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.”

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