Women Learn Life Skills While Preserving Maritime Landmarks

By Joel Waldinger | October 15, 2015


“It’s a big dream”, Mary Beth Vollmer said as she approaches Plum Island for the last time this season. On this day, Vollmer arrives on the Northern tip of Door County with other volunteers ready to preserve Plum Island’s maritime traditions. Vollmer is the organizer, “Ok, welcome everyone to Plum Island – yeah.” Vollmer is not only a volunteer, she is on the board of “The Friends of Plum and Pilot Island” and co-founder of a group called, “Women in Preservation.” Vollmer said, “Women in Preservation had gotten started by my introduction to some wonderful, wonderful women that just wanted to come and learn things, and be a part of this preservation work.”

The idea came to Vollmer a few years back while working in the ruins of the old Plum Island Lighthouse.  She describes the humble beginnings like this, “We were all sitting around and pulling out the weeds and we started talking about how some of us were retired, some of us were married, grandparents, just starting a family, and thought, how great that this is for us to be working together”. Right then and there, “Women in Preservation” was born. Vollmer says today its members come from near and far, “These are people who come from all over the place, from Chicago, from Milwaukee, and they give up their time to this restoration work.”

On this trip volunteers will assemble Aldo Leopold Benches to set out along the trails. To the mostly female crew, Vollmer ignites their passion by saying, “Let’s get rocking guys”.  Guys is actually accurate the group has men that mentor the women on how to use hand tools, and saws, and building materials, and allow them to be a part of this project.

When asked if this was a women’s movement, Vollmer paused and then added, “Is it a women’s movement? I think a little bit of it yes, it’s equality, it’s seeing that women can be doing things that in the past have been relegated to men. They didn’t treat me as a woman, no, I’m sorry they did, but they didn’t like say “No, you can’t do that because you are a woman” And without Mary Beth Vollmer other women wouldn’t have made the same discovery. This is what Vollmer says she’s taken from the experience, “I’ve learned about the strength that women have inside.  Just because something looks so daunting building a kiosk when this takes 6 people to lift it. I never thought I’d be able to do that.”

For more than 150 years these building were critical to navigation around the Door Peninsula. Today they are listed on the National Historic Register. Which means that any type of preservation work includes working with the state to guarantee that the group is keeping the restoration true to its vintage. The Coast Guard Life-saving Station was operated by men and in the summer months sometimes their wives and children would come and join them on the island to live. Vollmer describes what life was like on the island, “There were years that some of the Coast Guard families would come and spend summers here. And they then erected these small little shacks and they would spend their summers as a family.  And the children would play out on the shore, and a couple of people have come by and say “I was born here on Plum Island”. So what would happen is the woman would be her time, they would go and call for the doctor across Washington Island, and she would then go into the Lifesaving Station and give birth.”

The Coast Guard worked on the island continued 24/7. This was before there was any electricity, this was like turn of the century. The men would have to walk the entire length of the patrol trail and it’s a 325 acre island, they’d punch a clock, walk around, and punch it again, and they’d know that they didn’t take a snooze on the way. The way that they had patrolled then was with a lantern and looking for any kind of ships in distress, and if they did, they’d shoot off a flare and that would alert then the person that was in the lookout tower that they needed to be gathering the troops and going out and helping with rescue.”

Those memories are long gone, but not forgotten. On this day the sky is blue and the sun is mild. Winter is coming to the island. Vollmer said, “My beautiful workshop. The sun beating down on us, the lapping of the water. We don’t need to have any kind of background music, we have it all.” However, preserving the past on a remote island in the middle of the Green Bay National Wildlife Refute can have it drawbacks, and the scenery and setting can also really draw you in. Vollmer describes it like this, “There is no electricity. Cellular is not all that great either. So we’re not checking our Facebook and our emails.  We’re just being with one another.” The volunteers feed off of that natural energy in this island oasis. The melodic wave action on the rocky shoreline washes away any stress.  Vollmer said, “It has such power, it just takes away all that negative stuff that you have laboring around in your head. It’s a sanctuary, it’s a refuge. It’s a place to come to be recharged.”

The island was abandoned in 1990 from the Coast Guard, and every time that Vollmer come out here she sees how Mother Nature is continually trying to come back. There are new wildflowers, there’s new birds. There’s so many monarch butterflies.  Vollmer added, “We see how Mother Nature has been so resilient and rebuilt every time that she had been torn down, we can do that too.”

The Friends of Plum and Pilot Island have grand plans for this 325 acre stepping stone to the past. Vollmer knows those plans by heart, “Our plans are to be able to open the island to the public from Memorial Day until Labor Day.” (2015) The Women in Preservation are doing their part, “This bench was built by the Women in Preservation and placed in honor of William J. Thomas.  He served on this island many years ago, so we’re going to place him right over by the Lifesaving Station.” In the past women came out here and did weeding, and did women kind of things. Now they are building, and restoring, and we’re learning these new skills. Vollmer said their impressions for these women will last a lifetime, “When they come by on the ferry, they can say I was there, I did that. And it’s been a confidence builder for myself and the other women. The motto of the Women of Preservation is that no woman is to leave Plum Island without dirt underneath her fingernails and a learning experience within her soul.”

Joel Waldinger

Joel Waldinger

Joel Waldinger is a reporter for the “Wisconsin Life” project and considers a sunset over the “big island” on Manson Lake to be a perfect ending to a day of fishing and fun in the Northwoods. 
2018-01-19T17:52:26-06:00Tags: , , |

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