By Karen Board Moran and Cheryl Rohde Culver
On Monday, June 21, 2021, the Liberty Grove Historical Society presented Elaine & Gretna’s Fish Tales program to a “standing room only” crowd in the barn of the society’s grounds.
To view Elaine & Gretna’s Fish Tales video of the program, please visit LGHS’s YouTube Channel or click on the link embedded in the title. A link to the script, written by LGHS Archivist Karen Board Moran, is also available here; Elaine & Gretna’s Fish Tales program script. The family photo album, video and script all help to bring the spirits of Elaine & Gretna to life.
These two hard working, fun-loving, generous, strong, independent Liberty Grove women, Elaine Johnson (1925 – 2020) and Gretna Johns (1923 – 2014) were portrayed by LGHS members Karen Board Moran and Cheryl Rohde Culver, with the help from the following resources: 1986 Door County Almanak #3 on Fishing; newspapers of the era, family information and recollections, and Elaine’s 2016 Stories from Yesteryear.
Scandinavian fourth generation Liberty Grove maternal cousins Elaine and Gretna were considered true Liberty Grove entrepreneurs and community boosters. They were the first women in Door County to commercially fish and process perch to make it an item on Liberty Grove restaurants’ menus.
Although Elaine and Gretna began their first cross country travels together as twenty-somethings in an old Chevy, the real working adventures for these two began in 1947 Nebraska. They worked at the Swanson poultry processing plant, a missile packing plant and a Swift pork processing plant before heading to Door County in 1953.
Like most area young people, they joined the seasonal tourist-generated work force. It meant providing service at the local bars and restaurants and joining in with harvesting various agricultural products.
With the help of their friend Robbie Kodanko, “The Girls” learned the fishing game- set the nets; run the lifter; pick the perch and “dress em” to eat. The Northern Lights Fish Company was born. The Hillside in Ellison Bay was the first restaurant to offer their perch as a fish fry, soon followed by Al Johnson’s Restaurant in Sister Bay.
In 1955, Gretna applied for a bait dealer’s license and opened a bait shop at the east end of the Sister Bay Bowl with Elaine.
Elaine and Gretna bought Rhode’s General Store (the old Al Mickelson’s old general store) in the 1960’s. The Beach Road Market, now the Door County Ice Cream Factory and Sandwich Shoppe was located on Hwy 42 and Beach Road in Liberty Grove just north of Sister Bay.
Fishing and processing remained a core business for these two throughout the decades. Elaine also served in a Secretarial Officer role for 18 years with the Northeast Wisconsin Commercial Fisheries Association. In 2000, they sold their remaining fish processing business.
Both women were committed to their community by raising funds for various benefits, including the Sister Bay baseball field lights and Scandia Village. Elaine and Gretna were also strong supporters and members of the Liberty Grove Historical Society. Elaine organized the first two LGHS’s Fish Boil Fundraisers. Their fish boil equipment, along with many other artifacts, are now part of the Liberty Grove Historical Society Collection and are available for viewing during our season. Please check our website and Facebook for current hours of operation.