In May, Door County Maritime Museum in Sturgeon Bay announced its two-year Sea Dogs exhibit and its goal to reach younger audiences by implementing interactive technology and videos throughout the display.
But in the gallery across the space now occupied by Sea Dogs is a permanent exhibit that reaches audiences by doing just the opposite – educating and entertaining by bringing visitors up close and personal with a craft as old as shipbuilding itself: model ships.
Lining the walls of the permanent Models and their Makers exhibit are more than 30 small-scale rowboats, fish tugs, schooners and large sailing vessels – many of which are replicas of real ships built in Door County by the old Peterson Builders shipyard.
But as much as the display is about the intricacies of model ship building – and the creativity necessary to build mini portholes, guns, anchors and engines – it is also about honoring the men whose concentration and life experiences led them to the hobby.
June Larson, curator and archivist at the museum, said Models and their Makers is the result of a “too good to let go” temporary exhibit that was set up in the Horton Gallery several years ago. Museum staff made space in the Baumgartner Gallery, dug up some interesting personal tidbits on the 11 featured makers, and went about creating an exhibit that would educate, entertain and for some, invoke nostalgia.
“You’ll see photographs of all the model makers, a little bit about them, a little bit about the models,” Larson said. “The only living maker in the gallery is Jim LaViolette; the rest are all deceased.”
As the bios suggest, there are greater links between the makers than just their hobby. Many served in the military during Word War II, worked in shipyards, and were inspired by the vessels of the Great Lakes. An intimate knowledge of ships naturally led many of these men to put their hands to use in a delicate way – carving and model making.
Most interesting of the collection are the quirky stories behind the model makers’ lives – like this little snippet from the biography of the late Jack Rosenquist, who spent every summer as a young man on an island in Minnesota’s Lake Vermilion helping his father build a cabin, boathouse and docks:
“His happiest moment of his young married life was when he acquired his very own boat. It was a 12-foot row boat which he got by trading for it with a gun which he had built himself. He told his wife about it – with much joy – while she was in the hospital, having just given birth to their first son.”
There is also the story of Norman “Shorty” Keller, a Sturgeon Bay native whose shell shock from serving in the Army in World War II was often cited as a reason for his quirky behaviors. He lived alone in a tarpaper shack (by squatter’s rights) that had neither plumbing nor electricity, but did have a carving shop in the back that no one was allowed to enter.
While many makers took to the hobby as a way to pass time, making models was certainly a means to an end for Shorty.
“‘Shorty’ typically styled cedar schooners by hand to perfect proportion, and would trade his carvings for liquor or sell them for a few dollars each.”
As a nonprofit, the museum has benefitted from the generosity of the makers, their families and Peterson Builders, Inc., all of whom donated model ships to the exhibit. Just two of the models – the South American and the Barge Hilda & Tug John Roen III – were commissioned by the maritime museum.
Models and their Makers is located on the second story of Door County Maritime Museum, 120 N. Madison Ave. in Sturgeon Bay. For more information, call 920.743.5958 or visit DCMM.org.