Fall Getaway in Door County's Sturgeon Bay | Midwest Living

Fall Getaway in Door County's Sturgeon Bay

Sturgeon Bay provides a memorable start to the lake views, forest drives, art galleries and orchards that have made Door County, Wisconsin, famous.


Fall color in Sturgeon Bay.
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Fish boil.
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Cave Point County Park.
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Works at Popelka Trenchard Glass.
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Scoffing a lifetime of advice, we’ve planned our entire evening around watching a pot, hoping it will boil. A handful of travelers perches on benches outside the red building of Scaturo’s Baking Company and Cafe in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, cameras waiting for the 6:30 “boil over” listed in brochures all over town.

“Which story of the fish boil should I go with tonight?” Joe Scaturo asks one of his college-age assistants.

“Go traditional,” the kid says, poking a curtain of sparks from logs crackling beneath a 5-gallon pot. “Give them the lumberjack story.”

“Sounds good,” Joe says. “You see, in lumber camps, they had a lot of fish, a lot of wood and a lot of men to feed quickly. And that was the beginning of the fish boil.”

Folklore complete, Joe tells us to turn on the cameras as the kid approaches the fire and tosses on a cup full of kerosene. In a gusty whoosh, fire erupts, water boils over the top and Joe says, “Give us 10 minutes, and your whitefish will be ready inside.” On my camera’s screen, it looks like a small nuclear bomb has gone off in the yard outside Scaturo’s.

Check one off the bucket list: Door County fish boil. It’s practically a legal requirement in this famed tourist haven, a 70-mile peninsula stretching into Lake Michigan under a storied load of orchards, wineries, rocky coasts, scenic drives and enough boutique shops to outfit every living room in the Midwest.

But amid all those staples, there’s one thing too few Door County visitors do: Stop in Sturgeon Bay. In general, visitors roll across the town’s three drawbridges and arrow north toward the better-known towns up State-42. But those who pause in their fall getaway discover Sturgeon Bay is far more than a marker on the way to Fish Creek.

The established Door County flavor gets a twist down here. Buildings run more toward limestone than clapboard. Towering freighters and yachts anchor in shipyards that still help float the local economy. It’s that big-shouldered spirit that drew Stephanie Trenchard here to open a glass studio with her husband, Jeremy Popelka. When the couple was relocating from San Francisco, a building in a former shipyard seemed like a perfect fit.

“We like the kind of industrial, blue-collar feel here,” Stephanie says.

On most days, Jeremy leaves the garage open, letting visitors hear the kiln’s roar and see its fiery eye glow as he works a piece of glass into his latest vision. In the adjacent gallery, Stephanie explains their signature technique of using “inclusions,” glass sculptures wrapped within larger blocks of clear glass.

Across town from the studio, Sturgeon Bay’s shipbuilding industry still provides equal infusions of capital and mystique. On a downtown tour aboard Segways—those stand-up scooters that require no more skill than leaning in the direction you want to go—visitors peek through windows at two yachts inside Peterson Builders’ enormous fabrication building.

“Not sure who’s buying them,” says our guide Paul, a retired science teacher. “Probably some oil-rich king.”

Big freighters (known as lakers) pass a few yards away, sliding under Sturgeon Bay’s drawbridges and through the ship canal to Lake Michigan. Travelers make the same voyage aboard the Fred A. Busse, a one-time Chicago fireboat cruising the canal to the Coast Guard station and lighthouses on the lake.

Outside town, parks line both the Lake Michigan and Green Bay sides of the peninsula. To the west, a 150-foot bluff in Potawatomi State Park pins the center of a panorama taking in Green Bay, Sturgeon Bay and forests painted with fall. To the east, short trails in Cave Point County Park lead to the kind of layered limestone formations that have filled watercolors by generations of Door County artists.

It seems inevitable that a town full of shipyards and Victorian homes would give way to ghosts at dusk. And so, as the sun sinks, a small group surrounds Brother James in a cemetery, listening to the bearded man tell of a local boy’s ugly encounter with the neighbors. “He was a very troubled boy,” Brother James says, his black cloak writhing in the wind. “A very. Troubled. Boy.”

Brother James’ trolley tour stops several times along the lake, where waves battle his voice for control of stories about ghosts that keep showing up in that lighthouse right over there. Just as things get heavy, Brother James punches a button on a CD player, and the theme from Ghostbusters fills the trolley, with James leading the chorus of “Who ya gonna call?”

Maybe not the soundtrack you expected for a fall trip to Door County. But a stop in the door to the Door is all about a fresh perspective.

Click to the next page for a trip guide of what to do, where to eat, and where to stay.


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