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The Evolution of Health Services in Northern Door

by ROBERTA CHAMPEAU for the Sister Bay Historical Society

As we welcome a major, new medical facility in Sister Bay, it’s a good time to look back to see how the medical profession in Northern Door has evolved. Documentation on the subject is fairly skimpy, however, so much of this history is based on the memories of community members, all of whom we thank for their participation.

Northern Door County was once served by just a few dedicated country doctors and midwives. One of these dedicated doctors – a locally beloved professional who, by all accounts, took excellent care of Northern Door residents from 1929 until 1979 – was Edward George “Doc” Farmer.

In his 1982 book, Door Way: The People in the Landscape, author Norb Blei wrote about Farmer’s path to becoming a doctor: 

As a young man, Doc was a machinist and went to school to become a mechanical engineer. But he recalled the time his father got hurt on the farm, threw his neck out of place, and was straightened out by a visiting osteopath from Chicago. For some reason, young Edward Farmer was rather impressed with the kind of body mechanics an osteopath could perform. The osteopath, in turn, encouraged him. 

“Why don’t you come down to Chicago and go to school?” he said to Farmer. This is exactly what he did in 1923, enrolling in the Chicago College of Osteopathy for five years.

After Doc was licensed in Wisconsin during the Depression, he was offered a job on Washington Island for an annual salary of $3,000. Times being what they were, he jumped at the opportunity for a stable position. He ultimately loved both the island and the islanders, and they, in turn, loved him. 

Known for his generous humor, Doc would tell jokes to his patients to ease their anxiety during house calls. As he once noted, “If you can get a patient to smile, they don’t feel so depressed. You have to be able to laugh at yourself. So I always like to tell them a joke.” Doc would also frequently “guesstimate” that he had delivered as many as 1,500 babies in Northern Door.

As one of the last old-time country doctors who made house calls at all hours of the day and night, one much-repeated story tells how much Doc liked fishing off Washington Island. If there was a call for him, the party would park at Detroit Harbor, honk three times and Doc would motor his boat back to shore. 

Throughout the early decades of the 20th century, there were other country doctors dotted across the county who served the rural clientele, one being Dr. Noble in Fish Creek. He practiced at Noble House, which is now a Gibraltar Historical Association museum. 

In 1955, residents in Sister Bay formed a board with the intent of building a new facility to meet the medical needs of those living in Northern Door. The board named itself the Nor Dor Medical Board, with Sam Subin at the helm. 

The apparently tenacious team found a home for the new clinic at the home of Martin Jischke, then located where Crain’s Kitchen is today (immediately south of On Deck Clothing Company). Then the group needed to find a doctor, so it called on the dedicated Dr. Farmer on Washington Island. 

Doc decided to come to the mainland in 1958 and was the new facility’s first doctor. But he didn’t forget the island. Once a week, he and Dr. Dorchester from Sturgeon Bay would fly to Washington Island to treat their many patients.

By 1960, the Nor Dor Medical Board decided to build a more formal clinic in what is now Al Johnson’s parking lot, and the old Martin Jischke home was moved down the highway to Fieldcrest Road. (The old clinic is now a residence, located on the south side of Fieldcrest, and inset just a bit from Highway 42.) Sam and Willard Erickson built the new clinic next to Al Johnson’s, and it even had rooms dedicated to a dental service. 

Many other medical professionals besides Doc Farmer came to practice in Sister Bay at the new clinic, and together, they provided health care for more than 20 years to local residents, visitors and migrant workers. 

In approximately 1980, the well-worn building was moved from downtown Sister Bay to a location at the corner of Highway 57 and Canterbury Road, where it housed a wide range of businesses over the subsequent years, including a dental practice or two, a veterinary clinic and the first location of Caxton Books.

When Doc Farmer retired in the 1970s, Mike Flood, a highly proficient nurse practitioner, became the area’s primary medical practitioner. He and his staff provided a full range of services and were often on call 24 hours a day. Flood built his own professional center on Highway 42 to house his clinic and a few other small businesses.

In the early 2000s, the North Shore Medical facility was built in Fish Creek as part of Door County Medical Center. Last year, the Fish Creek facility was sold, and the old clinic on Canterbury Road was torn down to make room for Door County Medical Center’s new Sister Bay Clinic and Rehab Center, which opened its doors to patients in April. 

It’s probably fair to say that most Sister Bay residents are a bit astonished that their small community now features a large, modern medical facility with such a prominent profile.

Sources

• Norbert Blei, Door Way, the Ellis Press, Peoria, Illinois, 1981.
• Martena Gunnlaugsson Koken, Doc, a Koken Farm Book, 2008.
• Door County Advocate archives: June 30, 1975; August 8, 1974; May 2, 1961; June 27, 1976; Sept. 24, 1959; Feb. 18, 1960; Nov 26, 1960.
• Andersen Hannes, Washington Island through the Years, Jackson Harbor Press, Washington Island, Wisconsin, 2007.