In Memoriam: Arbutus Greenfeldt, Door County’s First Woman Town Chairperson

Washington Island will miss a remarkable Islander with the passing of Arbutus Greenfeldt.

Greenfeldt, 93, died at her home June 4, 2014. She served her family, church and community in extraordinary fashion throughout her years. She is survived by her husband of 72 years, Harold, an island fisherman from a family of fishermen, who fished with her brother-in-law, Clifford Young.

Greenfeldt will be remembered by community members as a longtime town clerk (1974-1985), but also as town chairman. She was, in fact, Door County’s first woman town chairman (a term she preferred to chairwoman or chairperson). Working with many town chairs and supervisors, she weighed issues and learned the challenges of constructing and managing a town budget. She came well prepared, then, when she was elected town chairman, serving from 1985 to 1994. Her contribution to local government was acknowledged by the Wisconsin Towns Association with a citation for “diligence, honesty and integrity.”

While her contributions remembered best by people off the island were for helping manage town government, on the island she was known for other community service, in particular her involvement with Bethel Evangelical Free Church, the little white church built in 1865 near the shores of Washington Harbor.

Greenfeldt was editor of the Bethel Tidings, the widely distributed, one-sheet, weekly church newsletter. She wore the editor’s hat for 55 years and filled both sides of the legal-sized sheet with church and community news. She reported on community members who were sick or back to health, who moved on or off the island, who left for winters elsewhere, who preached, sang, performed or ran for office, who was about to retire, try a new business venture, have a baby or celebrate a notable birthday or anniversary, who was laid to rest in the island cemetery – all of this and more was reported in a dense, one or two sentence-per-item style that used every bit of space available.

It is no wonder that Greenfeldt knew and was known by so many people because, in one way or another, her activities also touched the lives of so many others.

Adding immensely to her civic legacy, as it happens, was her hobby of photography, something Greenfeldt enjoyed since the very early 1950s. Her passion wasn’t for gallery quality photos or fine prints. What Greenfeldt excelled in – again, a sign of devotion to her community – was capturing everyday Island activities, the images of people, places and events. Her preferred format was slides.

When I interviewed Greenfeldt in March of 2010, she remembered that after she witnessed a slideshow by Warren Nordgren, an island visitor, she was convinced “taking my own slides seemed to be the best way to organize photos and to see them,” and she pointed to a box of prints to illustrate her point that prints were hard to organize, and as a result “you never look at them.” Her first camera was an Argus C-3, “Not an especially good camera,” she recalled.

“Never did I ever dream it would go this far. I probably have 5,000 slides in all. They’re all here,” she said, motioning to boxes of slides resting on bookshelves nearby. “That’s my job this winter. I’ve been labeling them all. It’s been my winter’s work, and I’m still not done.”

Greenfeldt’s love of slide photos and island history was evident with her show held at the Trueblood Performing Arts Center in 2007. Eleven carousels were stacked in racks four feet high, and the projector hummed and clicked during the nearly three-hour program, but the audience didn’t budge as Greenfeldt narrated her slides to a packed house.

After that slideshow, Greenfeldt encouraged the Island Archives to take those already organized slides, about 900 of them, and put them on DVD along with her narration, so that others could have the opportunity to view them and enjoy them in the future. During the course of three years this was done, digitizing her slides and coordinating the images with Greenfeldt’s voice. It resulted in a wonderful, two-disk Island history piece, Settlement Years to a New Millennium.

Greenfeldt’s images are priceless today, enhanced by her detailed memory of people, names and their associations with various island activities. Her slides will be one of many ways we continue to remember Arbutus Greenfeldt: that certain voice, her photographs, her significant role as citizen and stalwart of Washington Island for so many years.