Historic Rowleys Bay

Peter and Alice Rowley.The Rowleys Bay area was inhabited by the Potawatomi when Jesuit priest Father Andre erected a wooden cross for his worshippers on the bay in 1680. Remains of the cross and stone steps leading to it were still visible in 1900.

The northernmost cove on Door County’s Lake Michigan side is named after Peter Rowley, a curmudgeon of a man who searched for solitude on a scale hard to imagine in today’s world. If another settler pitched camp a few miles away, it was enough to send Rowley packing and searching for a new homestead. Making his way up the Door Peninsula in the late 1830’s, his last stop was Rowleys Bay. Nestled between swamps to the north and south and lake to the east, he thought this spot was the antidote to white man’s civilization.

The reclusive and cantankerous Rowley did have two female companions at the time, his wife Alice and another woman thought to be a sister or mother-in-law. Rowley and his women lived on Rowleys Bay until 1842 when they departed again for more solitary grounds. Over the next 30 years, the area housed a collection of lumber camps that pumped out mass quantities of telegraph poles, railroad ties and cord wood. In the 1860’s, Osborne-Cogswell, a Racine, Wisconsin-based logging business built the first dock to speed the shipping of lumber to market.

In 1876 New Yorker S.A. Rogers purchased the dock and about 4,000 acres, much of it swampland, from Osborne-Cogswell. He acquired additional lands from Door County for unpaid taxes, built a large sawmill, a more spacious dock, a trading post, school and other buildings to accommodate the needs of his growing enterprise.

About the only thing Rogers could not make money on was the copious amount of cedars that were too small even for fence posts. That hurdle was overcome when he teamed with Milwaukeean J.H. Mathews who was an expert at extracting cedar oil.

Memorial cross on the lake front.In 1892 Rogers traded a couple hundred acres of his Rowleys Bay empire for a farm in Missouri, and after a subsequent trade, the land fell into the hands of one Ditlef C. Hanson from Tacoma, Washington. With the timber stripped bare and land too wet for farming, Hanson planned to build a townsite as he reasoned Chicago was built on a marsh.

Although a spade of dirt was never turned, elaborate aerial lithographs of Hanson’s Tacoma Shores were produced showing a bustling town with citizens active on the elegant boulevards. The artist rendering showed a park, post office, library and other stately buildings, and the lazy Mink River was seen as a flowing stream emptying into Lake Michigan over a stunning waterfall. Not surprisingly, some were hoodwinked into purchasing lots sight unseen. When the new owners realized they had literally purchased swampland, they abandoned the lots, stopped paying taxes and the land reverted to county ownership.

Rogers’ son Jay sold off much of the family’s land holdings in the early 1900s, with the final 367 acres purchased by grandson Clinton in 1947. Clinton had dreams of building a resort on the property, but personal tragedy interrupted his plans and the land was sold to Lou Casagrande in 1948 and Rowleys Bay Resort was founded.

After Casagrande and several other interim owners, the property was purchased in 1970 by Leonard and Alice Peterson who renamed it Wagon Trail Resort. Alice, who passed away in 1988, was the namesake of the resort’s popular Grandma’s Swedish Bakery. The Peterson’s daughter Jewel, along with husband Bob Ouradnik and Bob Czerniakowski, CPA, took over ownership in 2003 on Leonard’s retirement. In May of 2010 the resort reverted back to its original name, Rowleys Bay Resort.

History of Rowleys Bay by Susie Watson

Old Peninsula Days book excerpt

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