Washington island Observer - Reviewed by Charlie Calkins

Thordarson and Rock Island by Richard Purinton   

Washington Island, WI:   Island Bayou Press, 2013 (XXVIII and 436 pages).

Dick Purinton has done it again!  With the recent publication of his fourth major book, Thordarson and Rock Island, he has made another significant contribution to the Door County bookshelf.  And it should be noted that this work – consistent with his three previous books – is very much unlike the earlier ones in subject matter.

The title might suggest that Purinton is providing us with a traditional biography of Thordarson, a Chicago electrical industry innovator and Rock Island, Door County, recreational property owner.  Such is not the case.  The author is very careful to be explicit about his intentions:  “What appears in these pages…isn’t a biography…but rather excerpts from Thordarson’s life placed in an understandable sequence, depicted through correspondence, documents and photos.”  (p. IX)   Put another way, Purinton wants his readers to understand the relationship his subject had to this particular place (Rock Island) and the relationships Thordarson had with the many people who tried to help him transform his property into his envisioned dream. Make no mistake.  This is a formidable task.

Purinton relies very heavily on Thordarson’s own correspondence to tell his subject’s story.  The letters alone, however, would not tell much of Thordarson’s transformation of Rock Island.  It was incumbent on the writer to provide the backgrounds and transitions as he generally moves chronologically from one episode to another in Thordarson’s ownership of Rock Island.  Purinton does a masterful job in providing the reader with the background information needed to follow the meaning and understanding of Thordarson’s intent in writing his letters.  The reader comes away believing he / she does understand the flow of ideas, actions, and results.  This is paramount in following Purinton’s purpose.

A glance at the chapter headings suggests, for the most part, standard topics covered in a general chronological order.  “Rock Island Property Purchase,”  “Boathouse Construction,”  “Game Management Escalation,” and “Contemporaries in Door County” are examples.  But what about “A Magnificent Library, A Lifetime of Books”?  What does this have to do with a Rock island recreational property?  Purinton details Thordarson’s lifetime love of the printed word, especially science related books.  Over the years he amassed a spectacular collection of books, which were ultimately housed in his architecturally impressive boathouse.  This fine collection eventually formed the basis for the University of Wisconsin’s rare books collection.  The point here is that the author left little – if anything – out of the story of the man and his island.

This reviewer is impressed by authors who do the required homework (research) necessary to produce a fist-class work.  Clearly, Purinton has done this in all regards.  His bibliography is extensive and impressive.  The accompanying photographs and diagrams with informative captions are to the point and relevant, not fluff added as an afterthought or as a space filler.  In addition, pertinent documents provided help tell the story.

The reader should be forewarned:  This is not a quick nor easy read.   That observation is not intended in any way as a criticism of Purinton’s book.  Instead, it should be considered a compliment, for several reasons.  The book is very complete, and, as a result, very lengthy (436 pages of text).   The pieces of correspondence provided are numerous, many are lengthy, and some are quite detailed.  It takes time to read them and follow them.  Moreover, the author’s discussions necessary for an understanding of them are comprehensive, as are what he calls “notes”, which he uses as explanatory notes rather than formal footnotes.  And, finally, in this regard, there is a great deal of information provided about this very interesting and complex man that deserves pondering, rumination, and reflection.  This takes time for serious readers.  But, it is sure worth the time and effort.

    Charlie Calkins is a retired geography professor, a part-time Door County resident, and an inveterate collector of printed material related to the county.  In his spare time he operates the Badger Bibliophile, a business specializing in buying and selling gently used Wisconsin books and maps.  His wares are sold at several antique malls in the state, including the Old Orchard Antique Center in Egg Harbor.                                              E-mail him at


    A CALIFORNIA READER CHIMES IN - November 7, 2013

So, I have finished "Thordarson and Rock Island," and I am writing to offer my kudos to you on a very nice work of scholarship and a valuable addition to the history of the island and its inhabitants. Thordarson is a fascinating character, and I am glad to have learned about him through your writing.

As I read the book I learned to be patient when I wanted to know something more about him e.g. early on I wanted to know how the Depression affected him and his plans, and what was his relationship with his family. These questions were answered as well as you could have given the record.

He impressed me as having a flinty personality (with exceptions like Julia Ann), and that he carried a very sharp pencil concerning his accounts. I thought Tesla's comment comparing him with Edison was very revealing and a powerful statement although I don't know if Tesla was motivated by sour grapes.

 -  Emerald Hills, California 



You've written a hell of a book there! I'm very impressed with it and all of the work that you've put in. 

Initially I thought that I wouldn't be much interested, but I became captivated by the man, the times in which he lived, and the various characters that surrounded him. 

I put on the full speed reading afterburners and finished the book just a few minutes ago (haven't done a lick of work or anything else here in three days) and it was worth it. 

I'm left with curiosity about how the two sons lived? Did they essentially live on whatever the old man gave them? Perhaps he gave them stock which they sold back to him from time to time? Sounds like they received something when Burgess sold Thordarson. Seems strange two guys just wandering through life without striking out on their own.

I was curious about the details of Thordarson's work and looked up several of his patents to get an idea. In doing so I found one (and only one) patent issued to Dewey C. Thordarson filed in 1935.

It's for an ignition coil. Did he develop it or simply file it after it was developed by employees? Was he working at the factory at that time?  Who knows? You would have thought Trig to be the more logical son to work at the factory. I wonder if he ever worked anywhere else as an engineer?  Just curious, the answers aren't important. 

I haven't read a book like this in a long time and I enjoyed it very much.

     Reader from Ridgefield, Washington 

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What a book!  This book will still be valuable 100 years from now.  This was an interesting / clever idea to let Thordarson’s own words tell the story.

When I volunteered to be available to proofread your book, I had no other motive than to look for typos.  But here you have given me the opportunity to add (or at least relay) any RI / Thordarson “information” that I leaned over my 10-year summer stint working there.  Because I was Naturalist, visitiors told me what they knew.  Only in reading your book was my memory jogged about some of the topics.

-       Dr. Susan Rock, former Rock Island Naturalist

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Bridges Are Still News - Island Essays, Poems and Photos

Purinton’s latest offering…proves the point that “Bridges Are Still News.” It is a valuable gift to pass along to future generations
who may wonder, “What was it like to live back then, and what were they thinking about?” Purinton enlivens, illuminates and
documents our lives – a gift for which I am grateful!
- Janet Berggren – Island resident, retired naturalist, a librarian and Archivist

Most inspirational are the light and effect of photos in the snow-covered wooded cathedral; amusing were the deer hanging on
the side rack of the glass vendor.…the overall effect is terrific insight into the people, places, history and events of Washington
Island. The author identifies well bridges through history to other generations. The reader ought to go straight to the source, to
be informed, educated, enriched, enlightened, invigorated. Visit “Bridges,” then visit the Island.
- Joe Knaapen – Retired Door County newspaper reporter and editor


Words On Water

Words on Water is a gem of a book authored by Richard (Dick) Purinton and published recently by Norb Blei's Cross+Roads
Press. The subtitle, "A Ferryman's Journal, Washington Island, WI" is more instructive about the book's contents than is the title.
The ferryman is, of course, Purinton, who is also the president of the Washington Island Ferry Line. In addition to his experience
on board he brings another skill to the task of writing his journal: that of a degree in journalism from the University of
Wisconsin-Madison. This fact is very apparent in content and style, neither of which are pretentious.

     Two topics are commonplace in the almost daily journal entries. First, the weather and its impact on the seas through which
the ferries must pass understandably receive considerable attention. Second the mechanical operation of the ferries and the
problems related thereto are addressed at some length. These topics clearly occupy the mind of someone who is ultimately
responsible for maintaining the lifeline between Washington Island and the mainland. These are very serious matters for Purinton.

   Other than the weather and the ferry operations, there are not constants in the remaining entries. Subjects addressed are
wide-ranging, interesting, and informative. They fall into two broad categories: The land and life on Washington Island, which
the author knows well; and water and life on Deaths Door, the passage between the island and Northport on the tip of the mainland.
Here about most anything is fair game. Purinton is at his best when he shares with the reader his observations about what is going
on around him and makes sense out of these details within the broader context of things.

   Mundane or trivial are not words that can be used to describe Dick's interests, involvements, and inquisitiveness. He is deeply
interested in, and writes knowingly and with concern about island traditions - the St. Pat's parade, ice fishing, church activities,
and so many other relevant examples. Journal entries about his involvements with the American Legion, the Island's fire department,
bringing international travel writers to Washington Island, or carving religious artifacts for the Stavkirke are part of the course. The
author is a “closet geographer,” curious about other places reached on his motorcycle, a sculptor who wonders how parts from
an old disc can be welded into garden sculpture, or what happens to all the stuff that end up at the Island recycling center.

   Features of the physical and cultural geography of Washington Island and their associated place names are well known to
Purinton, and he uses place names liberally throughout his journal. Included as a frontispiece is a map with these names to aid
the reader in getting their bearings. The only other graphics are individual black and white photos of island features placed at
the beginning of each month's journal entries. These add interest and serve to provide a transition from month to month journal

   For people seriously interested in Door County books, this one is a must. Buy it knowing that it is not at all similar to any other
publication dealing with the Island. Dick concentrates primarily (though not exclusively) on the contemporary scene. His previous
work. Over and Back, is pictorial history of transportation to and from the island and is now out of print. Other publications
concerning Washington Island including Conan Bryant Eaton's Island series, Raymond McDonald's Four Islands:  A history of
Detroit, Rock, St. Martins and Washington Islands, Island Tales, and Arthur and Evelyn’s Knudsen’s A Gleam Across the Wave
(recently reprinted by Cross+Roads Press) all have a strong historical emphasis. Words on Water is a nice compliment to them.

   We should all rejoice in the existence of small presses and their publications. But one of the facts of life for small presses is
small press runs. I am certain this is true for Words on Water. Buy a copy of this important contribution to the literature of Door
County before the first edition goes out of print. If you don't, you may have to wait for the second printing, already in progress.
Much of the success of the first printing results from the fact that Puririton writes well - as well as he pilots the Arni J. Richter
across Death’s Door.


Charlie Calkins, is a retired geography professor, a part-time Door County resident,  and an inveterate collector of printed
material related to the county. In his spare time he operates the Badger Bibliophile, a business specializing in buying and
selling gently used Wisconsin books and maps. His wares are sold at several antique malls in the state, including the Old
Orchard Antique Center in Egg Harbor. Email him at