History Keeper: Karen Sohns Ekberg Was Born into Ephraim History


Karen Sohns Ekberg was, quite literally, born into history in the living quarters above the little butcher shop that her grandparents, Arnold and Ida Sohns, established in Ephraim in 1917. Arnold became well known as the owner of Door County’s first chicken plucker: a contraption that drew a crowd of onlookers every Saturday afternoon when he cranked it up and sent clouds of feathers drifting over the village.

Karen’s grandparents on her mother’s side were Augusta and Charles Hoeppner, originally from Manitowoc, where Charles worked for a steamship company and played his violin in an orchestra on weekends. By 1906, they’d saved enough money to move to Maplewood and buy a hardware store. They also had the first post office there, and Charles was the first postmaster.

He died suddenly of a ruptured gall bladder in 1929, leaving Augusta to take over the business. Their eight children, mostly grown by then, scattered to different parts of the country, except for Helen, who had begun teaching school in Maplewood.

In 1935, when she was 22, Helen moved to Ephraim to teach at Pioneer School. Two years later, when some naughty eighth-grade boys kept letting the air out of her tires, Glen Sohns (likely one of the hooligans) mentioned that his older brother, William, “just loved to tinker with tires.”

The tires were aired up, and for William, it was love at first sight of the pretty, young schoolteacher. Karen has always suspected that all the flats were Glen’s clumsy attempts to set Helen up with William. Helen had to give up her teaching post when they were married in 1938 because in those days, female teachers were required to be single.

When WWII came, a heart murmur exempted William from the draft, but he worked in the shipyards and the store, drove the school bus and served as Ephraim’s fire chief. As male teachers were drafted, school boards were forced to relax their rules, and Helen was called back to teaching. 

Karen grew up hearing stories about Ephraim’s history and picking the brains of everyone she knew. 

“I always wanted to know why, why, why things happened,” she said. “My mother belonged to the Ladies’ Aid Society that met at the lovely hotels in Ephraim – Thorp’s, the Eagle Inn and Edgewater Lodge – for dessert luncheons. As long as children were quiet, we were allowed to stay in the room, and I learned a lot. We played, but I was always, always listening.”

Karen remembers visiting Miss Munda Anderson at the store. 

“My cousin, Linda Mayhew, and I sang to her on her 80th birthday. On Sunday afternoons in the winter, Miss Munda taught us girls to ice skate on a clear patch of ice by their dock. She wore a long dress or long wool pants, and she skated beautifully – put her hands behind her back and just swayed out on the ice.”

The mention of Miss Munda’s skating wear reminded Karen that her mother also wore long wool pants in the winter, but her grandmother always made Karen and her sister, Joan, wear “snuggies”: ugly, pink underwear of a wool-like material that came down to their knees.

Although Karen has memories of many special things, she also recalled the simple pleasures that filled her childhood. People visited friends on Sunday afternoons and picnicked in Peninsula State Park. 

“Everyone was poor in those days,” she said, “but we didn’t know it. Of course, we knew we weren’t rich like all the summer people, but all our needs were met. 

“Joan and I loved going to relatives’ farms to ride on the hay wagon at threshing time. In early spring, our family would go out to Walter and Bertha Reinharts’ to watch them boil down sugar-maple sap, and they’d give us samples on snow. I remember that Walter just smiled while Bertha did all the talking.”

Karen’s mother, Helen Sohns, “married into” Ephraim, but she also became one of its biggest boosters. Helen helped to establish the Ephraim Historical Foundation in 1949 and was its first historian. She and some of her friends were also among the first to offer Ephraim historical walks, which involved donning period dress and walking through the village, talking to people and showing them historical places. It was the beginning of all the historical activities that take place in Ephraim today.

Karen Sohns Ekberg addresses her “class” as a docent during a tour for the Ephraim Historical Foundation. Photo by Tad Dukehart.

Karen, who has been absorbing history her whole life, has followed in her mother’s footsteps – literally. When Karen retired after 34 years as a lab tech and nurse, she joined the Ephraim Historical Foundation and, after 16 years, is now its historian and a docent. 

An actress in her earlier years, she is also a regular participant in Ephraim’s historical walks, always portraying someone she knew, “because I can remember how they dressed, how they acted and what they did,” she said. 

“We can’t let history fall by the wayside,” Karen said. “Even if our children or grandchildren don’t ask questions now, eventually they’ll want to know how things used to be. Old people are like libraries. When they die, a piece of history goes with them.

“I’ve written my mother’s family stories on the computer. My dad was a wonderful, kind, sweet man of few words, so I don’t know as much about the Sohns family history. My sister, Joan, knew more, but she died before she could get it all put together.”

Karen’s love of history is set in stone – sort of. Her brick at the Ephraim Historical Foundation bears the message, “History lives because I believe it needs to.”