What could have been more appropriate than celebrating an organization’s 20th birthday in 2020? The Liberty Grove Historical Society (LGHS) had big plans to do that last year until 2020 turned out to be uncooperative. Undeterred, society members carried on and “made do,” as their ancestors would have expected. In fact, they not only carried on, but they also carried out.
Because the society has a mortgage to pay on an exceptional piece of property (see the sidebar), a fish boil has been an annual fundraising event since 2002. With crowds of up to 400 over the years, it has provided a major boost to the treasury.
When the pandemic made it impossible for the 20th-anniversary fish boil to be held in person as usual at The Viking in Ellison Bay, Dan Peterson, the restaurant’s owner since 1984, worked with the LGHS to stage a carryout event. About 200 people participated, and they were, according to several of the society’s board members, “very generous with their donations.” The carryout format worked so well that it’s being used again this year.
The LGHS seeks to “collect, research and preserve objects and archival materials that reflect Liberty Grove history.” There are no paid employees, so volunteers carry out every project.
The annual fish boils at The Viking certainly support and continue the society’s role in Ellison Bay history. In 1946, Lawrence and Annette Johnson Wickman purchased The Viking Grill from Lawrence’s uncle, Gilbert. Years later, the name became just The Viking.
Their daughter Nyla Wickman Small – one of the five Wickman children who grew up over the restaurant – recalls that her mom was the chief cook. Lawrence considered building a motel on the grounds, but Annette said, “No way am I cooking and making beds, too.” She suggested holding picnics for visitors. In 1961, they compromised by becoming one of the first businesses in Door County to hold commercial fish boils.
Kurt Knudson served as the 2019 boil master for the Liberty Grove Historical Society fish boil fundraiser. Photo by Dave Westen. One of the barns on the grounds of the Liberty Grove Historical Society. Photo by Dave Weston.
“Churches often had fish boils in those days,” Nyla said, “and they always borrowed big pots and other equipment from The Viking. My folks finally decided they might as well hold their own. I remember in the beginning, they made real Scandinavian egg coffee, breaking a whole raw egg into the big pot that often boiled over on the stove. And the first fish-boil kettle my folks used was the stainless-steel laundry tub from a Speed Queen washer.”
“Still using it,” Dan said, “with others, of course.”
Dan recalled that when he bought The Viking from Phil Voigt, fish boils were held only on Fridays in June and September, with Tuesday boils added in July and August. Without really advertising, he began a Monday fish boil and served 300 guests the first day, with a line that stretched to the Pioneer Store. As the fame of The Viking’s fish boil grew, it became a favorite stop of tour buses, hosting as many as 170 a year.
Dan grew up in the hospitality business in Baileys Harbor, starting work when he was 10 in his parents’ Panter Hotel/Cotton Club (now the Florian II Lakeshore Supper Club). By age 15, he was working for Al Johnson – another link to Door County history.
And the Liberty Grove Historical Society is making sure that history is not forgotten.
IF YOU PLAN TO GO
The Liberty Grove Historical Society (LGHS) will hold its annual fish-boil fundraiser Friday, June 25, 4-8 pm, at The Viking Grill, 12029 Hwy 42 in Ellison Bay. The meal will include dessert and coffee, and like the 2020 fundraiser, it will be a carryout-only event.
The society’s other traditional activities will return to the LGHS museum grounds as usual: Opening Day on June 26, 10 am – 4 pm; and the Antique Tractor and Arts Festival and Raffle on July 24 and 25.
A Bit of a Back Story
The Liberty Grove Historical Society (LGHS) began in 2000 as the Ellison Bay/Gills Rock Historical Society, but it changed its name in 2003 to be more inclusive.
The borders of the Town of Liberty Grove actually encompass about 35,000 acres from the northern tip of the peninsula to County Q, just north of the AC Tap, and those acres include not only Ellison Bay and Gills Rock, but also the communities of Appleport, the German Settlement, Rowleys Bay and the part of Sister Bay that was incorporated before 1912.
The society’s current membership of 260 reaches far beyond those borders. For example, Stefanie Burke, its president for the past 15 years, lives on Clark Lake and has a Sturgeon Bay address.
The biggest chapter of the back story began on June 16, 2003, when the LGHS, barely out of its infancy, took the bold step of purchasing nearly 15 acres of the Ellison Bay hill – what many describe as one of the most magnificent views in Door County – from Russell and Virginia Hanson. The Johnson-Hanson family had owned the property since 1873. The site now houses 13 historical buildings.