Local Docents Bring Peninsula History to Life

There’s no better way to get a peek into the past than to relive it through a guide and keeper of the stories: a history docent. For many years, docents have helped to share Door County’s deeply rooted heritage. 

During narrated tours that are available through several local historical organizations, docents enthusiastically encourage visitors to delve into a location’s history, examine artifacts and learn about the past in a dynamic way. 

The Door County Historical Society enlists the help of docents at all of the historical sites it oversees. 

“We care for 20 buildings, and each one has a story that makes it unique and important to the community,” said Bailey Koepsel, executive director of the Door County Historical Society and a pinch-hit docent at Eagle Bluff Lighthouse and Sturgeon Bay’s Heritage Village. 

“Having someone in front of you, in period clothing, really completes the experience and helps you visualize our ancestors, she said.

Docents are an important piece of history’s puzzle, serving as a bridge between sites and their visitors. 

“They are the heartbeat of museums and historic sites,” Koepsel said. “Without them, outreach would be difficult, and we couldn’t share the stories we love so much.” 

Koepsel is proud of being a docent, noting that her passion for the role feeds off the excitement about, and the knowledge of, the site she’s representing. She especially enjoys dark history: the ghost and murder trolley tours. 

“I have never been on one I didn’t like!” she said.

“To me, [the role] is like meeting someone famous,” said Lynn Herman,  a docent for the Alexander Noble House Museum in Fish Creek. “We’ve heard about a person, but once we know more about them and their personal life, it makes them real.” 

Herman, who has been a docent for nearly eight years, looks forward to interacting with visitors.

“My favorite tours are when I can engage the guests,” she said. “Bantering while sharing the past makes everyone more involved and interested.” 

Herman added that, along with hearing from a docent, touring a physical place helps keep a community’s history relevant to current residents and visitors.

“Seeing pictures of the Noble family brings them back to life, so to speak,” she said. 

Docents such as Herman, second from right, help bring history to life. Here she is pictured with a Gibraltar class that visited
the Alexander Noble House Museum to learn about Victorian wedding traditions.

The role of a docent requires reciting historical facts and bits of trivia – something that requires quite a bit of preparation.

“The amount of prep work depends on each individual docent,” Herman said. “I do a lot of research about the time period, people, house and village. Traditions and customs are engaging for guests, so I include as much as I can.”

Presenting engaging content is both entertaining and a draw. 

“People react to the unknown,” Herman said.

Do you love history? Many of the local history organizations need docents, and serving as one offers an ideal opportunity for many retirees to stay active and involved in the community. 

Fred Johnson has been involved with the Sister Bay Historical Society for nearly 14 years and has filled in as a docent. 

“We try to preserve the history and stories of the area and give the people a feeling of what life was like in the past, explaining to them how people lived with what they had and didn’t have,” he said. 

The role of sharing that information, in his opinion, is pivotal for visitors.

“Many people don’t realize how difficult life could be without modern tools and conveniences,” Johnson said. “[Docents] explain to people the differences between life in the past and what life is like now.”

For those interested in becoming a docent, the opportunities are many. 

“Almost every historic site can find a place for you to share your passion and skills,” Koepsel said.

And with such a wide variety of history up and down the peninsula, docents – and their varied skills – are a valuable and valued resource.

“We are always looking for volunteers,” Johnson said. “They are very important. None of the historical societies could exist without them.”

Added Koepsel, “It’s easy to visit a place and appreciate what you see, but it’s the story that brings that place to life.”