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A little Iceland awaits in Door County’s Washington Island

Laurie Veness owns more than dozen Icelandic horses takes people trail rides through her WashingtIslfarm. | Lori Rackl~Sun-Times

Laurie Veness owns more than a dozen Icelandic horses and takes people on trail rides through her Washington Island farm. | Lori Rackl~Sun-Times

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GETTING THERE: Washington Island Ferry Line has year-round ferry service from the tip of the Door County peninsula to and from the island’s Detroit Harbor. Vehicles and bikes are allowed on the ferry. The trip takes about a half hour one-way; The Rock Island Ferry (the “karfi”) runs between Washington Island’s Jackson Harbor and Rock Island’s boathouse from Memorial Day-Columbus Day. It’s a 10-minute trip. No bikes or cars are permitted on Rock Island; (920) 535-0122.

STAYING THERE: Jackson Harbor Inn has nine recently remodeled rooms next to a nature area and the Rock Island Ferry dock. Nightly rates range from $55-$120; (920) 847-2454. On the other side of Washington Island is Sunset Resort, started by a Norwegian immigrant in 1902. The family-run resort has 11 rooms, starting at $97. It’s open from June through mid-October; (920) 847-2531,

FIELD WOOD FARM: Trail rides, lessons on Icelandic horses. 2118 W. Harbor Rd., (920) 847-2490.

NORSE HORSE PARK: Farm tours featuring Icelandic and other Scandinavian animals. 1391 Main Rd., (920) 847-2373,


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Updated: May 9, 2012 9:45AM

WASHINGTON ISLAND, Wis. — In 1870, four bachelors emigrated from Iceland to this island in Door County.

The young men wrote glowing letters home about their new lives in the New World, singing the praises of pancakes and syrup, ham and beans, and — best of all — the ability to have 12 to 14 cups of coffee a day. Washington Island, one of them mused, provided more than enough for “even the laziest Icelander with a house full of children,” according to a 1953 book by Thorstina Walters.

The sales pitch worked. In the late 19th century, a steady stream of what I can only assume were caffeine-crazed Icelanders left one island for another, this one quite a bit smaller and sandwiched between Lake Michigan and Green Bay.

These days, the Washington Island-bound ferries that cross Wisconsin’s shipwreck-laden strait of Death’s Door contain tourists, not immigrants. They come to escape the crowds on the popular Door peninsula, in search of a laid-back vacation made up of fishing, birding and beaches in summer and leaf-peeping in fall. But the island’s Icelandic heritage still exists, and it makes a visit here a bit like getting two islands for the price of one.

Don’t get me wrong: You won’t feel like you’ve landed in the middle of Reykjavik when you step, bike or drive off the ferry onto Washington Island. The Nordic influence is more subtle than overt — one obvious exception being the giant coffee pot decorated with rosemaling in front of the island’s visitor center.

Hints that this is the country’s second oldest Icelandic settlement (the first is in Utah) can be found in the names on weathered gravestones, or on the menu at the century-old Sunset Resort, where $4.50 gets you a plate full of Icelandic crepes topped with cherry sauce. Stories about Iceland still circulate among the locals, some 700 or so who call this 35-square-mile isle home year-round.

“I’d estimate about 25 percent of the island has some Icelandic roots,” said island native Ruth Gunnerson, who flies the flag of Iceland next to the Stars and Stripes outside her Scandinavian shop, Gunnerson’s Kaupstadur.

More than a century ago, Gunnerson’s great-grandmother — a widow with two young children — left Iceland to make a fresh start on Washington Island. When she arrived in the United States, immigration authorities saw a single woman with no means of support. They told her she had a choice: Go back to Iceland or marry one of the three single guys on the boat.

“Only one of the men was willing to go to Washington Island, so she married him,” Gunnerson said. “They didn’t get along all that well, but they managed to have eight kids.”

Julie Ronning, 11, is a descendant of one of Washington Island’s first Icelandic settlers. I ran into her at Field Wood Farm, where Julie was taking horseback riding lessons — on an Icelandic horse, of course.

These small, sturdy, shaggy-maned horses have one more gait than most of the world’s equines. This fifth gait is called a tolt and resembles a fast, smooth trot.

“I fell in love with these horses when I came to the island,” said Laurie Veness, the eccentric, chatty owner of Field Wood Farm. Veness grew up in Evanston and spent her summers vacationing on the island. “I always said I’d run a riding stable here one day.”

Veness offers trail rides and lessons at her farm, where she keeps 16 pure-bred Icelandic horses.

Nearby at Norse Horse Park, visitors can take a tour of a working farm, where the Scandinavian livestock includes Icelandic horses, chicken and sheep.

A short ferry ride on the “karfi” (Icelandic for “red fish”) brings you to secluded Rock Island, Wisconsin’s least-visited state park. Don’t be fooled by the low attendance numbers. This 912-acre uninhabited, wooded island is beautiful. It’s just not easy to get to.

That didn’t stop Icelandic immigrant Chester Thordarson — who made millions from his electric manufacturing company in Chicago — from buying Rock Island in 1910 and turning it into his summer estate.

Thordarson’s heirs eventually sold the island to the state of Wisconsin, which turned it into a park with 10 miles of hiking trails and 40 rustic campsites.

Rock Island visitors can check out the state’s oldest lighthouse as well as the majestic Viking Boathouse. This limestone palace is where Thordarson used to throw lavish parties for his Chicago friends.

Those days are long gone, but the boathouse is still full of the late millionaire’s exquisitely carved wooden furniture, etched with scenes of Nordic mythology by an artist from Iceland.

Information for this article was gathered on a research trip sponsored in part by the Door County CVB.

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