Oddities and Authenticity at the Door County Historical Museum

The Door County Historical Museum was once named “the best small museum in the Midwest” by the Chicago Tribune, and as expected, it is host to a trove of local history and artifacts. But it’s also home to a variety of oddities that seem to have no connection to the region.

The presence of this diverse collection can be attributed to the museum’s founding father and first curator, Harry Dankoler. Born in 1863 in a log cabin built by his father near Sturgeon Bay, Dankoler began his newspaper career at the age of 16 as a typesetter with the Door County Advocate. He moved to Milwaukee in 1887 and by 1896 was in charge of a daily and three weekly newspapers, including Peck’s Sun. An avid amateur photographer, he took a photo of his only child, Sylvester, every day of his son’s life until he died of a ruptured appendix in 1907, just a week before his 12th birthday. Dankoler’s wife, overcome by grief, died a few weeks later.

He went back to work for the Advocate and, along with historian Hjalmar Holand, was instrumental in founding the Door County Historical Society in 1926, and the historical museum 13 years later. By then Dankoler had assembled a huge collection of oddities that became museum pieces, and he accepted donations of all types from others as well.

Harry Dankoler was one of the driving forces behind the founding of the Door County Historical Museum. This portrait hangs near the lobby of the museum. Photo by Len Vilano.

Early donations to the museum included a walrus head, three moose heads, a boa constrictor and 26 boxes of seashells Harry had collected in Florida. In those days the items made sense because people didn’t travel as much as they do now or see far-away places on TV, so they enjoyed seeing unusual items in museums.

“In the early days there was no rhyme or reason to the exhibits – just rows and rows of shelves with ‘stuff’ on them,” says museum curator Maggie Weir, who has been associated with the museum since 1984. “Someone would bring in an item and say it belonged to their great-grandma 40 years ago…but 40 years ago from when? Labels weren’t dated. There are pictures from the early 1980s, showing donations just stuffed in wherever they fit.”

Among the donations that have had a lasting presence are the rocks used to build the fireplace in the museum lobby. Weir has a list of who donated each one and where it came from.

“People still come in and say, ’Oh, look, there’s Grandpa’s rock,’” Weir says.

Renewed Focus on Door County

In 1984 the staff realized the museum needed a stronger local focus, and today the upper level holds things that make Door County unique – folk art, tourism, the cherry industry, Chief Oshkosh, the military, Belgian and Norwegian communities, ice fishing shanties and a wonderful exhibit on fish boils.

A replica of Sturgeon Bay’s turn-of-the-century building that served the original Pioneer Fire Company features three fully restored fire trucks and fire-fighting artifacts. Photo by Len Villano.

The lower level includes a replica street scene of the past, including a seamstress shop, newspaper office (with items from the Advocate), a replica of Trodahl’s grocery, a dime store (with an old Woolworth’s sign), an old-time switchboard, and a curiosity shop (including two armadillos).

Art Lopas, a master carpenter from southern Door County, built all the storefronts, using old lumber, doors and windows, all following ideas in his head without plans on paper.

Dan Austad, who has been actively involved with the fire department and the museum, as well as the county board, led the effort to add the firehouse addition to the museum in 1984. It’s a replica of Sturgeon Bay’s turn-of-the-century building that served the original Pioneer Fire Company with three fully restored fire trucks and fire-fighting artifacts.

It also hosts a jail cell from the old Sturgeon Bay jail, an exhibit on the Great Williamsonville Fire of 1871, an old horse-drawn hearse (minus the horses and casket), and a sleigh.

Plus the Great Outdoors Brought Inside

The first thing museum visitors see when they step into the museum lobby is a unique display of Door County’s natural history, begun in 1997 by internationally-known master taxidermist Michael Orthober, a life-long county resident. The diorama, which grows each year, includes mounted animals so real looking that it’s hard to imagine they aren’t alive.

Stained glass windows in the entry doors represent four of the earliest periods in Door County history – Indians, a sailing ship, a fisherman and a lumberman. Photo by Len Villano.

The trees in the exhibit are formed of wood, metal and Styrofoam, but the tips of each branch are real and so are the leaves on the ground. The bark is molded from a beech tree in Orthober’s yard.

“Michael is the most meticulous human being on the planet,” Weir says. “Such a perfectionist!”

The diorama, called Seasons of Life, depicts the changing seasons as it moves from right to left. The rock wall that’s part of the mural Orthober painted as background has one of every fossil that can be found in Door County.

As the leaves on the trees turn from green to gold and finally fall as visitors pass by the changing seasons in the diorama, the mounted birds in the trees also change, reflecting the time of year they’re found in the county.

Three times each summer, the museum staff sets up chairs and a table, and Orthober comes in to mount a bird he’s just taken from the freezer. (People donate ones that have flown into windows or met with other accidents.) He encourages questions from the audience as he works, and by the end of the afternoon, there’s a new bird in a tree. Although the diorama is nearing completion, he still wants to add wildflowers and more mammals and reptiles.

The museum building itself was designed in a Scandinavian style by William Bernhard, a former Chicago architect, who had moved to Ephraim when he designed the village hall there in the 1920s. The huge iron chandelier in the museum lobby, created by Paul Uhlemann of Fish Creek, is modeled after one in a castle in Sweden. The stained glass windows in the entry doors represent four of the earliest periods in Door County history – Indians, a sailing ship, a fisherman and a lumberman. They were created in Denmark, commissioned by the Washburn family, original owners of the store that later became Prange and then Younkers.

The museum staff recently completed an extensive history of rural schools in Door County and are working with Darrel Cardy on a display of the spear points he found on his family’s farm on the south side of Sturgeon Bay years ago that were verified in 2003 as evidence that Paleoindians were here up to 11,000 years ago, making it one of the most important archaeological finds ever in northeastern Wisconsin. (And seeming to disprove the theory that the area was covered with ice at that time.) That display will go up in the museum lobby this summer.

Along with the many exhibits, the museum also offers short films on the cherry, dairy and logging industries, the Belgian community and the making of Orthober’s diorama. As school budgets shrink, the staff regrets that there are fewer field trips.

“This is such a great experience for kids,” Weir says. “Especially fourth graders, because that’s the year they’re studying Wisconsin history.”

One final historical fact: Though Dankoler and Holand shared a passion for local history, they reportedly couldn’t stand each other. Today, their portraits hang side by side just off the museum lobby.

The Door County Historical Museum is located at 18 N. 4th Ave. in Sturgeon Bay. Hours are 10 am to 4:30 pm daily, May 1 – Oct. 31. Admission is free. For more information call 920.743.5809 or visit

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