White Gull Inn History
It could be a story from the nineteen seventies or eighties: a middle aged professional gives up his lucrative practice and moves to a remote village to become an innkeeper. Except that it happened in 1896.
In the 1890's, Fish Creek, on Wisconsin's Door Peninsula, was a bustling little town that was changing from a fishing community to a summer tourist village. It lacked electricity, telephone and automobiles, and overland access was limited to a rough and tumble stage ride from Sturgeon Bay. However, visitors so appreciated the cool air and peaceful beauty that they were willing to make the trip each summer on the Goodrich Steam Line from cities around Lake Michigan. One resort, already established, was operated by Asa Thorp, founder of the hamlet.
A family portrait of White Gull Inn founder Dr. Herman Welcker,
his wife Henriette, and only daughter Mathilda.
Enter Dr. Herman Welcker, German born and educated, who at the age of 45, had emigrated to Milwaukee with his wife and daughter. In just two years, Welcker, a virologist, had apparently established an excellent reputation and practice in his adopted city. Then, on a visit to Fish Creek, his life and career would take another twist. Falling in love with the tiny village, Welcker may have realized that if he was going to support his family in Fish Creek, he would have to create a business. He purchased land from Asa Thorp and constructed what is now the White Gull Inn, naming it after his wife, Henriette.
Welcker surrounded his inn with cottages, and purchased more land around the village, including dock space, a farm to produce food for the inn and property which would later become Welcker's Point in Peninsula State Park. His most unusual project was moving the Lumberman's Hotel from Marinette, Wisconsin, to Fish Creek, in 1907. The hotel (now known as the Whistling Swan) must have been dismantled before being moved the approximately eighteen miles across the frozen waters of Green Bay. Locating his new hotel one block east of the Henriette, Welcker named it Welcker's Casino, because of the card and game tables he provided for men in the basement.
Across the street from the Casino, Dr. Welcker constructed a kitchen and dining hall, where all his guests enjoyed three hearty meals a day. He filled his inns and twelve cottages with only the finest of furnishings - walnut dressers with marble tops, oak and iron beds and a baby grand piano, at which Henriette entertained the guests. All had to be shipped in by steamer from cities as far away as Cincinnati.
An early view of Fish Creek and the harbor.
What was it like to be a guest of Dr. Welcker? Fish Creek historian Ann Thorp, who researched "Herr Doktor," describes him as "strict disciplinarian, health and fitness enthusiast, gourmet, lover of art, music and nature; vigorous, stubborn, domineering, frugal, snobbish..."
"The Doctor presided over his exclusive realm with great pride and a firm hand. An early guest once saw his portly, bearded figure standing on the porch of the Casino, gazing over his resort, and announcing 'Das ist alles mein!' (This is all mine!)
"His early guests were often German friends from Milwaukee, people of 'refinement', perhaps hand-chosen by Welcker. They arrived by steamer, a rigorous trip then, and stayed for the season. The doctor reserved the right to refuse rooms on whatever basis he chose: attire, personality, or attitude. One story claims that he turned away a young member of the Pabst family and his party because of their racy and outlandish clothes and rather forward manner.
"He designed his program in the manner of European health spas of that era. He believed in exercise, hearty meals, rest, and cultural stimulation. A day's schedule might have begun with a hike along the shore to Ephraim, stopping at one of the little rest areas named for trees in the vicinity; there was a "Birch Bench", a "Balsam Bench", and others, with water fountains nearby. After returning by boat, perhaps the 'Thistle', the large noon meal was announced by a big iron bell, and everyone was required to be on time. The table was laden with huge platters of roast pork or Wiener Schnitzel, potatoes, noodles, baked cabbage and other vegetables, smoked fish, fresh bread and rich desserts such as a three-layer cherry kuchen liberally crowned with whipped cream.
"A two-hour 'silent' period followed and was strictly enforced. Herr Doktor strode through cottages and hallways shaking a small hand bell, calling 'Ruhe, Ruhe!' (Quiet, quiet!)
"Swimming was a favorite pastime and exercise for the Doctor and his wife Henriette, and guests were encouraged to join them for an afternoon dip at the Bathing Beach (now the Town Beach). Bathing costumes were made of dark wool; a two piece suit for men, knee length (one rather imperious man was seen entering the water with his Phi Beta Kappa pin fastened to his bathing suit.) Women wore voluminous skirts and bloomers and often a white hat pinned to their hair, creating a merry picture of white dots floating and bobbing on the water.
"After another hearty meal the evenings were devoted to music, games, and socializing at the Casino. Women had a sewing room and a card room for bridge or Mah Jong. Game and billiard tables were set up in the basement for the men, and there were Ping-Pong tables and other amusements for children. There were ice boxes stocked with beer and other beverages, available on an honor system.
"Plays were presented starring some of the guests or visiting actors, and concerts performed by professional musicians from Chicago and Milwaukee. The great opera singer Madame Schumann-Heinck once sang at the Casino. The great hall was hung with paintings by famous artists. Guests sometimes went to the Town Hall to see the flickery movies of that time.
"At ten o'clock sharp the day was over and all the kerosene lamps were to be extinguished. Herr Doktor patrolled the walks and would shout up to a lighted window, "Abdrehen!' (Turn it off!)
"Welcker had his office in his home, across from the Casino. Guests went there to pay their weekly bill and were amazed at his collection of snake skins, butterflies, antlers, a boar's heard, stuffed fish, and stacks of books and sheet music.
"Evidently he gave up his medical practice when he established his resort, but he would occasionally prescribe for a mild illness. He had once studied virology, and when a small pox epidemic threatened the village, he undertook the task of manufacturing a vaccine. At the time he didn't have the breed of cattle necessary for the production of the vaccine. Instead, he used a local boy, Merle Thorp, then about eleven years old. Merle was vaccinated over and over, and the Doctor used his blood to make vaccine for the rest of â€˜der kinder' in the town.
"Throughout the warm summer days the figure of Herr Doktor prevailed, a sometimes romantic image. There is an old photo of him on a boat trip to Chambers Island, with a lovely young lady on each arm, his bright eyes showing his pleasure and admiration. His old-world sentimentality was evident when he named the cottages for the women in his life - the Henriette, the Matilda, the Hermine, the Tina, the Minna, and the Else."
After Henriette's death in 1920 and Herman's in 1924, Welcker's Resort was managed by a niece, Martha Fahr, until her death in 1939. Then Welcker's domain was split up, with his inns and other properties going to various owners.
The White Gull Inn as it looked in the 1940's. At that time
it was known as Sunset Park Guest Home.
The Henriette went through a succession of owners and several name changes, including Sunset Beach Guest Home and Lakewood Lodge. During the nineteen fifties and sixties, many of Door County's historic inns were either torn down or remodeled beyond recognition to accommodate the public's changing tastes in travel. Perhaps the Henriette would eventually have suffered the same fate had it not been purchased, in 1959, by a young couple from Madison.
Andy Redmann was a talented artist who could see beyond the aging facade. He and his wife Elsie with the help of Elsie's sister Fraances Miller, purchased the aging hotel and changed the name to the White Gull Inn. After their first successful season, the Remanns and Fran set out to create their version of a New England style hostelry with an Early American look. Fran collected antiques and was familiar with the style. She had also taken a number of courses at the Milwaukee Vocational School, including silversmithing, weaving, cooking and woodworking, and she eagerly put these skills to work. Together, they refinished the pine floors in the bedrooms, papered the walls with colorful prints, refinished much of the original furniture and acquired more antiques. Andy's own watercolors were featured throughout the inn and cottages.
The Redmanns and Fran then turned their attention to the 1940's era dining room, which had been added after Welcker's Resort had been split up. A warm, Early American look emerged with the addition of the two-way fireplace, wainscoted walls, small paned windows and rough-sawn hemlock ceiling. Fran knew Charles Toman, a sculptor, whom she asked to make the old-fashioned chandeliers. Fran made the dining room wall sconces and wove a carpet runner for the lobby stairway. These fixtures and the runner lasted well into the 1990's, when they were finally replaced.
Fran and the Redmanns created the Early American Buffet, which consisted of roast turkey and ham, baked beans, corn bread and homemade butter, churned by the young staff in the dining room.
The most popular meal started by the Redmanns, and one the inn is famous for today, is the traditional Door County fish boil. Until the 1950's, the meal, consisting of boiled fresh whitefish or lake trout, boiled red potatoes, rye bread and cherry pie, had enjoyed popularity in backyard and church picnics, but had not been discovered by the general public. In back of the inn, in the shade of the century old maple trees, Andy created a flagstone patio surrounded by a cedar hedge. Tables and chairs were set up for guests to watch the catch of the day prepared before them over an open fire. Andy boiled the fish, Elsie prepared the breads and pies, and Fran entertained the guests with her accordion. That first year, the fish boil was held one night a week. Today, the fish boil is served four evenings a week, and guests make reservations weeks ahead, especially in summer.
The Redmanns owned the inn for five years. Afterwards they bought an old cherry orchard on the Fish Creek bluff, where they eventually established the Settlement Courtyard Inn and Shops complex.
The White Gull then underwent two more ownership changes. In 1972, Jan and Andy Coulson, the current owners, arrived, beginning an era that has lasted longer than any other owner. (The White Gull story from 1972 until the present is contained in our blog.)