Water-loving Ephraim about to shake its dry history

harbor-warehouseMuch distinguishes Ephraim, population 288, from other hamlets in tourist-friendly Door County.

The local yacht club – organized in 1906 – is one of the oldest on the Great Lakes, but the actual structure is tiny. Membership totals about 480, anyone can join, and children begin sailing lessons at age 7.

Ephraim’s annual Flying Scots Regatta (Aug. 5-7 this year) is among the largest of its type in the nation.

The village has the county’s longest stretch of public lakeshore access.

And, until this year, Ephraim was the only dry community remaining in Wisconsin.

April referenda results overturned a 163-year ban on alcohol sales. Similar attempts failed in 1934 and 1992.

So the people of Ephraim have spoken, and they can speak out again during a 7 p.m. June 14 public hearing about proposed ordinances that address alcohol sales.

If all goes as expected, wine soon could be sold for consumption at The Chef’s Hat, Old Post Office or other Ephraim restaurants. Beer could be sold for consumption on or off the premises of a liquor license holder. Sales of hard alcohol remain forbidden.

A tavern would be unlikely to open in Ephraim because only beer could be sold. As Village President Mike McCutcheon sees it, “we’re not going to be the biker capital of Wisconsin, but this will help our restaurants.”

You can count all of Ephraim’s restaurants on two hands and have fingers left over. None stay open the entire year, and some owners say they have lost business because alcohol couldn’t be sold with a meal.

“Some don’t want Ephraim to change,” the village president notes. “Change is inevitable, but we want to be sensitive and smart about it, and we don’t want to change the character of Ephraim.”

Which brings us to another trait that separates Ephraim from the rest: a robust interest in local history and preservation. Eleven of 30 local historical sites are on the National Register of Historic Places. Galleries and boutiques operate out of preserved buildings.

Passionate volunteers lead guided history tours that include Anderson Store (built in 1858), Ephraim Moravian Church (1858), Anderson Barn (1880) and Pioneer Schoolhouse (1880).

The area was settled by Norwegian Moravians, a faith community whose founder “wanted to preach and read scripture in the language of the people he served,” explains Linda Carey, whose ancestors arrived here in 1880. That didn’t sit well with the Catholic Church, back in the day.

The 100-member Ephraim congregation “resembles a Methodist or Presbyterian church today,” and the no-alcohol rule “was more a part of the times than a part of the Moravian” teachings.

Ephraim began gaining tourists after a deep-water dock was installed, so boats could anchor and deliver supplies. By 1900, Ephraim had nine hotels, and most no longer stand or are replaced by vacation condos today.

An exception is the Hillside Inn of Ephraim, which recently reopened after being dormant since 2008. Available for overnight stays are five elegant suites, each with private bath and for adults only. A two-night rate (the minimum for summer) begins at $500.

Also for rent on the property, at $1,005 for three nights, are two cottages that each sleep up to six.

“This was an important piece of real estate to reopen,” says owner Diane Taillon, a real estate broker who lives and works at the inn, but delegates innkeeper duties to others.

She plans to add cooking classes in winter, led by a rotation of local chefs, and provide space for book clubs and community events. Maybe afternoon high tea, too.

Ongoing now is the construction of Hillside Gardens, with waterfall, for weddings and other outdoor functions. The bride can descend from the inn’s bridal suite, or lead a procession from the Lutheran or Moravian church, a one-block walk downhill.

The property was purchased four months before the referenda on alcohol sales but likely means these events can include alcohol consumption, although Diane will be limited in what – if anything – her business can sell.

“Before, we weren’t even allowed to offer a bottle of wine as part of an overnight package” for lodging, she notes. She is cautiously hopeful about future prospects.

“I’ll wait for it all to unfold,” she says. “We all just have to be patient, but I think it will work out beautifully.”

A dream is to serve visitors wine and appetizers on her porch (the longest in Door County, she says, at about 110 feet) as sun sets.

As it is drafted now, the village president says a place like Hillside Inn could request a license to sell beer but not wine. For now.

Ephraim Historical Foundation volunteers conduct 90-minute guided tours, on foot or on tram, starting June 21. The cost is $5 to $8 (free for ages under 6). A general admission ticket, $3 to $5, covers entrance to four museums. ephraim.org, 920-854-9688

The annual Fyr (pronounced “feer”) Ball Festival on June 18 includes a pancake breakfast, music, used book sale, art sale and fireworks. Moravian church members give away a taste of sugar cake (like a coffeecake, but with holes poked for a butter-brown sugar mix to seep in). Evening bonfires burn the “winter witch” and welcome summer.

A newer event, Ephraim Vintage Festival, on Sept. 8-11 draws vintage car owners to the village. Some compete in the Ephraim Hill Climb and Concours d’Elegance, to see if the vehicles operate as well as they look. ephraimhillclimb.com, 920-854-4455

Free summer concerts from 6-8 p.m. Mondays resume June 20 at the gazebo of Harborside Park. The weekly community SingAlong at 7:30 p.m. on summer Sundays starts June 19 at Ephraim Village Hall.

Open-air worship, facing Eagle Harbor and nicknamed the weekly “docks-ology,” begins at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays at Anderson Dock in July and August; bring your own seating.

For more about Ephraim events, attractions: ephraim-doorcounty.com, 920-854-4989.

Ephraim Yacht Club membership is open to non-residents. Annual dues are $200 per family; the initiation fee is another $200. “Biggest bargain in the Midwest,” says longtime resident Linda Carey. eyc.org, 920-854-7107