Door County and Fish Creek are a favorite vacation destination for millions of visitors each year. Today there are thousands of places to stay while you are here on vacation. You can stay in a hotel or resort, rent a condo, find a cool motel, a bed and breakfast, rent a home or cottage, or, our favorite…stay at a resort-style condo like the Hilltop Inn located in the heart of Fish Creek. But, did you ever wonder how Fish Creek got started, how did people get to Fish Creek, or what kind of lodging was even in Fish Creek for the first visitors?
Door County was inhabited by early nomadic peoples over 12,000 years ago. French explorers were the first people of European descent to visit the area in the 1600s. In 1835 Increase Claflin became the first white settler in Door County. His first homestead was in Little Sturgeon south of Sturgeon Bay. In 1844 Claflin left Little Sturgeon and moved North to what is now Fish Creek. He built a home near what is now Weborg campgrounds, in Peninsula State Park, thus becoming the first settler of the northern half of the peninsula as well as the southern half.
Increase Claflin was the first settler in Fish Creek but a man named Asa Thorp is considered to be the founder of Fish Creek. Born in New York State, Thorp was a Cooper (Barrel Maker) by trade. He settled in Fish Creek in the 1850s, first building a small cabin on the shoreline. He quickly started acquiring land. He started a lumber business and built a pier on the shores of the bay selling cordwood to passing steamer ships. He also built a warehouse and a tourist hotel…only the second one in the State of Wisconsin.
Fish Creek turned into a bustling little village. Lumber and fishing were the major industries. Tourism started out in a small way. There were no hotels in the early days of Fish Creek so, out of necessity, Asa rented out rooms in his home to visiting Teamsters and salesmen. These visitors were coming from larger towns around the Great Lakes…larger and hotter towns.
One of the charming things about Fish Creek and Door County was its pleasant weather. By the end of the century the lumber business was winding down but tourism was ramping up as people wanted to escape the bigger, hotter cities in the summer. Asa Thorp built the main building of the Thorp Hotel around 1850 and expanded it many, many times over the years. Other buildings were moved to the site to use as guest cottages. Tourists arrived in Fish Creek via passenger steamers. Management of the hotel was taken over by Asa’s son Edgar in 1895. Edgar added a livery stable to the resort which later also included cars. By the early 1900s roadways of crushed stone reached Fish Creek making travel by car possible. By this time the hotel resort could accommodate around 125 tourists and travelers. Edgar oversaw the running of the resort until his death in 1943 but his son Leland took over managing it in the 1920s. The hotel-resort’s dining room was open to the public and was frequented by many of the now nearly 300 permanent residents of the village.
The resort was sold in the 1960s to a corporation that turned it into Founders Square renting out cottages but turning part of the resort into shops. In February of 1984 the main building, which by then was small shops and Pelletier’s restaurant, burned down in a mysterious early morning fire. Firefighters responded from all over the county and managed to save the surrounding cottages but the main building was a total loss. It was later rebuilt to resemble the original building.
The first two decades of the twentieth century saw a big jump in tourism. The railway reached all the way to Sturgeon Bay and improved roads made travel quicker and easier. By then Fish Creek had a total of six resorts and tourist hotels. The most prominent of these was Welckers resort which encompassed a large part of Fish Creek. Welckers Resort will be the subject of our next post!