Charlie Kinsey: Chambers Island’s Indispensable Man

When he was a young boy growing up in Fish Creek, Charlie Kinsey’s mother struggled to keep him in the kitchen at the Summertime Restaurant to help with the rush.

“You couldn’t put a wall around him,” said his sister, Barb McKesson. “He couldn’t stand to be inside.”

Charlie Kinsey ferried supplies to Chambers Island on his Northern Lighter barge.

When his sisters were sent to find him, he was always at the Fish Creek docks, chatting up the boaters or finding his way onto the water. That’s where Charlie Kinsey was meant to be, and where he spent most of his 56 years before he died suddenly Feb. 17, leaving the Fish Creek and Chambers Island communities without the man who did the little things for so many people.

Kinsey, never a city man, was born in Fish Creek on June 12, 1954, and spent nearly his entire life there. “He loved small communities,” remembered McKesson. Though Fish Creek was small, he managed to find a community even smaller in the tight-knit group of families that own property on Chambers Island. Through his livery business, the Northern Lights Enterprises, he came to be indispensible to folks on the island, delivering everything from building supplies to propane.

“That island community, where you all need one another and know each other, that was perfect for him,” said Nancy Sargent, another sister. “He loved the outdoors, loved the water, and he loved that island.”

Over the years he built 11 homes on Chambers Island, where he and his wife Lynn Vogt-Kinsey had a cottage. He planned to begin work on his own island home this year.

“Charlie was the go-to guy if someone from the island needed something,” McKesson said. “He was a problem solver and enjoyed filling that role. He always had time for people. I don’t know that he made great money off the barge business, but he enjoyed it. For him, I think the friendships were more important than the business part.”

At a memorial service attended by hundreds at Alexander’s Restaurant Feb. 22, Kinsey was remembered as a man who enjoyed doing things for others and found great reward in it. For those with questions about Door County or Chambers Island, he always had an answer.

He served on the Gibraltar Town Board and also on the Fish Creek Harbor Commission with longtime friend Dave Harris, who said he relied on Kinsey’s expertise.

“Charlie was always my first call when I had a question about the harbor,” Harris said.

The Northern Lighter.

His love of the water formed early, handed down from his father, Roy Kinsey, and his grandfather, who each worked for a time as commercial fisherman. In his early teens he was one of many area kids who learned to sail from Fletch Waller, the harbormaster who hoped to bring back the Fish Creek Yacht Club.

When he wasn’t on the water or hanging around the docks, he was exploring the village at a time when kids roamed free, coming home only for lunch and dinner.

“His playground was Fish Creek, from [Peninsula State Park] to the waterfront to the docks,” Sargent said. “As a kid, a room was never his boundary. He played everywhere. Kids just explored all day back then, and you didn’t have the fear of running into someone who would harm you.”

One of those who roamed with him was his childhood friend Rich Weisgerber. McKesson remembered the time when the two young entrepreneurs set up shop in front of Ed Schreiber’s grocery store in the middle of town to make a buck off the tourists. “They were screaming ‘Fresh Fish For Sale,’” she said. “But they were selling dead alewives! Until Ed called our parents.”

Harris summed up his friend with a simple story.

“About 20 years ago I bought a boat in Muskegon, MI, and before I went to get it, he told me I wouldn’t be able to keep it at his dock anymore because it was too wide,” Harris remembered. “Well, I went and bought it anyway, thinking I’d have to find a new place for it. Then I came down to the dock in February and here’s Charlie, building a new slip and cribbing. ‘What are you doing?’ I asked him. ‘Well, you need a new slip don’t you?’ he said. He just did it out of kindness. He didn’t make any money off it.”

Harris said it will take some time to recognize the impact that Kinsey’s loss will have on the community.

“He had a lot of irons in the fire,” he said. “He just did a lot of little things for people.”

McKesson said her little brother died a happy man.

“He loved the water, and he found a way to make a living on it,” McKesson said. “He would be on the water into November, always making one more trip. There was always one more trip for Charlie. You put him on the water, and he was a happy camper.”