The Town of Williamsonville and the Williamsonville Site
Tornado Memorial Park in Door County is located on the site of the former settlement of Williamsonville. The town was settled by the Williamson family in 1869 to take advantage of the newly built state road that linked Red River and Sturgeon Bay.
By 1871, Williamsonville had a steam powered shingle mill for processing wood from the nearby pine forests and cedar swamps, a boarding house, a blacksmith shop, eight houses, and 10 acres of cleared farmland. The town’s population of 76 included men, women, and children.
On October 8, 1871 events conspired to erase Williamsonville from the landscape if not from memory. Contemporary accounts tell us
“the woods and the heavens were all on fire, the smoke blocked the sun and the rising moon turned red.”
This fire, known as the Peshtigo Fire, is less known than the Chicago Fire which occurred on the same day. The Peshtigo fire destroyed 1,000,000 acres of farms, forests, sawmills, and small towns in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, including the town of Williamsonville. It remains the most destructive forest fire in American history.
For 10 days prior to October 8, 1871, residents of Williamsonville had been fighting small fires and setting back-fires to protect their town. Despite these efforts, a strong wind began to blow on the evening of October 8, fanning fires and spreading sparks and eventually burning all of Williamsonville’s buildings. People took shelter in a potato patch north of the town, the town well, and under wet blankets in beds of ash. Fifty nine of the town’s 76 residents died as well as 16 horses, five oxen, and 38 hogs. The settlement of Williamsonville was never rebuilt.
When Tornado Memorial Park was purchased in 1927 by the Door County Park Commission, the local newspaper reported that the site of Williamsonville was in the same state as it was when destroyed by fire. The site included charred stumps, partial foundations, the well, and the hollow in the potato patch (Sturgeon Bay Advocate 1927:1). The parcel purchased for the park was approximately two and one-half acres and was reported to include the boarding house, well, and the mill foundation.
Archeology at Williamsonville
Archaeological investigations resulted in identification of the former location of the mill and several structures, including houses and outbuildings. Artifacts recovered included both burned and unburned pieces of whiteware, stoneware, iron nails, mortar, and pipe fragments as well as melted glass.