For teacher Anderson, Rock Island also a classroom
Terry Anderson carries his “docent” title with pride. Whether he’s teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, or leading tourists through a historic lighthouse on a rugged Lake Michigan island two hours north, he’s proud to be “one who guides.”
“On Rock Island, about one-half mile from Washington Island and 10 miles from the tip of the Door County Peninsula, is a 152-year-old lighthouse that by good fortune is my home for a week each summer,” Anderson explains. “I even like to refer to it as ‘my lighthouse.’”
Anderson, a former journalist turned writing instructor at UW-Green Bay and staff member of the Institute for Learning Partnership, is a docent — giving tours to visitors and helping to maintain the lighthouse — at the oldest light in Wisconsin and among the most senior on the Great Lakes. The Pottawatomie Lighthouse is maintained in partnership by the state Department of Natural Resources and the Friends of Rock Island.
Even on days when the passenger ferry brings no visitors, Anderson says he is in good company.
“On Rock Island there are ghost settlements, the remnants of a millionaire’s “Valhalla,” deep forests, wildlife and rocky cliffs,” he said.
The pristine 912-acre island (no cars and bikes allowed) is a Wisconsin State Park with 10 miles of hiking trails, 5,000 feet of beach and much legend and folklore. There are three cemeteries, including one that has a grave of John Boone, supposedly a close relative of famed Daniel Boone. Near the lighthouse is a cemetery that includes the grave of Daniel Corbin, the first lighthouse keeper, and a number of unnamed shipwreck victims.
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Early in the 20th century Rock Island was briefly the personal playground of Chester Thordarson, who was a contemporary of Thomas Edison:
“…Iceland-born Chester H. Thordarson, the Chicago electrical inventor purchased the island in 1912-14. He acquired the entire island but 129 acres surrounding the lighthouse, owned by the federal government. The lighthouse, constructed in 1836 was the first lighthouse in Wisconsin, the first in Lake Michigan and is now the oldest in Door County.
Thordarson developed the island into a fabulous estate with a huge boathouse, mess hall, lodge, bunkhouse and other buildings, all done with native materials in Icelandic tradition.
Thordarson’s Viking Hall Boat House, a stone structure near the pier, has tall windows, a massive fireplace, a wooden banquet table, and high-backed chairs carved with imagery from Norse myths. Thordarson used the space as a ballroom. It has been restored as a live-in museum to what it was in its 1910 era. (Summary of documents of purchase and history by Friends of Rock Island).”
Often joined by family and friends who are welcome to stay with Anderson during his assigned week, this year was no different. His daughters and UW-Green Bay director of communication, Chris Sampson and family, spent some time on the island with him.
“It’s not a bed and breakfast,” Anderson said. “Not only am I giving tours, but there’s daily cleaning and chores. On the other hand it’s no longer a working lighthouse with the solemn mission of protecting navigation.
“Even so, one of the experiences that I appreciate is the rare exhilaration of isolation. To the get to the lighthouse one must drive to the end of the Door Peninsula; take a car ferry to Washington Island; drive to the north end of Washington Island; take a passenger ferry to Rock Island; then hike through deep forest about 1.5 miles to the northern tip of the island where the lighthouse is perched on a ledge overlooking Lake Michigan.”
Anderson says it’s important that the general public doesn’t forget the importance of the maritime culture to the history of Northeastern Wisconsin.
And although he loves teaching, and giving tours is not unlike a lecture, the lighthouse offers a nice break from the traditional classroom.
“It’s an honor to be actively involved in the preservation of something so valuable to our common history, and it’s a double-honor to be able to share it with others.
“And hey, it’s pretty cool to be able to say: “Would you like to tour my lighthouse?”