Shadow Boxes Depict Sturgeon Bay’s Maritime Traditions

Sturgeon Bay is known as the Shipbuilding Capital of the Great Lakes, and the creation of a new maritime-themed shadow box display aims to preserve and present that history.

Roen Salvage Co. President John Asher, who initiated the shadow box project. Photo by Katie Sikora.

The exhibit, called “Shadows of our Maritime History,” was officially unveiled at Sturgeon Bay City Hall on August 3. In a speech given at the opening, Roen Salvage Co. President John Asher said the realization he was in his 40th year with the company caused him to reflect on the fact that nothing lasts forever, and history needs to be preserved.

“Here we are surrounded by so much maritime history, begging to be remembered and embraced for future generations,” said Asher, who has also served on the Door County Maritime Museum’s Board of Directors for 19 years. “How do we preserve these memories long after each of us has made our final voyage? That question has always remained in the back of my mind.”

Asher found the answer to his question during a trip to Boston in June 2011. He and his wife Sandy, accompanied by City Administrator Steve McNeil and his wife Ellen, were looking to explore the history of John’s grandfather, Captain John Roen, and came across Boston’s oldest restaurant, the Union Oyster House.

Walking through the restaurant, Asher discovered a room filled with shadow boxes depicting the history of Boston.

“As Steve and I stood there staring at these beautiful works of art, I got to thinking: Why couldn’t we do something like this in Sturgeon Bay? What if I could get all the marine-related businesses in town to do a shadow box depicting and highlighting their business?” said Asher.

“Shadows of our Maritime History” was unveiled at Sturgeon Bay City Hall August 3 as part of the city’s Maritime Week. Photo by Katie Sikora.

When he got back to Sturgeon Bay, Asher began calling friends and acquaintances to see if he could put his new project together. The response, he said, was overwhelmingly positive, and eventually 19 shadow boxes took shape, ready to be mounted on the walls at City Hall.

Maritime institutions such as Palmer Johnson, the Door County Maritime Museum, the U.S. Coast Guard, and Bay Shipbuilding each designed and filled their own box with historic artifacts and representations of their connection to Sturgeon Bay.

“I think it’s excellent,” said Gene Caldwell, vice president and general manager of Bay Shipbuilding, of how the project came to fruition. “I’m stunned by some of the things I’m seeing.”

Caldwell said when it came time for Bay Shipbuilding to decide exactly what was going to go in its box, the company found it important to delegate.

“We let all the guys decide what was going to go in it,” he said. “Julie [Koch, who put the box together] went out and talked to all the different crafts from the pipefitters to the electricians to the plumbers…They all donated different pieces.”

Looking upon the culmination of his idea, Asher said he was proud of what the institutions he’d pulled together had accomplished.

Vice President and General Manager of Bay Shipbuilding Gene Caldwell stands beside the company’s shadow box in City Hall. Photo by Katie Sikora.

“I think that they put a lot of hard work into their product, and it really paid off,” he said.

Asher himself got up and worked from 3:30 to 4:45 in the morning for about six months to create Roen Salvage’s box, which emphasizes the company’s work in pile driving and contains a hardhat filled with names of people integral to the operation of Roen Salvage.

“The half [of the hat] on the left kinda depicts my dad and some of the key people when he started the company,” said Asher, “and on the right is people that work with me today.”

According to Steve McNeil, the shadow box exhibit is a permanent institution that will reside at City Hall as long as the building is still standing.

“There’s a reason this exhibit is here,” said McNeil. “The culture of Sturgeon Bay depends on its maritime history. It’s embedded in our city.”

The unveiling of “Shadows of our Maritime History” was just one part of Sturgeon Bay’s 2nd Annual Maritime Week, which took place from July 26 to August 5 and featured a number of maritime-related events.