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Heritage Village at Big Creek: A Living Legacy to Door County’s Early Settlers

Following in the tradition of the early farmers who scattered seeds in hopes of a bountiful harvest, the founders of Heritage Village at Big Creek planted the idea of a historical village. “The plan developed slowly,” recalls George Evenson, Door County Historical Society (DCHS) president. “It all started back in 1998 with an old schoolhouse in Clay Banks that no one wanted. Mitch Mackey and Orville Schopf were immediately interested in preserving the building and involved DCHS in the project.

Photo by Len Villano.

“We needed somewhere to put the schoolhouse, and we needed money to move it. It eventually took us three years to secure both, and in 2001, the Vignes Schoolhouse was relocated to leased property adjacent to Crossroads at Big Creek in Sturgeon Bay. Our shared missions matched our goals to educate and inform,” Evenson explains.

From one building grew a village, a collection of nine buildings, with each structure reflecting a specific period in the peninsula’s development. Seven of the buildings are original to Door County; a simple white-steeple church is a replication of the peninsula’s first Protestant church and the Greene’s General Store is a general representation of merchant shops of the period.

From the very beginning, education was fundamental to establishing the historical buildings on one site. “I have to credit Jim Maki, who was a teacher in Sturgeon Bay, with getting the ball rolling. He recognized the educational value in providing this level of experience to students, as well as visitors. We had a plan, but it continued to evolve as we brought additional buildings to the site,” Evenson relates.

“Based on the specific attributes of each structure and the people who lived and worked in them, the Village is most certainly a two-fold story. The first part is the personal story. Who are the people who settled Door County, where did they come from, and why did they leave their homelands? The second part is the physical story, the story of their buildings, the why and how of construction. Together, the personal and the physical stories provide us with a vivid picture of early life on the peninsula. And it is that story we want to share at the Village.”

Although the original structures were located in Southern Door and Sturgeon Bay areas, the Village reflects the history of the entire peninsula. One of two log buildings, The Warren House, built in 1877, served as Julius and Sarah Warren’s family residence and Clay Banks post office. The second log building was the home of German immigrants Gus and Caroline Lautenbach in the Town of Jacksonport. It was renamed in honor of Orville Schopf, who had served DCHS as historian, treasurer and past president.

Photo by Len Villano.

The Norwegian-style Petersen Granary was one of the earliest buildings moved to the Village. Relocated in 1995, a blacksmith lean-to was added in 2007. The village smithy was highly valued, and volunteers regularly demonstrate forging techniques.

Pastor Andreas Iverson founded the Ephraim Moravian Church in 1853. “The Village Chapel was modeled after Iverson’s church,” explains Evenson. “Their faith is what kept them going when their children died, or the crops failed. The local church also served as a gathering place for the newcomers.”

Additional buildings include the Greene General Store, a bequest from Jane Greene; the outhouse nicknamed “Remy’s Rest” for donor Gene Remy; and the Kohl Fish House, a gift from the Ed Kohl family. The Heritage Garden is planted and maintained by the Door County Master Gardeners. Local children assist with the fall harvest, which is donated to Feed My People.

The final addition to the Village is a short, half-mile walk down the Heritage Trail. Final restoration of the Hanson House and Farm is currently being completed. “These are very valuable buildings,” Evenson emphasizes. “Built with Norwegian techniques, there are only three such constructions in the United States, and ours is on its original site.”

Open every afternoon mid-June through mid-October, the Village is staffed by volunteers who stroll the grounds in period dress and host historical demonstrations. Volunteers for more than a dozen years, Jerry and Nan Krause share the values of life from early Door County with visitors throughout the season. “I love to hear a visitor share a memory with a grandchild. A new story always grows from that special moment in time,” shared Jerry. “It is truly rewarding for all of us.”

Photo by Len Villano.

“We need to preserve our history and pass on lessons learned from our ancestors to the younger generations. Our Village is a wonderful part of that process. Every day is rewarding, to see the light shine in the eyes of one of our visitors,” added Nan Krause.

As former First Lady Hillary Clinton emphasized in her book It Takes a Village, education is not a solitary path. So, too, the Heritage Village at Big Creek has been created from the efforts of so many generous donors and benefactors. “The Door County Historical Society is very grateful to all of the people who gave from the heart with monetary donations, and those folk who rolled up their sleeves to make the Village a reality,” Evenson said. “It is due to their vision and hard work that so much was accomplished.”

The Heritage Village at Big Creek is located in Sturgeon Bay, on the southeast corner of Highway 42/57 and County Road TT (Michigan Street). Every Sunday, Heritage Village hosts special themed programs from 1:30 – 3:30 pm. This season’s topics include: fur trading, Norwegian traditions, the Peshtigo Fire, antique currency, and the Civil War. General admission is free; donations are always appreciated.

For a complete calendar of events, visit historicalvillage.doorcountyhistoricalsociety.org. Group tours are available by reservation at 920.421.2332.

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