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Slow Food in the Slow Lane

Washington Island, WI: A hotel on Door County's Washington Island fertilizes local agriculture and industry.



On Wednesday mornings people from all over Washington Island crowd the front room at the Washington Hotel to fill up on homemade buttermilk doughnuts. At 75 cents a pop, they go fast, but if you're not in a hurry and can hang out for a while, Terry Whipple, the baker, will top a hot one for you with chocolate or peanut glaze on request. And on the occasional off week when the doughnuts aren't going to happen, word gets around. At the KK Fiske restaurant one Friday night in February, a man stopped at Leah Caplan's table. "I heard a rumor there wouldn't be any doughnuts this week," he said, his brow furrowed in mock concern. Caplan, the hotel's chef and proprietor, laughed. "Man, you tell one person something around here . . ."

Caplan's only been an islander for a year and a half, but that night in February she knew everyone in the room. It would be hard not to. The permanent population of the island--a hunk of land about 30 miles square, off the tip of Wisconsin's Door County, across the turbulent channel that early French trappers dubbed Porte des Morts--is 660. Raised outside of New York City and most recently a resident of Madison, Caplan gave up her anonymity last winter to run the hotel, an enterprise that's drawing on the island's tightly knit network of family, friends, and neighbors to effect a subtle but meaningful shift in their way of life.

Originally a Potawatomi Indian village, Washington Island was settled by white fishermen in the early 19th century. They were soon followed by farmers, loggers, and, in the 1870s, a contingent of Icelandic homesteaders. More than a century later, the island is still home to one of the largest Icelandic communities in the United States: the phone book, a 14-page pamphlet put out to raise money for the preschool, contains a preponderance of Bjarnarsons and Ellefsons, Gunnlaugssons and Jorgensons. Just about everyone has two jobs--or three. How else would everything get done?

For years fishing was the biggest industry; the land produced potatoes, dairy cows, and fruit. But in the last few decades, as tourists on the peninsula ventured farther and farther north, visitors from Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago have started hopping the ferry to investigate the island's quiet beaches and slower pace of life. Today, most of the shoreline has been developed. There are two commercial fishermen left, and at most a dozen part-time farmers. "The only real industries," says Lynn Utesch, a cattle farmer who's also the local Verizon guy, "are tourism and building summer homes."

In the winter the island's a quiet place. Snow muffles the landscape, piling up two feet deep in the driveways of shuttered cottages, every eave hung with a heavy fringe of ice; there's not a whole lot to do but stoke the fire and visit with the neighbors. The Washington Island Observer prints, as a public service, a list of businesses open in winter. This year there were 31, including the mercantile, the lumberyard, the video store, the bank, and four bars. The new ice-breaking ferry, the 20-car Arni J. Richter, runs twice daily to the mainland--double the trips of previous years--which means it's now possible to get to Sturgeon Bay and back without spending the night. But most people don't bother to leave.

From June to September, though, the population triples. "Most people that live here can feel the tension when the summer shows up," says Utesch, who works seven days a week for the phone company in the high season and farms on top of that. "You lose your family life, you lose your social life. Your peace of mind really disappears because you have a very seasonal economy that's very stressful, because it's all directed at those few short months of tourism."

Raised in southern Wisconsin, where an aunt and uncle had a dairy farm, Utesch moved to the island in 1989. "I drove up here and fell in love with it, and that was that," he says. "I'd been here but I'd never stayed here or lived here, but when I drove off the boat and I saw three deer run across the road, I said, 'I'm home.'"

Soft-spoken and modest, he's an ardent champion of the island's neglected agricultural potential. The beef produced by his small grass-fed, hormone-free herd not only tastes better, he says, it is better--for him, for his five kids, and for his neighbors. But beyond that, he says, farming is the best shot the island has at freeing itself--just a little bit--from the power of the tourist dollar.

"If you can create the farming, you can have a balance between tourism and local industry," he says. "Right now we really don't have a sustainable economy. Tourism isn't, and neither is home building--eventually you're going to run out of land....We're too remote for industry to come up here, and we don't have good shipping lines or truck lines. So we have to develop something that works locally, and then the excess can be exported."

Two years ago a mutual friend introduced Leah Caplan to Brian Vandewalle, a Madison-based urban planner and architect who'd just bought the 100-year-old Washington Hotel, in the southwest part of the island known as Jensenville. Built in 1904 by a ship's captain named Ben Johnson as a place for others sailing the Great Lakes to get a bath and a good night's sleep, the hotel had changed hands several times in the intervening years and, in Caplan's words, "everything had been 70s-ized." Vandewalle, who owns a cottage on the island, has a long-standing interest in historic preservation and was looking for someone to handle the day-to-day business of restoring the building to its simple turn-of-the-century elegance and get a hotel and restaurant up and running.

But Vandewalle, the son of Indiana farmers, envisioned the place as more than just another tourist destination. He saw it as the possible key to an economic and environmental renaissance.

In 2000 Wisconsin passed a use-value tax that allowed agricultural land to be assessed at far less than its fair-market value. With property taxes on the island steadily rising, farming had suddenly become an attractive option again. But there's only so much beef, or wheat, or cherries, that a self-contained community like Washington Island can consume. A restaurant--specifically one committed to buying food from local farmers and with the capital to pay a competitive price for it--could go a long way toward creating a reliable market.

"A lot of the farms on the island have been fallow for a long time," says Vandewalle. "Because of that they have the ability to be somewhat organic, because they haven't been chemically farmed for more than ten years. If the restaurant could encourage people to farm in more of a natural way, or an old-fashioned way, that could be good for the island.

"My hope is that someday wheat grown on the island is sold in Chicago restaurants, and it's labeled on the menu as a product that was grown by farmers on a small island with fresh water and fresh air, so that they can afford to ship off wheat or flour or bread and be able to sustain a lifestyle. Being an island right now, pretty much everything is shipped in. But if the restaurant can afford to pay someone to grow vegetables, grow wheat for bread, and create a marketplace on the island, then ideally the restaurant could create an additional brand identity or value that would be appreciated off the island."

At the time Caplan was living in Madison, running the kitchen at the University Club and "looking for something interesting to do." A 1992 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, she worked for three years in Chicago as a corporate chef for Kraft before heading back to Madison, where she'd gone to school in the 80s. There she cooked at Bluephies restaurant and had a regular segment on a talk show on the community radio station WORT. Callers would tell her what they had in their refrigerators and she would concoct menus for them on the spot.

In 1997 she moved to Georgia and made a national name for herself as chef de cuisine at the award-winning Lodge on Little Saint Simons Island, a private resort off the Georgia coast frequented by wealthy ecotourists and the occasional celebrity, like Newt Gingrich. But after a year and a half, thinking she'd had enough of island living, she returned to Wisconsin.

A founding member of the Madison chapter of Slow Food, an international movement that champions ecologically sound farming and regional, seasonal eating, Caplan also helped start Home Grown Wisconsin, an eight-year-old co-op that supplies restaurants like Frontera Grill, Tru, and North Pond Cafe with produce from Wisconsin farms. When she had Vandewalle over for breakfast, they clicked immediately.

She flew up to the hotel on a private plane the following week, and by the time she and Vandewalle headed back to Madison they had a deal. Caplan went to work writing a business plan that would encompass the hotel and restaurant, plus a cooking school and a shop. "There wasn't even that much discussion," says Caplan. "We were just so of the same mind on all the important points."

By January 2003 she and her border collie, Sarah, had moved to the island and set up temporary quarters in the house next to the hotel, which Vandewalle also owns. (Whipple, her boyfriend, joined them soon after, and they bought a house on the island, near Little Lake, in April.)

Carpenter Kevin Krueger--who also cooks at the restaurant, and over at his father's place, the Ship's Wheel, in the summer--had been working on the hotel since July. The upstairs had been divided into two apartments, but after he gutted those and took out the dropped ceilings, he could see where the walls of the original eight bedrooms had been. As the work progressed, Harvey Jensen, who used to live next door and whose family gave the area around the hotel its name, would come over and give Krueger and Caplan primers on the original design. As a kid Jensen had mowed the lawn at the hotel--Ben Johnson paid him in oranges, an exotic delicacy at the time.

Krueger installed two new bathrooms with elaborate steam showers and refinished the floors with wood from the island timber co-op. A Milwaukee antiques specialist with a house on the island supplied the Victorian lamps and fixtures. Kate Kaniff, who cuts hair at Townline Design, painted the rooms in muted shades of taupe, sage, ecru, and oyster, with help from Mike Remke, proprietor of the Red Cup Coffee House. A woodworker in Marshall built bedsteads for three of the hotel's eight bedrooms from local beech, maple, and alder. Krueger carved handles for the hearth tools to match the new cherry mantel on the fireplace in the hotel's casual parlor. Vandewalle's wife, Susan, who runs Lakeside Fibers in Madison, wove the rugs.

Caplan had a walk-in cooler and a dishwashing station installed in the kitchen, and when she discovered that a would-be baker with a house on the island had a brick-oven hearth for sale in southern Door County, she decided that might come in handy too.

The hearth weighed 12,000 pounds. Getting it to the hotel "tested every limit of the island's infrastructure," she says, laughing. "For weeks it was a great subject of discussion for everyone on the island." It had to be trucked on a flatbed to the Northport ferry and shipped across the channel before the ice set in, because the smaller winter boat wouldn't have been able to handle it. It sat at the marina, covered by a tarp, until the cement slab to support it had been poured. Then the forklift couldn't pick it up; they had to hire a local contractor with a crane. Once they got the thing to the hotel the truck--taking care not to damage the septic system--got stuck going up the driveway.

The Washington Hotel opened Memorial Day weekend 2003 with a staff of seven, plus Kate Kaniff, who pitched in to tend bar. The six-course fixed price menu included a violently green sorrel and ramp soup topped with dill creme fraiche, sauteed arugula and smoked poultry in a rhubarb vinaigrette, and poached lawyer--island slang for burbot, a homely, bottom-feeding freshwater cod--with fire-roasted asparagus. Though the oven had been an afterthought, it soon became the linchpin of the kitchen, with Whipple regularly turning out five kinds of bread and items like smoked whitefish pizza with sour cream, ramps, and hard-boiled eggs.

As business picked up over the summer, Caplan's roster of suppliers expanded to include Utesch, who provided grass-fed beef, and Cathy Patel, an EMT and a bookkeeper who tends 70 chickens. Her husband, Rajesh, the island doctor, has an herb garden on the side. One of the island's two fishermen, Jeff McDonald, brought in fresh fish daily, while his wife, Paula, supplied the hotel with flowers. Caplan got her rhubarb from their kids.

Last winter, just before Christmas, Jeff Nekola and Linda Fey needed a break, so they drove up from her home just outside Sturgeon Bay to spend the weekend at the hotel. They'd read an article about the place in the local paper. "It looked quiet," says Fey, "and like it was run by the kind of people it would be cool to know." The only guests, they hiked around the island by day and hung out by the fire in the parlor talking to Caplan at night.

Fey grew up growing things--her mom had a commercial strawberry patch and installed a market garden on the land she and Fey live on now. For 14 years they sold vegetables once a week at the farmers' market in Sturgeon Bay, but by the late 90s Fey was barely making ends meet. A single mom with two kids, she quit produce in 1998 (she and her mother raised sheep instead) and started teaching social studies at a high school in southern Door County. But she lasted only three years in the job.

"I think the problem started with the fact that I'm not a conservative Republican and I'm teaching social studies," she says. "I was teaching kids to, you know, think critically about government--that Rush Limbaugh is not necessarily an authority for information. I made a comment early on about how conservative they all were in this class discussion, and the principal said, 'We like them that way--don't you dare make them liberals!' As if I could!"

She got a part-time job working at the county library; this past winter she got another job in the library at Sturgeon Bay High School, and this spring she also started working at a garden center in Sturgeon Bay. But she still wasn't making enough money.

Nekola, her boyfriend, is a conservation biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay who's spent years developing an extensive collection of heirloom seeds and plants. A few weeks after their trip to the hotel, he and Fey called Caplan with a proposal: would she be interested in buying produce from them--heirloom tomatoes and peppers plus squash, eggplant, you name it--if they trucked a box up to the Northport ferry a couple times a week?

Caplan had been getting what she couldn't find on the island through her connections in Madison--Fey and Nekola are a lot closer. But it's still two hours round-trip between Sturgeon Bay and the ferry, and once they had a deal with Caplan it occurred to the couple that they might be able to cover expenses if they picked up a few more clients along the route. But the logistics of harvesting, packing, and hauling vegetables for multiple buyers were daunting. They were halfway to Green Bay for dinner one Saturday night when Nekola suggested they branch out into herbs as well. They turned the car around and headed back up the peninsula, stopping wherever a restaurant was open to pitch their services.

By mid-February they had about two dozen clients lined up to buy herbs and salad greens in the spring. Low benches crowded with hundreds of tiny seedlings filled the windows that make up the south wall of Fey's living room. On the floor beneath them huddled the "maternity ward"--the original plants from which the seedlings were cut. Tomatoes, peppers, and fennel were sprouting in a greenhouse in Green Bay where Fey had bartered some space. This spring they're planting an herb garden and an edible ornamental landscape on the hotel grounds; in June and September Nekola's slated to lead nature walks on the island, sponsored by the hotel.

"It was probably the best use of a weekend in a long time," says Fey of their initial visit. "Here we were trying to find a place to collapse, and for me it's a whole new lease on life."

Caplan spent the winter working with Krueger to renovate an outbuilding that'll house the cooking school this summer. Whipple made doughnuts every Wednesday, but the restaurant itself was open erratically--around the Christmas holidays, on Valentine's Day, and whenever Caplan was teaching a class. In March, as business picked up, she served dinner more often. On the days the dining room was open, she broadcast the news by posting a menu on the bulletin board at the grocery store.

She's learned a lot about the agricultural strengths--and weaknesses--of the island. The potatoes, which she's gotten from four different providers, "have all been phenomenal," as have the peas and the beans, a fact she attributes to the high mineral content of the alkaline soil. But the tomatoes, which may need more acidity, have been a little disappointing.

The big drawback to buying locally, says Caplan, is that it's so time-consuming. "It's much easier to call Sysco and say, 'This is what I want.' Here, everything is a process and a learning experience on both ends--for me and for the suppliers. But the benefit is that you get food that you couldn't get from Sysco, in terms of freshness and quality, and it's very satisfying to see wheat fields planted now where there weren't any last year."

The wheat has been Lynn Utesch's winter project. In the next few years, he and Caplan hope to have all the grain used at the restaurant grown and milled on the island, and the excess packaged and sold as a regional commodity. Someday, they hope, the island will be associated with naturally grown oats, wheat, and rye, much as, say, New Glarus is associated with beer.

A handful of islanders--Utesch; Tom Koyen, who poured the slab for the oven; Randy Sorensen, who raises pigs--have sown winter wheat, and others have volunteered their land. Caplan bought a tiny stone mill to use at the restaurant, and Ed Graf, who's married to Caplan's assistant, Ellen, and comes from a family of German millers, is working on procuring something larger. Caplan's trying to find people to make wooden spoons and breadboards, which she'd use in the kitchen and sell in the hotel shop.

"Once we get going with the wheat and the bread," says Utesch, "somebody else can say, 'Hey--that worked for the flour, let's start bottling our own milk.' Once you can get the idea to local people that they can buy locally and make a living doing this--they're not going to get rich but they can make a living--you can convert some of the economy to agriculture....If you start out with flour, then you get more beef to be purchased locally, and then maybe somebody can open up a butcher shop. So we take little baby steps and we make it bigger."

No one wants or expects farming to supplant tourism in the local economy. Tourists are the lifeblood of Washington Island, and it's their money (and Vandewalle's) that's fueling the Washington Hotel--easily the most upscale destination on the island.

"If it wasn't for the tourist industry, we couldn't do what we're trying to do," says Nekola. "The number of high-end restaurants in the 60-mile route between [Sturgeon Bay] and the ferry cannot be duplicated anywhere else probably outside of Milwaukee--even Madison doesn't have the number of restaurants that this area does. So you don't want to bite the hand that may be feeding you."

He likens the hotel to ecotourism spots like Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania or the monarch butterfly habitat in Mexico. "I think what Leah's doing is the right way to do it--take a preexisting historical building, refurbish it, support local people, support the local environment. She's done nothing to make this a worse place to live."

"Is this nostalgia?" asks Utesch. "Maybe. But you're talking about how you see quality of life under a purely service economy as opposed to quality of life under a more sustainable economy. This gets lost in the discussion of economics--what do you see realistically in terms of day-to-day life and health?

"You're going to have service people," he continues, "and busy periods when you're farming, but your overall lifestyle isn't based on this seven days a week, three or four jobs during the summer thing. You could do your farming and then maybe pick up a side job if you want it.

"One year I was laid off from the phone company, and all I did was farm, and it was the best summer of my life."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Martha Bayne.

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