DOOR COUNTY MAGAZINE: WINTER 2009-2010
Door County visitors who climb the Potawatomi State Park observation tower, or who stand at the park’s boat launch below the bluff, will see one of Door County’s most unique residences just offshore. It’s intriguing, this little island that barely qualifies as an island — a dollop of green in Sturgeon Bay’s blue waters.
While islands are far from unusual in peninsula waters, this one is remarkable for its tiny size and single cottage. The curious take to kayaks, canoes and anything else that will float to examine the boat slips carved out of the bedrock, catch a glimpse of buildings through the verdant garden and gape at the sweet yawl-rigged sailboat and the airplane. Yes, the airplane.
Winter makes the island even more alluring. After all, how do the owners get back and forth in bad weather? When snow flies? Do they have electricity and water? For that matter, how do they manage their groceries?
Island owner and full-time Door County resident Fred Wittig chuckles as he relates the most popular questions he’s heard over the years. Who owns the island? What’s its story? And in particular: What about utilities, and how do they get back and forth?
“People are fascinated by the logistics,” he said, eyes twinkling. “They want to know how to live the fantasy.”
Discovering Heaven On Earth
For Wittig, the fantasy evolved into reality thanks to his uncle, who bought the neighboring island in the 1940s.
“I was a little guy,” he said. “We’d have family get-togethers out there on ‘Ben’s Island.’”
At that time, the tiny island next door was owned by Emmett Platten, who once played football with the team that became the Green Bay Packers. When Wittig was a young man, Platten decided to sell.
“He was a big man, 6 feet, 6 inches,” Wittig recalled. “He was having health issues, and you need to be healthy to live on this island. So he went to my uncle’s gullible nephews. And the most gullible? Me!”
Wittig was 26, married with one child and another on the way. The Green Bay native was living in Milwaukee, working as a machinist at a factory. As he put it, he had no business buying an island.
“I was a renter, and my car had rust holes, but we figured we’d work it out,” he said, grinning. “My uncle helped arrange ‘a little bit down, a little bit forever.’”
In August 1968, Wittig and his family took their first island vacation.
“That was the beginning,” he said.
The island was certainly tiny, just ⅓ acre, but Wittig said it felt “just right” with its little stone house, tool shed and trout pond. Platten had carved out the two boat slips himself.
“It was his dream, his whole life,” Wittig explained. “He was retired. He had prolific gardens, flowers, herbs. He also took care of a buddy’s widow. She had her room, he had his. He was a real pioneer character, and I’m so fortunate to have known him.
“It was hard for Emmett to leave,” he reflected soberly. “The island was him.”
Platten’s feelings for the place are evident in its name. According to Wittig, the island appears on old maps as Bug Island. In Platten’s time, it became H.O.E. Island — Heaven on Earth.
Building the Dream
Wittig and his family fell deeply in love with Platten’s paradise, which became their haven.
“Our six children spent many wonderful weekends and vacations here exploring, fishing, building things and experiencing the island,” he recalled.
Then hard times struck in the 1980s.
“I always had good jobs until then,” he said. “After that, I became self-employed in the machine-tool business. I came up here in 1991. I’m an inventor-type guy, and nobody needed me!”
Platten had done some remodeling on the original house, built by the Nebel family at turn of the 20th century. During that first winter, however, Wittig quickly discovered that the cottage still was not intended for offseason use.
He made improvements one step at a time, from insulating the walls and building a sunroom to adding a solar hot-water heater.
“I’m still doing it!” he said, chuckling. “I did a radio interview recently about how to insulate an old house. I’m an expert now.”
The stone cottage, with its 1-½-foot-thick walls, features a 12-by-20 living room, two bedrooms, a bathroom, a small kitchen and a utility room. Upstairs is a tower room with windows on four sides.
“I slept up there for awhile,” Wittig said. “Now it’s an office.”
There are two boats outside: a pontoon and an 18-foot, yawl-rigged, 1975 Drascombe Lugger sailboat.
“In the old days, we had a rowboat to take the kids across,” said Wittig, who now has six grandchildren with two on the way. “Once, we took a wave over the side. That was serious, so we replaced it with the Lugger. She’s part of the family. We leave her out because people like to take pictures.”
And what about that airplane? Wittig smiles broadly.
“I dreamed of having a plane,” he said. “I got lucky with a bid on eBay and had two hours to talk my wife into it.”
Wittig brought the ultralight seaplane home and repaired it.
“As a machinist, I thought, ‘This is fun!’” he remembered. “I got books and videos. I practiced driving it around. Then, on a calm night, I planned to bring it up just a few feet. All of a sudden I’m 30 feet in the air! I cut the gas, and then I realized: At 35 miles per hour, it’s a plane. At 34 miles per hour, it’s a boat. And boats don’t belong in the air.”
Wittig repaired the plane again — just in time for the remnants of Hurricane Katrina to blow down a tree and smash its tail, an occurrence that he said probably saved his life.
Everyone who sees Wittig’s island wants to know how life on the island “works.”
“We travel back and forth in canoes,” Wittig said. “It’s the only way. Crossing over can be a challenge if it’s rainy, windy and 35 degrees. Canoes are not good in rough water, so my wife, Dawn, and I have different strategies for different wind conditions.”
And when fall turns to winter?
“It freezes in the shallows first,” he said. “If there’s an inch of ice, we sit in the canoe with our feet out, wearing cleats, and we scoot across. Or we straddle the canoe so we’ll fall into it if the ice breaks.”
Wittig commented that they are very happy on that winter day when walking or driving a car becomes possible.
“We still drag a canoe, though,” he cautioned. “Wind can break up the ice, so we need to read the situation. The worst is spring, because you can’t tell where the good ice is. Late at night, it’s spooky.”
This style of living bears a striking resemblance to that of a live-aboard sailor. Wittig and his wife are constantly attuned to the weather — wind, clouds, temperature and water conditions are always changing, so they have to pay attention. And, like old-time lighthouse keepers, they keep watch for people in trouble.
“Mostly canoes,” he reported. “One time, a group was blowing into the bay; a bunch of us brought them in.”
Unlike a 19th century lighthouse, however, this little island has modern conveniences.
“We have electricity through an underwater cord,” Wittig said, “and we have a 200-foot well. Oil and gas are a problem, because they have to be hauled out by boat.”
So the Wittigs incorporated solar power where possible, and they have a wood stove. They also manage propane usage through insulation.
“We have a lot of tricks that way reduced the heating bill,” Wittig said.
And groceries? He sighs.
“We go back and forth with sleds. Once, our bags broke and we left a long trail of groceries!”
Despite its challenges, Wittig remains enamored with his island home.
“It’s a lot of physical work, and it can be overwhelming,” he said. “But it has a personality. It calls. It welcomes us.”
He reflected on a calm night crossing with the moon rising, on five nests of swans hatching, on 30 tree-swallow nests, on two pet chickens and early morning rooster calls, on the “neat” onetime pet raccoon, on jumping off the dock every day and sleeping outside in summer and on the serenity afforded by living off a state park shoreline.
“After all these years, I still can’t believe it. I’m living a dream,” Wittig marveled.
The Busy Life of a Hermit
Wittig said he often found it difficult to leave the island’s peaceful embrace.
“After being out here for awhile, I was turning into a recluse and decided I needed to get involved with the community,” he said.
“Involved” would be an understatement. To start, he purchased The Healthy Way, a natural foods and products store on Sturgeon Bay’s west side, in 2001. Here he shifted his interests to healthy living, and that has since expanded beyond the retail store.
“Nobody’s applying an engineering approach to wellness,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’m intensely driven, and not many people know what I know. I want to help network people, and I want to do that full time.”
So he founded the Sacred Life Center (www.sacredlifecenter.com), dedicated to alternative cancer resources and treatments. His vision doesn’t stop there.
“I want to do something, start a clinic,” he said enthusiastically. “I don’t care what it costs me or what debt I take on. I’m fixing machines to raise money, I’m looking for a grant writer and a Web person… I have a lot of ideas. Now I have to put them together.”
And, in conjunction with his passion for sustainable living, he connects people with affordable solar-heating solutions through www.letsgosolar.com. Oh, and then there’s the Door County Scarecrow (www.doorcountyscarecrow.com).
“Me, the hermit,” Wittig said with a shake of his head. “I joined a church that would let me in and created a scarecrow costume for kids. I used mime and theater techniques to bring the character to life.”
Wittig started doing community parades as the Door County Scarecrow in the early 1990s, incorporating skits into each appearance. Then his wife joined him.
“My wife and I are among the most photographed people in Door County,” he said. “It’s fun. It’s a way to get rid of extra energy, and visitors enjoy it.”
So the self-proclaimed hermit is a people person. Wittig said he even welcomes sightseers hoping to catch a peek of his home — or of him.
“Why would I mind meeting people?” he asked, laughing. “One family had a picture of the island, and we connected. Now they come every year. The kids love it.”
He remarked that all the people he’s met through the years have one thing in common: an innate fascination with the whole island experience. He said it seems to be part of human nature.
“I’m living everyone’s fantasy,” he said.
After a moment’s pause, he added, “It’s a love affair. It’s an adventure in living.”