It’s June 24, 2019, and the fog hangs thick over Sturgeon Bay as the Teweles and Brandeis grain elevator inches forward on its journey west across the Oregon Street Bridge. On the other side, waiting to greet the 119-year-old, 70-foot behemoth, is Christie Weber.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she says in a tone that most people reserve for their children. The early-morning journey takes a couple of hours — much of it spent on the final turn off Maple Street and back onto the filled soil of the West Waterfront. Then it’s finally back near its original location, where it will await its final directive from the city.
Weber made this happen. She fought, sued, educated and secured a $1.25 million donation to preserve this long-mothballed relic of Sturgeon Bay’s agricultural origins. Ultimately she outmaneuvered the city, which deemed it unsafe, unsalvageable and unwanted: a determination Weber couldn’t accept. She’s moved to tears that she saved it, energized by the visions of it restored as the centerpiece of a public park and gathering space. And if you catch her at the right time, she might even admit one other thing she’s proud of.
Although Weber and her supporters were filmed by local television cameras cheering the granary’s journey home, elsewhere in the city an old guard fumed. This stench-ridden, rotting birdhouse that city officials hoped to raze was now crawling back over the bridge to the parcel that had once been envisioned as the site of a 90-unit hotel and pier that would have been the heart of the city’s new era. Instead, this piece of trash was the centerpiece of the most publicity the city had received in years, plastered on TVs, newspapers and websites. And at the center of it all was the woman who sees a conspiracy in every plan they present.
“That woman has ruined every good thing we’ve tried to do in this city,” one longtime member of the city’s now-defunct Waterfront Redevelopment Authority told me. Many agree with him.
Weber elicits adoration from some, hatred from others. Some see a community savior, a role model. Others a roadblock, a villain.
“She gets what she wants, when she wants, no matter what,” says Joe Knaapen, a former Door County Advocate reporter who chronicled much of Weber’s earlier struggle to save the Michigan Street Bridge.
“Christie’s got a good sense of history, and she’s crabby enough and savvy enough to find experts who will fight her cause. And once she starts driving, the politicians gotta respond.”
Digger DeGroot, a somewhat begrudging friend, called her a gadfly once. “She almost punched me,” he recalled in a phone call not long before he died. DeGroot said he wished Weber, who can be accusatory and abrasive when you’re on the opposite side, would tone it down a little, as did her father, the late “Smilin’ Bob” MacDonald. Her father was her partner in many of her ventures, but she drove even him crazy at times.
“Sometimes I could ring her neck,” he would tell his family. “But I respect her.”
When Weber — all five feet and three inches of her — approaches the podium in the council chambers of Sturgeon Bay City Hall, the first thing she has to do is reach up to pull the microphone down to her level. She’ll pull her graying, shoulder-length brown hair behind her right ear and giggle softly as she shuffles to get the mic in the right place.
If it had been your first time at a council meeting, you’d think this tiny package of a woman was like most other public commenters — there to discuss garbage pickup, or parking shortages, or a noisy neighbor disrupting the peace on her street.
But if you’d watched the individual council members as she approached, you might get a different sense. One council member swallows deeply; another struggles too late to stop an eye roll; the mayor steels himself.
In the audience, there’s a split. When her name is called, there are those whose eyes shoot daggers at her as she stands, but others — more of them, usually — who give a subtle nod or a slight smile, or lean back slowly in their chairs as if to say, “Here we go!”
Weber will scold, accuse and question in a gravelly, methodical style that might be easy to dismiss if it weren’t backed up by hours of research and preparation. By the time Weber comes for you, she has already devoured pots of coffee while poring through state statutes you’ve never heard of, spoken to attorneys who specialize in the field, and quizzed state officials — two steps ahead before you realize you’re supposed to be keeping up.
Weber takes nothing at face value from official sources and doesn’t hesitate to question the motivations of local and state leaders. This invites descriptions of her as paranoid, or a conspiracy theorist, which even she recognizes in herself at times. But often, that paranoia isn’t misplaced.
After the first Steel Bridge Songfest, founded by Weber and her brother pat mAcdonald during the effort to save the Michigan Street Bridge, her opponents publicly questioned where the money from the festival was going. They accused Weber — who still waits tables at her parents’ tavern; and her brother pat, who once declined a million-dollar offer for the rights to one of his songs out of artistic principles — of enriching themselves through the song festival.
“Christie and pat have the same genes,” says their mother, Elaine MacDonald. “They don’t care about money.”
As this magazine goes to press, Weber is engrossed in a fight to save Potawatomi Tower, the 75-foot icon of Potawatomi State Park that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is dead set on tearing down. When the DNR’s engineers said the tower was no longer safe and beyond repair, most community leaders, including state legislators, took it as a final call. Not Weber.
She read the report and found it striking that it read word for word like the report the DNR had used to justify tearing down Eagle Tower in Peninsula State Park in 2015. But rather than just complain, Weber secured funds to commission an inspection of her own, enlisting the services of Dan Tingley, one of the nation’s foremost experts on wooden towers.
He concluded the tower could be saved for significantly less than the $3.6 million it cost to rebuild a smaller version of Eagle Tower. The DNR dug in its heels, but not before Weber garnered the support of state Sen. Robert Cowles and state Rep. Joel Kitchens.
It’s just the latest in Weber’s 40 years of battling to save endangered historic icons of the peninsula.
Before the tower, it was Sturgeon Bay’s West Waterfront, where she first led the charge to stop a proposal to build a 90-unit hotel, then switched gears to save the granary when the city’s fire chief ordered it torn down.
But those are only the latest causes Weber has stuck her neck out for. Her first forays into activism began in high school, Elaine MacDonald recalls.
“She was the first girl in Green Bay to take a shop class, and she had to petition to get into the class,” MacDonald says. Weber’s brother Bob Jr. suspects Weber was inspired by her older brother pat and their parents, who in 1968 filed a federal suit against Green Bay West High School after pat was expelled for wearing his hair too long. They won, getting the school to drop its dress code in the process.
Her parents bought the Bayside Tavern and moved the family to Fish Creek in 1975. Weber came to historic preservation during the early 1980s, when she was inspired by the struggle to save the old Fish Creek Town Hall from becoming a parking lot. Weber was part of a group of young residents who joined with town stalwarts Virginia Kinsey and Ann Thorp as they battled old-guard sentiment in the town that saw little use for an aging structure and preferred a parking lot instead.
The preservationists won, and 40 years later, the hall still hosts events, was for years a winter home for American Folklore Theatre, and in critical moments, hosts some of the town’s most important debates. That fight taught Weber an early lesson in community activism.
“You can’t complain about something a community is investing in without offering at least the time spent to think about a more viable option,” Weber says. “It’s not enough to be against something. You have to be for something else.”
Contrary to what Knaapen says, Weber hasn’t always emerged victorious. During the late 1990s, she fought to preserve the old east-side school, to scale down Stone Harbor Resort to preserve waterview corridors, and campaigned to recall county board supervisors to stop the relocation of the jail, senior center and county offices to the outskirts of the city. She lost the battle over the school and jail, gathering some potent enemies in the process.
“When we were fighting the moving of the jail, yeah, I was afraid,” Weber says. “They were police. They were mad. The paper wasn’t very nice. They made it sound like I was insulting police officers. I was scared.”
But during the mid-1990s, when the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) announced it was going to tear down the Michigan Street steel bridge — the city’s most recognizable human-made structure — the bulldog in her came out. She would find herself at the center of one of the peninsula’s most contentious debates.
“When I first approached the mayor about saving the bridge, he laughed at me,” Weber says.
Bob Starr served on the city’s Common Council from 1994 to 1998, then as mayor from 1998 until 2001. As he explains, that quick dismissal was understandable.
“In the mid-1990s, the state of Wisconsin came to us and said the bridge is getting dangerously unstable, and you need to replace that bridge,” Starr says. “You just need to tell us where the new one goes, and you’ll own the bridge after you’re done.”
Starr says that losing the steel bridge and owning the new one didn’t sit well with the council, but they trusted the DOT.
“I believed them and had no reason not to,” he says.
The DOT was loath to spend millions to repair an aging bridge, but Weber saw more than a transportation span. She wasn’t a native of Sturgeon Bay or Door County — always a difficult position in a local debate — but she had a sentimental attachment to the bridge and its symbolism.
“It wasn’t the bridge; it was the community,” she says. Her parents had brought her and her five siblings on weekend camping trips to Peninsula State Park. “Sturgeon Bay had been part of my upbringing, and crossing that bridge meant coming to Door County. We’d cross that bridge, and we’d all holler, ‘We’re home!’ I found out over the years from families coming in that they had the same attachment. It was the doorway to our vacation home.”
Many people agreed with her.
“The day after it was announced, I talked to every merchant, got 500 signatures, and nobody wanted to tear down the bridge,” she says.
But others were just as vehemently opposed and saw no value in keeping the city’s original bridge. Weber dug in, hiring an engineer who showed that the bridge wasn’t as unstable as the city had been led to believe.
“At that point, I didn’t know what to think,” Starr says. “I thought a state agency is something you should rely on.”
Weber fought, twisted arms, played the public-relations game, even co-founded a music festival with her brother pat in her battle to save the bridge.
“That came at probably my worst moment,” she says. “I was with pat, going off on the frustrations and negativity around the fight, and pat said, ‘What if we turn it all around? What if instead of fighting for the bridge, we celebrate it?’”
They began planning a concert, and mAcdonald called in a favor from his friend Jackson Browne to perform at the first Steel Bridge Songfest, which brought dozens of musicians to the shores of Sturgeon Bay to write and perform songs inspired by the steel bridge.
“The concert was to turn around the negative energy, but also to make it clear that more people cared about the bridge than just Christie Weber,” she says. “Governors don’t like tearing down things that people are writing songs about.”
When she was done, the state came through with funds to restore the bridge; the city had a new image as a small-town artist’s haven; and the steel bridge was emblazoned on city signage and stationery.
It’s not easy to speak up in a small town, not easy to stand up and be the face of an unpopular idea and question the status quo. Most of us are lucky if we do it once, or if we really pour ourselves into a single project of merit.
Weber lives in the ring. She absorbs the side-eyed glares, the dismissive tones, the cruel words.
“I thought many times, how has she done this year after year after year?” says Kelly Catarozoli, one of Weber’s closest allies in the granary saga and a member of the Sturgeon Bay Common Council from 2015 to 2019. “When she’s very passionate about something, she does not give up. Most of us can maintain that for about a week. She does it for years.”
When Catarozoli moved to Sturgeon Bay in 2013, she started going to meetings of the city’s Common Council. That was when she met Weber, a “Mighty Mouse” who seemed to know so much.
“Sometimes you’re like, ‘OK, get your tin hat off,’ but then, she’s right again,” Catarozoli says.
Catarozoli was invigorated, eventually running for Common Council, and — with Hauser, Barbara Allmann and Kelly Avenson — became part of the city’s first majority-women Common Council. Weber’s friends say the verbal sparring and rumors get to her at times, but she accepts the blowback.
“If you say anything on a little island, you’re going to have people judging it. It’s as simple as that,” Weber says.
But she doesn’t hold a grudge. At the moment when a dispute burns hottest, she’s been known to call up her staunchest opponent to talk or get coffee. Though he wrote many critical articles about her, Knaapen says Weber always answered his calls and posed for a photo when he needed one.
“Not everyone is going to agree with you, but you don’t have to become enemies over it,” Weber says.
It seems as though Weber is drawn to the fight, but Catarozoli sees it through a different lens.
“I am actually perplexed about why these battles are difficult,” she says. “Saving a cool bridge? Saving Potawatomi Tower? Saving the granary when you have this money? It’s not, why does she pick hard battles, but why are these battles so hard? She’s saving icons.”
Not everyone sees it that way, of course. At the end of an afternoon walking around Sturgeon Bay and looking at the buildings she’s saved, we end at one of her most recent projects: Ferdinand Hotz’s tea house, which used to sit at the spot now occupied by the restrooms at the Fish Creek beach.
Weber moved it to the corner of 15th and Texas streets in Sturgeon Bay, and the main repair work is now nearing completion. Inside, helping her paint it, is her ex-husband, David, who leans back in a chair when Weber says, “Why don’t you ask my ex what he thinks of all this?”
David breathes deeply.
“Well, the bridge was hard,” he says. “I wasn’t sure at first, but now it’s a symbol of the city. She was right on that one.”
“Now the grain silo, I’m not too sure about that one. That’s pretty ugly.”
Add him to the long list of people Weber will have to prove wrong.
Preserving the Past One Building At A Time
Christie Weber’s preservation efforts haven’t been confined to high-profile structures. She has preserved at least a half dozen other structures, including several historical Sturgeon Bay buildings. A sampling:
1 – 221 Louisiana St., Sturgeon Bay
Weber restored the crumbling building that was once a gas station on 3rd Avenue before it was moved to Louisiana Street and became a tailor’s shop.
2 – 30 N. 1st Ave., Sturgeon Bay
Weber was one of the original investors, along with brother pat mAcdonald, in the Holiday Music Motel, restoring it into a vintage hotel that has become the subject of scores of articles in publications throughout the country. She left the Motel in 2010.
3 – 306 S. 3rd Ave., Sturgeon Bay
Most recently the home of Lola’s Cafe, the building was the workshop of the city’s first cabinetmaker. Weber moved two other buildings to the site and restored them to create nine rental units.
4 – 717 15th St., Sturgeon Bay
The Ferdinand Hotz tea house was set for demolition to make way for new restrooms at the Fish Creek beach. Weber bought it and moved the cabin, built circa 1910, to a lot on 15th Street in Sturgeon Bay, where she’s restoring it for use as a home.