On the Quiet Side: A century of history at Olson Cottage

It’s getting tough for vacationers to experience the “quiet side” – the eastern shore – of the Door peninsula for a couple of reasons.

Along a few stretches of shoreline, condos and modern homes have replaced the tiny cottages that were demolished or moved. It’s also not easy to lock in a weeklong stay in one of the remaining “Old Door County” cabins because the same families reserve them a year in advance, year after year.

That’s certainly the case for one complex of old cottages and a large, century-old, meticulously crafted log cabin along a windswept beach two miles north of Jacksonport.

“I think we started coming here in 1962,” said Mireille “Mo” Van Trigt, sitting in the cabin’s central living room, with its two-story-high ceiling, stone fireplace and tamarack-log walls. Sometimes family members have come from all over the Midwest for two weeks to occupy all or most of the cottages on the Olson Cottages property.

Mireille “Mo” Van Trigt, 93, has considered “Grandma’s Cottage” at Olson Cottages her getaway each July and has been bringing family members of all ages and places to the beachside cottages. Photo by Craig Sterrett.

Mo, 93, travels from California each year in mid-July to meet her son and daughters, who now make a pilgrimage to the Olson Cottages from Florida, Utah and Ventura, California. This year, however, none of her grandchildren’s families made it to the annual family-reunion weeks.

“What’s changed with our rentals is we have more of an adult crowd here,” said Penny Olson, owner of Olson Cottages. “What’s happened is, the kids have grown up. They’ll probably come back a few years later.”

Old photos on the cottages’ website and on a wall inside “Grandma’s Cottage” show up to a dozen children dressed in beachwear and lined up on the decks, or a stone wall, or a set of stairs that were destroyed by waves and high water a couple of years ago. 

Van Trigt recalls one summer when the reunion week brought in 14 kids: 13 boys and one girl. She said there wasn’t much organized entertainment, but her daughter Rae (Van Trigt) Murphy noted, “We made our own fun.”

The kids played baseball and other sports on the beach. They roughhoused in the water. They swam, explored the woods, went fishing and golfing, picked cherries, took hikes to get ice cream, combed the beach for smooth rocks to paint and made up games. Murphy recalled the boys challenging her and each other to curl up in the center of an inner tube, and then seeing whether they could roll it – and her – off a dune, across the beach and into the lake.

Mo said the adults enjoyed lots of poker games in the cottage’s living room and wraparound porch, as well as get-togethers with neighbors and visitors on the beach. Just like when she was in her 30s, 60 years ago, she maintains a tradition of going swimming, or at least wading in the lake, every day. She loves how uncrowded the beach remains for her outdoor pursuits.

“Really, where we are hasn’t changed a lot,” she said of the mile-long Elmira Beach, east of Highway 57 and between Logerquist and Sand Dune Shores roads. “I think most of the cabins are privately owned and weren’t rented out. Ben Olson built a lot of these cabins along here.”

The Olson Cottage was built in 1922. Submitted.

Ben Olson was a contractor, excavator and the grandfather of Ben “Ben Jay” Olson, an heir apparent of the complex that now includes four rental cottages, his own mid-century house off the beach and Penny’s larger home next door to the south. “Ben Jay’s” father, Jay, also was a contractor and moved the family from Sturgeon Bay to the complex when Ben Jay was in first grade. His father and grandfather often built cottages along Elmira Beach for longtime Olson Cottages visitors who fell in love with the place.

He now works in experiential online marketing in Milwaukee, but he still considers the Elmira Beach cottages home.

The same goes for his sons, Jay and Zachary, who are now learning to open, close and care for the place. They’re absorbing a little from their dad and quite a bit from handy Glenn Hasenjager, Penny’s husband for the past 18 years, following the death of Jay Tressler Olson in 1999.

“I grew up there, and my sons love it, too,” “Ben Jay” said. They consider it home as well. They were here enough that they feel that connection. It’s a really special place for us. Growing up here was not a bad thing at all.”

The old log cabin was built in 1922 for Albert and Arlouine Tressler.

Albert was a banker from Madison. They stayed at LaMere Lodge in Jacksonport, liked the shore and bought the property for the cottage in 1920. Arlouine was able to spend more weeks each summer at the cottage than Albert, and she resided in it until her passing in 1961 – thus the name the Olsons gave it: “Grandma’s Cottage.” 

Arlouine’s daughter, Alice; and Alice’s husband, Ben Olson, resided for many years in the Greenwood Cottage, a knotty-pine classic that became available again for rental in 2000. The beachside Redwood Cottage was used by family sometimes and rented by vacationers sometimes as far back as the 1930s.

Penny has managed the property since “Ben Jay” was young, and she did so while holding down a busy office job in a naval architecture firm in Sturgeon Bay.

“I’d come home from work and change clothes, and people from all around came over,” Penny said. “Our place was the local cocktail hour.”

Another touch of the hospitality that has brought people back for generations. 

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