Liberty Grove Historical Society Saves Town’s Stories

Just south of Ellison Bay, a 37-acre plot of land on the top of the hill has become a gathering place. A sign denotes the area as the Liberty Grove Historical Society, but the buildings aren’t connected by paths or signs; rather, they stand alone in a sea of manicured lawn.

These buildings are part of Liberty Grove’s push to preserve the history of the town through the stories of the dwellings and their inhabitants. The structures were brought to the property, a century farm owned by the Hanson family, from across the Town of Liberty Grove. Here, they have been converted into exhibits to display the multitude of artifacts donated to the historical society in the 17 years since its founding.

“[We] want to preserve the past – the objects – but you want to save the stories,” said Karen Board Moran, collections manager for Liberty Grove Historical Society. Moran has organized the push to clean out the buildings and inventory their contents in anticipation of the historical society’s 20th anniversary. “As you hear more stories, you can kind of get a better feel [for how they lived].”

The all-volunteer staff isn’t able to keep the museum open frequently, amounting to only a few days a month for events the historical society puts on. Unguided walkthroughs are allowed, and if you catch a docent, they’d love to give you a private tour.

The preservation efforts began in earnest in 2003 when the historical society purchased the property from the Hanson family. In addition to the Historical society’s purchase, six acres of the lot went to Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church and Door County Land Trust purchased the 16-acre scenic overlook before donating it to the township of Liberty Grove. In 2005-06, the historical society began actively acquiring the seven historic buildings which now dot the property.

According to Moran, artifacts are the starting points for the stories that can be told about them. As she walked me through the exhibits, particular objects would open glimpses into the lives of Liberty Grove’s inhabitants.

The exterior of the summer kitchen. Photo by Len Villano.

‘Every object has its own story’

A taste of seasonal life in Door County is best found in the history of cherry picking. Walking into a shack used as lodging for fruit pickers, with rucksacks and rollerblades, fishing poles and a guitar, the sentiment of care-free yet hard-working ancestors arose. As Moran was working on one of the buildings, she was surprised by some visitors, two sisters, who asked about the pickers’ shacks. It turned out the parents of the siblings stayed in one of these shacks when they were little. The beds used to be here, they remembered out loud, and the kitchen was here. A ladder for cherry picking brought up memories of picking with their parents: the sisters were afraid to go up the ladders to get to the higher branches, so the parents would do the high branches and give the kids cherry buckets tied to their waists with twine to do the lower branches. They’d get off work early on Saturdays and would go rollerblading at the Mink River Basin.

‘Once you know what you have, you can have fun with it’

Another picker’s shack has been remodeled inside to present the practice of keeping a summer kitchen. Signatures all over the boards of the ceiling, accompanied by dates ranging in the ‘40s, bely its real usage. A children’s swing, made by Reinhard Peil, is suspended from a rafter, and would’ve kept a child occupied while you gave your undivided attention to the cast iron stove. Dirty laundry would wait to be boiled, washed, and rung out in a collapsible laundry hamper, while bundled herbs are hung along the windowsill to dry.

A reproduction of a Door County summer kitchen. The heat from cooking and boiling water for laundry was kept away from the home in the summer. Photo by Len Villano.

‘It’s never-ending. How do you tell the story?’

The main museum, built in the 1800s, first served as the German church where the Hillside Inn of Ellison Bay now stands. After stints as a school, home, and restaurant, Russ Hanson dragged the building up the hill and placed it upon the foundation of an old barn that had burned down. It is now home to the largest portion of the historical society’s collection. Wedding gowns that connected Liberty Grove families hang along one wall with photographs, documents and old biographies collected from each village in Liberty Grove filling all spaces. The donations continue to stream into the historical society as the group waits on grant money to make the museum climate controlled.

Beyond the individual stories told at the Liberty Grove Historical Society through the buildings and artifacts housed within them is a holistic story, a testament to this interconnectedness of the people living in Door County today and to the collective history that these families have shared across generations.

“The other job of the historical society is to educate the present and the future [generations] so that they don’t get lost,” Moran said. “Then, when we get to the museum, it’s like a blast from the past. You can have 10 people from different generations and you get in there and they start sharing it with their grandchildren and the kids…it’s really exciting.”

Despite the daunting task ahead of them, the Liberty Grove Historical Society has transformed their property into a place unlike the rest of the county around it. To exit your car there is to step into a different world; or, if not different, perhaps just a little older, with a few more stories to tell.

Author’s note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Hanson Family donated the Grand View to the Door County Land Trust. The parcel of land was purchased by the Land Trust for more than $1 million, which was raised over several years of efforts by the organization and by the Ellison Bay community.

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