Postcard — July 19, 2017, 12:46 pm

Spirits at Death’s Door

A visit to Wisconsin’s oldest continually operated tavern.

Photo by the author

The standard way to reach Washington Island—an approximately twenty-three-square-mile island at the northern tip of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula—is through a strait known as Death’s Door. The modern journey is swift and for the most part risk-free: a ferry departs daily from a port at the northeastern tip of the peninsula jutting off the state’s eastern coast. Crystalline blue waves crash against the boat’s hull as a craggy rock precipice looms at the bow. Tourists snap photos as the sun’s rays ricochet off the surface, casting a shimmer over waters that conceal hundreds of ships the narrow passage has swallowed over the centuries.

Though the origins of the seven-mile strait’s name remain shrouded in legend, Death’s Door most likely derives from French: Porte des Morts. Some grim nineteenth-century French accounts attribute it to a night when hundreds of Native Americans were pummeled to death against the rocky shores in a storm. Many maritime losses are associated with Death’s Door, including the disappearance of the first European ship to sail the upper Great Lakes, which belonged to French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. The Griffon vanished in 1679 with five crew members and a bundle of furs onboard after setting sail for Niagara from the same Washington Harbor ferries still visit today. Legend has it the three-masted vessel still plies the treacherous waters, Lake Michigan’s original ghost ship.

On this brisk October day, passengers crowded the ferry’s deck for the half-hour jaunt, traversing the maritime passage navigated by the Native Americans that once dominated the area, along with the French fur traders who sought the Northwest Passage to Asia and the schooners and steamers that later carried Scandinavian immigrants to the region.

One of those European settlers was Tom Nelsen, a Dane with a hankering for Angostura bitters, who opened a bar on the island in 1902 in a former dance hall. Dubbed Nelsen’s Hall, it is now Wisconsin’s oldest continuously operating—legally speaking—tavern, having survived even Prohibition. The place owes its survival to Nelsen’s love of bitters: he argued and won his case that the bar’s ninety-proof herbal spirits are medicinal, and therefore he could sell them with a pharmacy license. Today even a Bloody Mary from Nelsen’s includes a dash of the distilled botanicals.

Nelsen’s looks much like it did a century ago. The white shutters and green gable roof lend the building, a designated historic landmark, a cozy farmhouse vibe in line with island’s aesthetic. Inside, a mix of locals and day-trippers hobnob at the bar. Families take their Sunday lunch in the adjacent dining room, many feasting on the area’s renowned whitefish caught from the waters of Lake Michigan.

A woman perched next to me introduced herself as Carol Lemon. Sipping from her weekend special cocktail, she told me she is the niece of the attorney who defended Nelsen in a Madison court—a chance encounter that could only happen on an island of seven hundred residents.

Lemon said Nelsen won the judge’s favor by bringing him a dose of the beloved bitters—procured at a pharmacy near the courthouse in the state’s capital city—and promising it would cure his chronic stomach ailments. According to Lemon’s story, an account preserved in local lore and oft-repeated by bar staff and patrons, Tom’s strategy worked: the judge granted him the right to continue legally pouring the potent bitters throughout Prohibition’s thirteen-year stretch.

The effervescent septuagenarian with a wave of bright blonde hair grew up on the island, and she remembers Nelsen’s Hall as the community’s nucleus. In addition to its roles as a bar and a pharmacy, it has also served the island during various periods as the town hall, the polling place, the movie theater, an ice-cream parlor, and a dentist’s office. On brutal winter nights, Lemon recalled, the neighborhood kids would sleep on the bar’s floor—Nelsen lived upstairs, a space now occupied by the current owner and her partner—because the piling snowdrifts and bitter northern wind meant a dangerous journey home.

“We just thought we were in heaven, because we were in a bar,” Lemon said, quickly noting that underage drinking was not the norm. When she was growing up, local kids came in for a film that cost them a dime or two. The same wood-paneled room that screened movies on a Lumière brothers–era projector also played host to island wedding dances atop the still-intact maple flooring. Once they could drink, Lemon said, the locals would imbibe from Budweiser-brand steins for ten cents a pour.

Lemon took a liking to the bitters. According to her daughter Trish, who had settled on a barstool next to us, her mother once took thirty-two shots of Angostura in an hour. “The key to her success was eating a cube of butter before going out to coat her stomach,” Trish said, taking a dram of her own afternoon gin and tonic.

“To drink the men under the table!” her mother quickly chimed in, blushing, though it was unclear whether her pink flush derived from the attention or the combination of vodka and bitters in her cocktail.

Lemon has witnessed the transfer of power of all the establishment’s owners, a succession of seven. After Nelsen’s death, his nephew Gunnar took over with his wife Bessie. The institution became Bessie’s Bitters Bar when Gunnar died. In the years to come the keys passed through an illustrious line of characters: Jim Llewellyn; a man who went by the moniker Unkefer; two buddies known as Tom and Goofy; the couple Vince and Penny.

Since 1999, the place has been run by a woman from Milwaukee named Robin Ditello. She moved to the island after a visit with her partner Doug in 1998, when she was taken with the secluded community. The small island boasts a K–12 school, a hardware store, a grocery store, a bank, a post office, an American Legion, and a community center. There are no traffic lights, and little has changed at the gas station in past decades besides the price. A transplant from Provence, France, recently opened a lavender farm on the island, and juniper berries grow wild. The hard red winter wheat the land is best known for serves as a base for many Wisconsin beer recipes and is also the origin of vodka and gin made at the state’s aptly named Death’s Door Distillery.

Moving from the state’s largest city to one of its smallest—and certainly its most isolated— communities, Ditello is an honorary islander. Hard-nosed with a coy smirk, she said Nelsen, who died in 1960 at a little under ninety years old, “credited his long life to drinking a pint of bitters a day.”

“A pint. That’s sixteen ounces,” she emphasized, breaking into a wry smile.

We spent the afternoon chatting near the old dance hall, which is now a full-service dining room and that night was showcasing an all-you-can-eat spaghetti dinner. A sea of tables radiated outward from a freestanding salad bar, a mainstay of Wisconsin’s signature supper clubs. A few steps away, a shaggy-haired thirty-something in a Green Bay Packers sweatshirt and flannel overcoat pounded the bar’s wooden surface with his fist, downed the remnants of his bitters—which he was drinking by the glassand air-jammed with crushing desperation to Prince’s “Purple Rain” guitar solo, the jukebox’s current ditty.

Bitters have become trendy in recent years; the spirits are beloved by cocktail “mixologists” for their ability to deepen the complexity of a drink by activating the oft-ignored bitter taste buds situated far back in the mouth.

Ditello showed me her vast vial collection—some four dozen bottles of various bitters, many of them lightly veiled in dust—that companies have sent over the years, hoping to get a spot on her menu.

But at Nelsen’s, it’s “Angostura bitters only—that’s what he drank,” Ditello said with satisfied finality. “People want me to buy their bitters, so they bring me samples. But they know how many kinds we sell.”

Ditello estimated the bar sells some ten thousand shots annually of the classic Angostura, which Trinidad and Tobago starting producing and selling in 1824. Following a tradition started by Nelsen’s nephew Gunnar, the establishment tallies shots by granting patrons who order the Cure—“the prescribed measure of bitters,” more commonly known as a shot—membership into the Bitters Club. “You are now considered a full-fledged Islander and entitled to mingle, dance, etc. with all the other Islanders,” reads the membership card, which is made official with a blood seal of sorts when the bartender issues a bitter-soaked thumbprint stamp.

“Tom used to say you’re a stranger here but once,” Ditello said. The adage hangs on a carved-wood placard above the bar. “We like to keep that tradition going.” If she ever had to sell, she said, “I’d be very picky. . . . I’d have to find somebody that would honor the tradition, honor the way things have run here. In honor of Tom.”

“People tell me there’s a presence here. A lot of them find it in the women’s bathroom,” she continued. “Some people say they’ve seen a woman in a white dress, a lot of people say they see Tom Nelsen walking around.”

Ditello lives upstairs, in the same quarters where Tom used to sleep. “Sometimes we hear footsteps after (the bartender) leaves. We’ve gotten used to it. It’s not a poltergeist kind of an atmosphere. I think he’s just hanging around making sure this place is being taken after.”

“It’s kind of a calming presence,” she said. “A lot of people say they can feel it in when they walk in the door. They can feel a spirit here that is friendly and that’s welcoming.”

In the warmer months, the bar hosts a revolving door of tourists. But come January, visitors stop schlepping across Death’s Door. “It’s harder and harder every year, the way things are with the economy,” Ditello said. “If it’s cold and windy, no one’s coming over on that boat ride.”

During the winter the ferry crosses the icy waters just twice a day, and travelers must reserve a seat in advance. “It’s the time when the locals get together,” Ditello said. “We have pool leagues here, we have dart leagues. People get together with potlucks.” Some patrons perform tricks, attaching dollars to the ceiling by sticking tacks into bills, folding the greenbacks over a few quarters, and throwing them straight up at the wooden ceiling. Once a year, bar staff takes the money down and donates it to a local cause. Last year it went to the school’s art and athletics programs—one of the young bartenders recently nabbed the art-teacher post there.

Many of the local residents have genealogical branches extending back to the island’s first Danish and Icelandic settlements. By 1870, around forty-nine of Wisconsin’s 5,212 Danish settlers called Washington Island home. Wooed by a newly minted Wisconsinite from Denmark, four unattached men from Iceland arrived on Washington Island that year and found work chopping down the island’s evergreens—a new trade, as Iceland was particularly barren when it came to forests.

Today many islanders bear the names of the original Icelandic and Danish immigrants: Bjarnarson, Gunnlauggsson, Einarsson, and Gudmundsen. “There’s families that go back generations and generations up here,” Ditello said. “And their families continue on. It’s the people that make it.”

Ditello said she particularly enjoys when the old-timers break out their Al Capone memories. Wisconsin’s wilderness was a favorite among Chicago mobsters; according to Ditello, Capone would head down through Washington Island from Canada en route to Chicago, dropping off a few cases at the port. Though Nelsen ran his bar legally on bitters, it’s unclear whether he also trafficked in illicit booze. Asked if alcohol other than Angostura crossed the bar’s threshold, Ditello gave me a half-turned smile. “Hard to say,” she said.

As the evening wore on, a nearby group of men played pool for silver dollars, using cues they brought from home. Most eyes, though, were on one of the several televisions showing Wisconsin’s true liturgy, football.

The tourists had long before returned to the docks to make the last ferry back, and Nelsen’s was again a playground for locals, everyone dressed in some variation of green and gold in support of Green Bay. One man sports a ’90s-era goldenrod Packers jersey with kelly-green lettering; another woman had crystal wedges of cheese dangling from her ears, a fashion statement symbolic of the state’s dairy heritage.

Every time the Packers scored, the bartender doled out free shots of “Blood of the Opponent”—in this case, the blood of the New York Giants—a saccharine concoction of various flavored liquors, grenadine, and, of course, bitters.

Jim Phelps, who works in construction on the island, looked over with pseudo-suspicion. “You don’t seem like you’re from around here,” he said. Though I did in fact grow up in Wisconsin, he is right: I’m not an islander and not yet a member of the club. “Have you had your bitters?” he asked. “You gotta. We’re gonna do it. Let’s go.”

As the bartender poured the prescribed shot of the pungent deep-brown concoction, cheers rang out from the football game, and Phelps raised his glass: “Here’s to new friends and good times,” he said. “I hope the bitters hits your tongue right.”

Single Page

More from Maggy Donaldson:

Postcard May 26, 2016, 12:49 pm

Upward Immobility

Navigating Colombia’s class-based estrato system

Postcard December 24, 2015, 10:00 am

The Golden Drop

A visit to the heart of African Paris

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



January 2019

Machine Politics

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Polar Light

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Donald Trump Is a Good President

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.


= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Long Shot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Machine Politics·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip,” Ronald Reagan said in 1989. He was speaking to a thousand British notables in London’s historic Guildhall, several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Reagan proclaimed that the world was on the precipice of “a new era in human history,” one that would bring “peace and freedom for all.” Communism was crumbling, just as fascism had before it. Liberal democracies would soon encircle the globe, thanks to the innovations of Silicon Valley. “I believe,” he said, “that more than armies, more than diplomacy, more than the best intentions of democratic nations, the communications revolution will be the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom the world has ever seen.”

At the time, most everyone thought Reagan was right. The twentieth century had been dominated by media that delivered the same material to millions of people at the same time—radio and newspapers, movies and television. These were the kinds of one-to-many, top-down mass media that Orwell’s Big Brother had used to stay in power. Now, however, Americans were catching sight of the internet. They believed that it would do what earlier media could not: it would allow people to speak for themselves, directly to one another, around the world. “True personalization is now upon us,” wrote MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte in his 1995 bestseller Being Digital. Corporations, industries, and even whole nations would soon be transformed as centralized authorities were demolished. Hierarchies would dissolve and peer-to-peer collaborations would take their place. “Like a force of nature,” wrote Negroponte, “the digital age cannot be denied or stopped.”

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Long Shot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ihave had many names, but as a sniper I went by Azad, which means “free” or “freedom” in Kurdish. I had been fighting for sixteen months in Kurdish territory in northern Syria when in April 2015 I was asked to leave my position on the eastern front, close to the Turkish border, and join an advance on our southwestern one. Eight months earlier, we had been down to our last few hundred yards, and, outnumbered five to one, had made a last stand in Kobanî. In January, after more than four months of fighting street-to-street and room-by-room, we recaptured the town and reversed what was, until then, an unstoppable jihadi tide. In the battles since, we had pushed ­ISIS far enough in every direction that crossing our territory was no longer a short dash through the streets but a five-hour drive across open country. As we set out to the north, I could make out the snowy peaks in southern Turkey where they say Noah once beached his ark. Below them, rolling toward us, were the wide, grassy valleys and pine forests of Mesopotamia, the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris where our people have lived for twelve thousand years.

The story of my people is filled with bitter ironies. The Kurds are one of the world’s oldest peoples and, as pioneers of agriculture, were once among its most advanced. Though the rest of the world now largely overlooks that it was Kurds who were among the first to create a civilization, the evidence is there. In 1995, German archaeologists began excavating a temple at Göbekli Tepe in northern Kurdistan. They found a structure flanked by stone pillars carved with bulls, foxes, and cranes, which they dated to around 10,000 bce. At the end of the last Ice Age, and seven thousand years before the erection of Stonehenge or the pyramids at Giza, my ancestors were living together as shamans, artists, farmers, and engineers.

Fighters of the YJA-STAR, the women’s force in the PKK, Sinjar, Iraq, November 2015 (detail)
Polar Light·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To get oriented here is difficult. The light is flat because the sky is overcast. The sun’s weak rays create only a few anemic shadows by which to judge scale and distance. Far-off objects like mountain peaks have crisp edges because the atmosphere itself is as transparent as first-water diamonds, but the mountains are not nearly as close as they seem. It’s about negative-twelve degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind is relatively calm, moving over the snow distractedly, like an animal scampering.

[caption id="attachment_271890" align="aligncenter" width="690"]True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images. True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.[/caption]

Four of the six people living here are in their tents now, next to their cookstoves, two by two, warming up and preparing their suppers. I’m the fifth of the group, almost motionless at the moment, a hundred yards south of the tent cluster, kneeling on a patch of bluish ice in the midst of a great expanse of white. I’m trying to discern a small object entombed there a few inches below the surface. Against the porcelain whites of this gently sloping landscape, I must appear starkly apparent in my cobalt blue parka and wind pants. I shift slowly right and left, lean slightly forward, then settle back, trying to get the fluxless sunlight to reveal more of the shape and texture of the object.

A multiple-exposure photograph (detail) taken every hour from 1:30 pm on December 8, 1965, to 10:10 am on December 9, 1965, showing the sun in its orbit above the South Pole, Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station © Georg Gerster/Panos Pictures
Donald Trump Is a Good President·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In all sincerity, I like Americans a lot; I’ve met many lovely people in the United States, and I empathize with the shame many Americans (and not only “New York intellectuals”) feel at having such an appalling clown for a leader.

However, I have to ask—and I know what I’m requesting isn’t easy for you—that you consider things for a moment from a non-American point of view. I don’t mean “from a French point of view,” which would be asking too much; let’s say, “from the point of view of the rest of the world.”On the numerous occasions when I’ve been questioned about Donald Trump’s election, I’ve replied that I don’t give a shit. France isn’t Wyoming or Arkansas. France is an independent country, more or less, and will become totally independent once again when the European Union is dissolved (the sooner, the better).

Illustration (detail) by Ricardo Martínez

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The prepositions you’re most likely to encounter after the title of a poem are “for” or “to” and sometimes “after”—“for my daughter”; “to Bobby”; “after Pound”; etc. They signify dedication, address, homage, imitation. In the recent poems of Fred Moten, we encounter “with,” a preposition that denotes accompaniment. The little difference makes a big difference, emphasizing collaboration over the economy of the gift, suggesting that the poet and his company are fellow travelers, in the same time zone, alongside each other in the present tense of composition. (Given Moten’s acclaimed critical work on jazz, the “with” is immediately evocative of musical performance, e.g., “Miles Davis with Sonny Rollins.”) Not all “withs” are the same—there is a different intimacy in the poem “fifty little springs,” which is “with aviva,” Moten’s wife’s Hebrew name (which means springtime), than there is in “resistances,” which is “with” a critic and an artist, interlocutors of Moten’s. (The poem “13. southern pear trees” has no preposition after the title, but is excerpted from another responding to the work of Zoe Leonard, and so is still a work of fellowship.) The scale of that “with” can be small (“with aviva, as if we were all alone”) or vast (“with everybody we don’t know”), but either way the poem becomes an instance of alongsidedness instead of belatedness; the poems request, with that subtle prepositional shift, that we think of ourselves as participants in the production of meaning and not mere recipients of someone else’s eloquence.

“Untitled,” 1989, by Zoe Leonard © Zoe Leonard (detail)

Estimated number of times in the Fall of 1990 that George Bush told a joke about his dog asking for a wine list with her Alpo:


French researchers reported that 52 percent of young women exposed to Francis Cabrel’s ballad “Je l’aime à mourir” gave their phone numbers to an average-looking young man who hit on them, whereas only 28 percent of those exposed to Vincent Delerm’s “L’heure du thé” did so.

Migrant children were teargassed; carbon dioxide levels have reached three to five million year high; missionary killed by remote tribe

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today