When people think about Door County, tourism is probably the first thing that comes to mind. This wasn’t always so, however. Long before the first white settler came to the county, Native Americans thrived here, hunting and fishing and eventually trading with the occasional Canadian fur trader. The first white settlers farmed and started fishing and lumber operations…which in turn drew more people to the county to work and to cater to the workers. Word got back to the bigger cities in the region that this peninsula, surrounded by water, was pleasantly cool all summer long…naturally air-conditioned, if you will. Soon, travelers started to visit, to escape the big hot cities. Today it is hard to imagine Fish Creek without camping, hotels, VRBO’s, resorts, motels, charming Inns, and of course, resort style rental condos like the Hilltop Inn.
Asa Thorp settled in Fish Creek in 1855, bringing much of his family and some hired men with him. He started a lumber business and built a pier and a warehouse. By the late 1850’s Fish Creek was a bustling little village with around 300 residents. Passing steam ships travelling from Buffalo, New York to Chicago were grateful that they had a place to stop and buy cordwood to keep the ships running. At this moment in time there were no places to stay anywhere in Door County for work or pleasure. No fancy resorts or even simple hotels. Out of sheer necessity Asa started renting rooms in his house to Teamsters and travelling salesmen. Being entrepreneurially minded Asa Thorp built a hotel to house the many business travelers visiting the area. The business travellers noted how pleasant and beautiful the area was and soon started bringing their families to enjoy the lovely scenery and temperate weather. These early visitors came on steam ships from Chicago and Milwaukee as there were no roads. Thorp hotel could accommodate 125 visitors looking to book lodging in Fish Creek.
Door County saw big changes at the turn of the Twentieth Century, making travel to the peninsula much easier. Railroads finally reached all the way to Sturgeon Bay and roads were constructed out of crushed stone reaching into the northern part of Door County. The first two decades saw an increase to six hotels and resorts, including the Thorp Hotel, in Fish Creek. One of the more intriguing lodging options built during this time was the Henriette Inn built by Dr. Herman Welcker a recent transplant to Fish Creek.
Dr. Welcker was born in 1849 in Germany. He earned his medical degree in Germany in 1877. At they age of 45 he decided to
emigrate to Milwaukee with his wife Henriette and their young daughter Mathilda. He quickly established a thriving Virology practice and a good reputation in his adopted new city. His life would take another dramatic turn a few years later. In the summer of 1894 Dr. Welcker did what many families did in the summer (and still do to this day), took his family on a summer vacation! Dr. Welcker traveled by steamboat from Milwaukee to the beautiful shores of Fish Creek. It was love at first site. Dr. Welcker marveled at the beauty of the limestone cliffs and the natural setting. From the second he saw Fish Creek he couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. He began buying up land…lots of land. Miles of shoreline, hundreds of acres of farmland, and many lots to build cottages on. Fish Creek had won his heart. Others saw it as a place to make their fortunes in the fishing and lumber industries. Dr. Welcker saw its potential as beautiful resort vacation destination for people, like himself, to escape the big hot cities and refresh themselves in nature.
In 1896 Dr. Welcker built a hotel in Fish Creek. He named it for his wife Henriette. He then built cottages that stretched across several blocks of Fish Creek naming them after his female relatives. Helene, Tina, Mathilda, Hedwig, Hermine, Minna, Tekla…Herr Doktor would grandly greet his guests at the dock bowing and smiling, dressed in a fine black suit. Guests, weary from their long steamboat trip, would eagerly await to see which of the lodging accommodations the good Doctor would assign them too for their month long holiday. Dr. Welcker purchased more land…a farm to produce food for his guests, a dock…he also purchased the property that later became Welcker’s Point in Peninsula State Park. His most intriguing purchase by far was the Lumberman’s Hotel.
Built in 1887 in Marinette, Wisconsin Dr. Welcker purchased the hotel in 1907. Teams of horses dragged the hotel 22 miles across the frozen waters of the bay of Green Bay and located it a block east of the Henriette. Dr. Welcker named it Welckers Casino and used it as the amusement center for his guests. The basement held billiard and card tables for the men and ping pong tables and amusements for the children. The main floor were card rooms for the women who played bridge and Mah-Jong. The main floor also had the music hall where weekly concerts were held for the guests of the resort and the residents of Fish Creek. Music was performed by professional musicians from Chicago and Milwaukee and plays were performed by some of the guests or visiting actors. Meals were served three times a day in a dining hall that Dr. Welcker constructed across from the Casino. Meals were large and lavish…large platters of roasted meat, potatoes, cabbage, smoked fish, baked bread, and elaborate desserts the most famous of which was cherry kuchen…made with a biscuit crust, three inches of cherries, and mounds of whipped cream!
Many visitors may not have known what they were getting themselves in to when they booked lodging in Fish Creek at Welckers Resort. The good Doctor styled his resort after European health spas that were popular in that era. Dr. Welcker was a lover of nature, art, music, and good food. He was also very disciplined health and fitness aficionado. Guests who booked lodging at his resort were held to a strict schedule designed by the Doctor. After breakfast guests were often taken on a hike along the shoreline, hiking all the way to Ephraim! Guests were brought back to the resort in Fish Creek by boat. Lunch was announced using a big iron bell and the lodgers were expected to be on time….Dr. Welcker did not tolerate tardiness. The Doctor believed in a good rest after a large meal and imposed a two-hour rest period after lunch. He made the rounds of the resort enforcing the rest period shaking a bell and yelling “Quiet” in German at those making noise.
Swimming was a favorite form of exercise for the Doctor and his wife and they encouraged the resort guests to join them at the
bathing beach. It is hard to imagine today but back then bathing costumes were made out of heavy wool. Men wore a two piece suit with knee length trousers and women wore skirts and bloomers. I can imagine that swimming at that time was quite a hearty workout wearing such heavy clothing. After another huge evening meals, resort guests headed to the casino for game playing or concerts. Lights out was at ten o’clock and again was strictly enforced.The Doctor would wander the grounds making sure everyone’s kerosene lamp was extinguished. The highlight of the week for many lodgers was the weekly visit to the Doctor’s house to pay their bill. Dr. Welcker was quite the collector of natural objects and many people, especially children, were fascinated by the collections of butterflies, stuffed fish, animal heads, snakeskins and the like. Children marveled at the fascinating assortment of artifacts while their parents wrote a check for their weekly bill…$7.50! Staying in a resort in Fish Creek for a month with three meals a day might cost today’s visitor a little more.
Henriette Welcker died in 1920 and Dr. Welcker died in 1924. Welckers resort was run by Dr. Welcker’s niece, Martha Fahr until her death in 1939. After Martha’s death the famous Fish Creek resort and lodging destination was split up and sold to various owners. Welcker’s Resort, consisting of 300 acres of land, 12 cottages, ding hall, bath house, family home, and laundry facilities…made a huge impact on the little town of Fish Creek and cemented it as a premiere summer vacation destination. In 1997 the buildings that once made up the resort were designated The Welcker Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.