Take a Sweet Getaway to Door County

Ephraim and Fish Creek offer fun, charm and summer theater

During the 2016 season, I and my Milwaukee PBS crew ventured to the Door to create our third “Around the Corner with John McGivern” episode about Door County. It’s been an every-other-year treat for all of us to get back to this incredible area of our state. We’ve covered Sturgeon Bay and the tip of the peninsula in past seasons. This time, season six, we concentrated on Fish Creek and Ephraim; we have plans for season eight to go back and cover the “quiet-side” Lake Michigan communities of Bailey’s Harbor and Jacksonport. We always go at the same time of year: fall. The colors are remarkable, the pace is a bit slower and getting around is a little easier than in the middle of the tourist-filled summer season.

If I were to ask random people to name a city in Door County, I’d wager that Fish Creek would be the most mentioned. Ask people familiar with the peninsula what village is the most picturesque and, without a doubt, most would say Ephraim. If you’ve never been to Door County I have only one question for you: What are you waiting for? Door County can be a day trip, a weekend trip or week-long vacation.

We started our week with John Gurda, our historian, who had us meet him in Peninsula State Park. This 3,776 acre park with eight miles of Green Bay shoreline was established in 1909 and is a “do not miss.” If you are wondering what you might do there, let me tell you: so much! Camp, hike, golf, swim, boat, canoe, kayak, fish, picnic, play on the playgrounds, take a lighthouse tour – or go to the theater. Yes, in the middle of this state park is Northern Sky Theater, once called American Folklore Theater, a beloved live performance space that presents family friendly fare nightly, and has every summer since 1970. I talked to Fred “Doc” Heide, the theater’s longtime artistic director. He shared the theater’s mission – to create original works that honor and celebrate and tell local stories. One of the most well-known works that came out of there is the show Guys On Ice, starring Doug Mancheski, a longtime company member and well-loved favorite.

Ephraim was founded in 1853 by Scandinavians, mostly Norwegians, who belonged to the Moravian faith. Moravians are evangelical Protestants, and the first settlers got here by walking across the ice from the village of Green Bay. They founded the first village in Door County. Moravians were not fond of alcohol, and until the spring of 2016 you could not buy a drink in Ephraim. It was the last dry village in Wisconsin. What you could buy, though, even in 1906, was ice cream. You can’t visit Ephraim without stopping at Wilson’s Ice Cream Shop. When I go, I always order a large strawberry malt. Malts are different from shakes, and if you don’t know the difference, ask Sarah Martin, the general manager and daughter of the owners of this iconic establishment. The specific taste of malt powder is a taste memory I’ve never forgotten since I ordered them at Oakland Serv-U Pharmacy on Milwaukee’s East Side. I LOVE A GOOD MALT, and the people at Wilson’s in Ephraim know what they’re doing.

I also suggest you stop by the Ephraim Library and check out this spot with the best views of the waters of Green Bay. It looks like a location in a movie shot on Cape Cod. I had the chance to read a story to an audience of one. I’m sure you are presuming it was a child, but no. It was an audience of one DOG. No, I’m serious. Usually children read to the dog, but she seemed to enjoy not only my selection but also my interpretation. Mary Sawyer, the branch manager, sees her job as a community builder and treats her branch as a community gathering place.

Now, please – if you make it to Fish Creek, stop first at the visitors center. Ask to talk to Digger DeGroot, the unofficial mayor of Fish Creek. He knows it all. After you meet Digger, you’ll completely understand the spirit of this village, because he captures and exudes it.

Talking about the spirit of a community, I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed meeting and spending time with the Bob Lautenbachs at Lautenbach’s Orchard County Winery and Market. This family farm grows grapes, cherries and apples and produces everything you can make with this fruit. They have a tasting market that gives samples, and a wine-tasting bar that was packed with wine-drinking people the morning we were there. Yes, I said the MORNING we were there. This entire operation, run by Bob and his daughters Carrie and Erin, is beyond impressive. Stop in and have a taste of everything.

If you are looking for a wonderful dining experience, find Mr. Helsinki, a restaurant in Fish Creek. It is on the same side of the street and a few doors down from Bayside Tavern, upstairs on the second floor of the grocery store. Chris Cote is a great restaurateur. His dinner-only place is an eclectic fusion of Asian, French and Cajun with burgers to die for. The signature dish is Bang Bang Chicken, a Thai inspired dish with peanuts and sriracha peppers. Get there early. The doors open at 5 p.m., and the place is busy from open till close. Tell them McGivern said to give you a table.

My first visit to Door County was in the summer of 1986. I was an actor performing in two shows at Peninsula Players, the country’s oldest professional resident summer theater company. I spent three months and fell in love with the theater and the county – and then came back in 1988. Those two summers hold such rich memories of the Peninsula Players, and of Fish Creek and Ephraim.

It was a joy to get back to these beautiful grounds last year. I interviewed Peninsula’s artistic director, Greg Vinkler. Turns out his first season there was 1988, so he and I were both company members that year. Years later Greg is responsible for the artistic life of this 82-year-old theater. It was under his leadership that a permanent roof and side walls that can be raised and lowered replaced what was once a giant box with a canvas top and
walls. (When the wind blew, you couldn’t hear a thing!) This visit was very personal for me. I am not the same man I was back then. Then I was a hard drinking, hard drugging, irresponsible, overgrown child. I look back on that time and have some regrets. I’ve been in recovery for over 27 years and I’m so grateful for clarity and the chance to embrace the responsibility of adulthood. I’m also grateful that this visit turned out to be a full-circle moment. Thanks, Greg, and thanks, Peninsula Players, for the opportunity.

I’m so glad that these two communities get along, because I couldn’t have chosen one or the other. Fish Creek, so much fun. Ephraim, so much charm. Together, the perfect week. ◆

‘A Sweet Visit to Door’ appears in the July 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning July 3, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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John McGivern is best known for his Emmy-award winning work on PBS, Around the Corner with John McGivern. His one-man-shows, THE EARLY STORIES OF JOHN MCGIVERN, MIDSUMMER NIGHT MCGIVERN AND JOHN MCGIVERN’S HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS tell the stories of being the third born of six kids in a working-class Irish Catholic Family in Milwaukee. John has been the keynote speaker for The Alliance for Children and Families, The State Department on Aging, The Children and Family Service Agency of Wisconsin, The Wisconsin Defense League, Christ Child Association, Foundation for Children with Cancer, Employee Assistant Professional Association and has been fortunate to entertain companies such as Time Warner, Northwestern Mutual, Kohl’s Department Stores, Baird, Acuity, and M&I Financial.