top of the C&C with his daredevilry, he kept right on pedaling and hid for the rest of the afternoon.
While Evel Knievel didn’t hold true as a nickname for Digger – whose original nickname had affixed itself since a high school football practice when he chose to dig in the mud with a stick rather than perform drills – he received another nickname in a bit more Hollywood-esque fashion. When a letter addressed to “The Mayor” appeared in Digger’s P.O. Box, it was derived that Digger must be the “Mayor of Fish Creek.” For if the United States Postal Service was responsible for declaring Kris Kringle Santa Clause in A Miracle on 34th Street, then the Post Office in Fish Creek could declare Digger the Mayor.
While the alias of Mayor didn’t involve much more than a friendly nod to villagers passing by, Digger has continually cloaked himself in all that the county entails. It’s been a long time since his acting days have been over with Peninsula Players Theatre, but Digger now serves as Treasurer on its Board of Directors. And even though he sold his business in 2000, he’s still deeply involved in the Fish Creek community. He is a past President of the Fish Creek Civic Association and now serves as the Office Manager for the association, which means most days of the week he can be found behind the desk at the Tourist Information Center – as long as he’s not out fishing.
Digger’s ability to make a name for himself in Door County through hard work, a lively personality, and continual involvement in the community demonstrates why he’s worthy of the label Door County “local,” but it is perhaps the sentiment he has for this place that best illuminates the notion. After all, people can be born here, have family history here, and even endure a number of cold spells without realizing, like Digger, that “Door County is a perfect blend of civilization and nature.”