At some time around 1900, Chester Hjortur Thordarson and his wife, the former Juliana Fridriksdottir, began visiting the well-known Icelandic colony on Washington Island; in time, they sought island property of their own. The cedar-fragrant land north of Little Lake which most appealed to them was not for sale, and their interest turned to the more remote little island to the northeast. The Door County Advocate in September 1908 reported Thordarson as having been there and as “looking up a site for a summer home.”
In 1910, Thordarson bought the 661 Rock Island acres owned by Rasmus Hanson of Jackson Harbor, plus four smaller tracts from other owners, for a total cost of $5,735. Excepting the lighthouse reservation and a few acres near the Island’s southeast corner, which he obtained two years later, the immigrant inventor was now Rock Island’s master.
Thus, the transactions were consummated which were to guide the Island’s ownership to its status of today. Although no one save possibly the buyer himself could have suspected, the acquisition of the forested Island for possible intensive development by this newcomer actually served to ensure its preservation from the press of urbanization, which was to explode after World War II, and to permit it eventual return to the public domain as a natural haven.
The new landowners first efforts were devoted to the deserted fishing village on the east side, where an old frame house was restored for Thordarson’s dwelling and a stone water tower was built. Before this utility could come into use, the inventor’s interest shifted to the southwestern shore and the east side lapsed into the quiet it had known since the 1890s.
For a time, the activity game little hint of stewardship in the cause of Nature: Land was cleared and building begun. The resources, ideas, and energy of the owner seemed to make probably a complete remaking of the Island from wilderness to civilized community. An extensive stuccoed structure furnished living and dining quarters for the workmen. On the bluff to the north appeared a stone cottage housing an immense concrete water tank; and on the still higher ground, a great cedar gateway framed the western view across the passage to Washington Island. To protect the estate’s exotic plantings from browsing deer, some 230 acres were circled with tall wire fencing, half its run based on a wall of mortared stone. No surprise to those who have contended with animals in their own habitat, the fence was perhaps the inventor’s least successful venture. By January 1929, the Advocate reported that on a request from the “Chicago millionaire,” conservation wardens would “remove 25 deer from the Island or kill them because of damage being done to shrugs and fruit trees.”
A splendid greenhouse arose to grace the expanse of lawn, which gently sloped to the water. Cottages of stone and a generous lodge of logs housed various units of Thordarson’s family and his friends. Rocks near the flower gardens bore plaques of bronze reproducing pages of early English literature, and everywhere glowed the warmth of red tile roofs.
One guest recalls:
Thordarson built a ranch-style summer home on the Island for his friend, “Big Bill” Thompson, mayor of Chicago. He used to give some of the personnel at his plant vacations on the Island and had 10 men working there on various construction and clearing jobs at the time of our first visit.
The U.W. Library News in March 1966 said, “It took 20 masons three years to put the great stone buildings. Other workmen spent two years dredging the required harbor.”
In the late 1920s arose Rock Island’s most impressive man-made feature, the magnificent boathouse and great hall. Local legend steadfastly reports the cost as a quarter-million dollars (the valuable dollars of the 1920s!), and we have good reason to accept the figure. Valdimar Bjornson recollects:
Thordarson kidded himself a bit on how much money had been spent on buildings and improvements at Rock Island. I think he said the boathouse, a concept of his own presumed to resemble ancient Viking halls, had cost something like $250,000. He said, “If I hadn’t spent some of my money this way, I would have gambled on the stock market and probably lost most of it. I’ve enjoyed these ventures here, and they have helped me keep my health.”
Everyday furniture for the great hall was built in wholesale quantity of smooth wooden slabs secured by the unrelenting grip of half-inch steel bolts and lag-screws. But for his own delight and his guests’ admiration, he ordered massive tables and chairs with scenes from Norse mythology. The woodcarver, Halldor Einarsson, was brought from Iceland and employed for several years.
There is evidence that the inventor planned a library building of stone for the hill near the cedar gateway and another structure of 100 rooms, possibly a hotel, for the tongue of land reaching toward the southeast. One can only speculate concerning the effect such creations might have wrought on the Island’s future. But the vital fact remains that a stop finally came to Thordarson’s development of Rock Island. Even at the height of his enthusiasm, the owner observed certain limits, both physical and aesthetic, which saved the small Island from such changes as might have destroyed its value as a Nature sanctuary.
In Thordarson’s relationship with his isolated estate apparently lay a feeling for conservation, which close friends and occasionally others could clearly sense. His interest in shaping edifices of stone and mortar was balanced by an appreciation of natural things both majestic and humble; it shines forth in his own words and in the recollections of those who knew him. Early in his time on the Island, he wrote to a friend:
We are building the log house for sugar camp…Everything here is so beautiful and clean, have had all kinds of weather, snow, rain, violent winds, and dense fogs. The last 10 days and last night, Northern Lights all night. Heavy ice is breaking up, and maple trees are beginning to flow.
(From Rock Island, by Conan Bryant Eaton, published in 2002 by Jackson Harbor Press, wb9kzy.com/books.htm)
Friends of Rock Island State Park
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources