In March of 1994, a young couple in Lexington, Kentucky — an eager husband and a reluctant wife — loaded up a U-Haul in shorts and T-shirts and made the long journey to Door County.
“We unloaded in snowmobile suits,” remembered Don Helm — that eager husband — who felt drawn to the community while helping his parents construct a vacation home.
“I called Polly up and said, ‘I’d like to move up here. If we’re ever gonna do it, now’s the time: We don’t have any children; we don’t have any major commitments,’” Don said.
He started a construction company, and the retail-savvy, people-person Polly took on their very part-time, very seasonal business, Door County Nature Works, in a small barn to sell gifts and cabin-themed home accessories.
“There was just a concrete floor, no running water,” said Don, who spiffed up the place with a new floor, some doors and windows.
Polly had earned a master’s degree in organizational communication and human resources and had worked in retail since she was 15. She relied on both sets of experiences and her knack for just making things look good to make their small business a go.
“People were pretty receptive to it,” Polly recalled. “People kept wanting to purchase our displays. I remember saying to Don, ‘They just want our furniture, so we might as well try to sell furniture.’”
Twenty-seven years later, that little store has become a premier home-furnishings, accessories, décor, gifts and interior-design business that has physically expanded several times.
The retail space is meticulously curated to showcase gorgeous plate settings, holiday and seasonal décor, neat stacks of soap bars wafting pleasant scents. There are cozy corners complete with throw pillows and blankets, display cases with understated jewelry, shelves with stuffed animals sitting on the edges. There are rugs, lamps, cookbooks. Basically, shoppers would be hard pressed not to find something they’d like to take home or give as a gift.
And for those who want extra help creating their perfect space, Door County Nature Works has its interior-design business right next door, complete with two professional designers.
“What’s really helped our business grow so much is just listening to people — what they want, what they’re looking for,” Polly said. “And hiring the right people. We’re very lucky. They’ve done such a great job.”
While the business expanded, so did the Helm family. Their two daughters, Ellie and Hannah, grew up right alongside the business.
“Every time we had a daughter, we added on to the business,” Don said.
The Helms’ involvement in the community also grew because when that young couple came rolling into town with their U-Haul, they brought with them a strong desire to contribute to the place they had decided to call home.
“We both feel pretty strongly about giving back to the community that you live in. It’s a two-way street,” Polly said. “Our community’s been super good to us, and I feel we’ve given back to our community as well.”
That’s an understatement. The Helms’ list of commitments can make even the most people-oriented person feel in awe — and perhaps a little overwhelmed.
For example, here’s an incomplete list of the boards and committees Don or Polly has sat on or currently sits on: the Chamber of Commerce (now Destination Door County), YMCA, Egg Harbor Business Association, Egg Harbor Parks and Public Works, and Gibraltar School District. The Helms’ daughters also kept them busy by participating in gymnastics, volleyball, basketball, softball, track and theater.
“In Door County, you can be as busy as you want to be. There are so many good causes up here, so many ways to spend your time wisely,” said Polly, who also organizes various events that the store participates in to donate a percentage of its sales to local charities and nonprofits, including its annual Gift of Giving Day.
Don, meanwhile, has chaired Pumpkin Patch for “too many years to count,” he said, laughing. He’s also coached basketball for the Gibraltar School District for 15 years and had the honor, as he called it, to coach his daughters and “some wonderful kids over the years.”
“I never did anything because I felt I had to,” Don said. “I did it because I wanted to, and I hope in some small way, I made a contribution. My great-grandfather had this saying, ‘Give ’em your best.’”
Hannah said her parents’ commitment to the community has left a lasting impact on her.
“My parents are my role models when it comes to giving back,” she said. “They truly give with heart and always make being involved in the community a priority.” She is currently a part of a social-service group called CCHams, which raises money for various organizations.
Their lives were touched by tragedy in 2017, when Don and Polly’s oldest daughter, Ellie, died in an ATV accident. She was attending college at North Dakota State University and was a part of the cheer team and Kappa Delta sorority.
Though the Helms knew she was a vibrant, giving person, they learned just how those qualities had touched others when her friends started reaching out. The Helms asked that instead of flowers, family and friends make a donation to something Ellie had been passionate about.
“We kept getting really nice letters and notes from her friends,” Polly said. “People told us stories about her.”
They recognized causes and programs she cared deeply about: educational opportunities, mental health and suicide awareness for young adults, bringing joy and meaningful connections to the elderly.
Hannah sits on the board of the Ellie Helm Foundation, which has already given more than $60,000 to Door County in the form of mental-health programs for all five Door County high schools. The foundation also organizes programs at both Scandia Village and Sunshine House to help those with special needs and simply create some happiness.
“The foundation has gone beyond our wildest expectations,” Don said.
“It is healing and certainly makes you feel good to do kind things in her name and make a difference,” Polly added.
So, two daughters and a slew of major commitments later, the Helms are very much a part of the fabric of the Door County community. Although they shy away from looking too far ahead, it’s safe to say they won’t be loading up another U-Haul anytime soon.
“What we’ve learned is you take one day at a time,” Polly said. “We both really focus on the here and now. For now, we’re enjoying our business and our community.”
Ellie Helm Foundation
Don and Polly Helm established the Ellie Helm Foundation to further their daughter’s passion for helping others, supporting the causes and programs she cared most about. These include educational opportunities and positive life skills development for youth, promoting awareness of depression and preventing suicide among young adults, and bringing joy, meaningful connections and social engagement to the elderly. Learn more at elliehelmfoundation.org.