It is promised that when one door closes another will open.
Of course, sometimes the door slams and may bruise a finger and frighten the heck out of a sleeping cat. Now and then, a door will stick, needing the help of a shoulder to open it. The door may be in another room, or upstairs. It may be a car door.
Did you know that the Doors’ keyboard player, Ray Manzarek, went to St. Rita High School?
Anyway, I haven’t been to beautiful and mysterious Door County yet this summer, but I have made a couple of trips north beyond the Cheddar Curtain. In late June, I drove up to Baraboo and stayed at a B&B that was once home to a member of the Ringling Family.
I gathered a bunch of information that I plan to develop into a presentation for the retirement communities where I am a volunteer.
I also dined at a couple of splendid supper clubs, getting my fill of broiled walleye and prime rib. I highly recommend Ishnala, near the Wisconsin Dells.
More recently, I drove up for a brief getaway in Cedarburg, which is an old mill town about 20 miles beyond Milwaukee. Just over the Wisconsin border, I encountered an old friend and pulled in.
Bobby Nelson’s cheese shop sits on a frontage road west of I-94, not far from the much larger and gaudier Mars Cheese Castle. Bobby Nelson’s opened in 1949, before there was an I-94, and U.S. 41 was the principle way north. It has always been a family business.
My mother’s folks all were from Wisconsin. Grandma was German-Lutheran from Milwaukee (later she became Catholic), and Grandpa was French Canadian Catholic, with his roots in Bayfield, on the shores of Gitche Gumee.
There is a charming, romantic story about those two that I will keep in reserve.
It was 1951, I think, that they suggested to my parents that little Jimmy join them on their annual jaunt to Door County. Bea and Jim couldn’t agree quickly enough, and off I went, wearing my White Sox cap and carrying an armload of Golden Books.
The gray Olds glided north along the lake, following Rt. 41 up through a series of beautiful suburbs, then past the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, where decades later I would receive recruit training. I remember that we listened to Howard Miller on the radio on WIND-AM.
Once in Wisconsin, things outside the windows changed. It was green to the horizon, and red barns and silos decorated the fields of corn. Cows appeared, large and serene. Guernseys and Herefords chewed grass and created milk. I could sure smell them.
Then, the sound of the directional signal, and Grandpa turned left into a gravel covered parking area. I saw a big red sign in front of a one-story white building. At age 5, I am sure I could not read the sign, but as the years and decades passed, the words became familiar.
The sign proclaimed: “Bobby Nelson Wisconsin Cheese, Hickory Smoked Sausage, Mitt or Mittout, Country Cured Ham or Bacon.”
Inside, out of the sun, the shop was cool. But, it was the fragrances, strong and wonderful and completely new to me, that challenged and delighted my childish senses.
It didn’t smell like Kroger or High-Low or Jewel, or even Honest Joe’s Market at 83rd and Saginaw.
I couldn’t see over the counter, so I didn’t watch another woman slicing bacon that, if I could have tasted it all fried up and crisp, would have spoiled me for life.
Later on the trip, I would enjoy cherry pancakes with genuine maple syrup and local ham or pork sausage. Those flavors stay with me to this day. However, the smells in that little shop—garlicky sausage and sharp cheddar—amazed me and tucked themselves away forever in my memory.
As always, Grandpa did all the talking. He learned that the name of the lady behind the counter was Gert and that she lived on a farm near Kenosha. Her oldest son, Walter, had taken over running the farm after her husband’s heart attack.
Grandma picked up a jar of gooseberry jam and put it on the counter, next to the sausage and cheese that we would munch while driving north.
I would join my grandparents on three more Door County vacations. Each of those summers, Grandpa would try his best to turn me into a first-rate fisherman, regaling me with stories from his youth of battles with muskies, walleye and bass.
Sometimes we would be standing on a pier in Ephraim or now and then in a boat off the lake side of the peninsula. I enjoyed being with him, but my affection for the tall, blue-eyed man never led to a real passion for fishing.
I also loved drives through Peninsula State Park in Fish Creek and gazing out at Little Strawberry and Horseshoe islands. Ellison Bay, at the tip of the peninsula was lovely, with breezes coming in from both the lake and Green Bay. I dreamed of one day riding the ferry to Washington Island, which years later I would.
As our vacation drew to a close, I would, at some point, ask Grandma if we could stop at “that store” on the way home. It was important that I be able to renew those special aromas and to wonder if I could delay exhaling and somehow hold them inside my lungs until they stuck there.
The next best thing was the many chances I have enjoyed over the years to go back to that place and purchase cheese and sausage (“mitt,” which means with garlic) to savor as I passed the cows and silos.
Bobby Nelson’s shop is closing forever this summer, and I will be looking for another door to open.