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Washington Island's Gislason Beach Restored

One of the projects of the Community Center Committee and the Red Barn Committee has been to restore the historic Gislason beach area. For many years this beach, with its gently shoaling waters and soft bottom, was the place where Island children learned to swim.

Restored sandy beach with newly planted beach grass on the dunes to prevent erosion at Gislason Beach 

With the building of the Mosling Recreation Center, swimming lessons shifted to the pool, and the Gislason beach area became known more as a good place to launch kayaks rather than as a swimming beach.

Well, the beach is back! Thanks to the efforts of many people, Gislason Beach may again be a great place for families to swim and picnic.

Cooling off at the beach, Gislason Beach, circa 1970s

Many truckloads of soft sand, donated by Julian Hagen, have been deposited and graded on the beach area. In addition, the Red Barn picnic area now has a thick layer of soft sand under all the playground equipment, and a new beach volleyball court has been installed. Thanks to the town crew -- Jonathan Mann, Greg Jensen and Jeffrey Anderson, with Tom Jordan driving the front end loader -- for a job well done.

The final part of the beach restoration occurred on Friday, May 17. The beach area has mounded dunes that are now planted with beach grasses to hold them in place. First, a biodegradable covering was put down to temporarily hold the dunes in place. Then all day a group of people planted the plugs of beach grass. They included students Autumn Dompke, Micala Ervin and Maddie Glines; town crew members Jonathan Mann, Greg Jensen, and Jeffrey Anderson; Red Barn committee members Tom Taylor and Jim Goodwin; and Bill Benson of the Community Center Committee. By the end of the day they had installed 2,400 plants! Thank you all.

Come by and see what work has been done, and enjoy the restored beach area and playground areas in the months come.

Photo at right: Historical marker built by stonemason Kirby Gunnlaugsson on Gislason Beach; text for the inscription written by Lorel Gordon. The text is below.

Text on historical marker:
This area is historically a commercial and social center of activity for Washington Island. The Gislason Store, built in 1885, was strategically located just across the road from Detroit Harbor. The Gislasons took advantage of the location by building a dock convenient for sailing ships. The boats and people arriving and departing created great interest and excitement. The Gislason Store was a place to gather and exchange news as well as to stock up on supplies.

Chester Jensen first established the docks as the Ship Yards in the early 1900s to repair and service boats and sell lumber. Arnold Klingenberg bought the store from the Gislasons in 1935 and repurposed it as the Anchor Inn Tavern. The property included 13 acres and about 180 feet of shore frontage plus the main building, the barn, and the icehouse.

During World War II, Island citizens began meeting and talking about the need for a social center for the Island community. When Klingenberg decided to sell, a public meeting of interested people met on September 30, 1946. The meeting was chaired by Ruby Cornell, assisted by secretary Clara Jessen and treasurer Carrie Jorgenson. It was decided to create a nonprofit corporation called the Washington Island Community Center Association and to purchase the property for $5,000, with $500 as a down payment. The purpose of the organization was “to provide and maintain a social center for the people of Washington Island.” This group looked forward to using the former Gislason Store as the Island’s community center.

Officers were elected on October 13, 1946. The president was Arni Richter; vice president, Orin Engleson; recording secretary, Gladys Boshka; corresponding secretary, Carl Schaub; and treasurer, Haldor Gudmundsen.

People canvassed door to door to raise the annual mortgage payments on what was now called the Community House. In 1952, a group of Chicago and Island homeowners offered to hold fundraising dinner-dance parties in Chicago and donate profits to help pay off the mortgage on the property, which they achieved in 1954.

Volunteers put in long hours at the Community House – cleaning, repairing, painting, building a small stage and raising the ceiling for basketball. Other recreational events at the Community House included plays, roller skating, variety shows, talent shows, and dances. The annual Island Fair also took place on these grounds. Swimming lessons were held at Gislason Beach. In 1956 a concrete stage was poured east of the Red Barn for the Scandinavian Dance Festival. The barn was often used for dramatic productions, and the Icehouse served as an American Youth Hostel managed by LeVaun and Jerome Mann.

In 1969 a new Community Center was built on Main Road. Although the old Community House was torn down, the Red Barn, the Icehouse, the park, and Gislason Beach have continued to serve the community. The Red Barn Coffeehouse entertainment venue began its regular summer programs in 1973 with Christi Hansen and Mark Nerenhausen as directors in the early years.

The Community Center Association deeded the Red Barn Park to the Town of Washington in 1985, and the Town’s Community Center Committee began to manage and oversee the Red Barn Park, its programs, and the Community Center on Main Road. Fundraisers are held by the CCC to pay for the upkeep of the buildings and properties as well as a Red Cross swimming program, a Red Barn director, the annual Scandinavian Fest, and other community projects.

In 1993 the Town began leasing approximately three acres of parkland to Shipyard Island Marina. This annual revenue helps pay for improvements to the Red Barn Park. Proceeds from a fund drive paid for the playground equipment at the park. Residents Steve and Marjorie Tobey gave the gift of a new well and water fountain to the Red Barn Park in 1999, in memory of Emelie and George Tobey Jr. The Tobeys also donated five acres and sold an additional five acres to the Town to expand the park in 2002.

Over the years, Red Barn Committee members as well as friends and supporters of the Red Barn Park and programs have generously donated much time, effort, funds, and talent.


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