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The Larson Family in Door County
“Door County is about family, about outdoor activities, about entertainment and bringing people together,” believes On Deck Clothing owner Mitch Larson. The Larson family has been part of Door County’s extended family and traditions for generations, dating back to the late 1800s. Hazel Elquist Larson, Mitch’s grandmother, was born and raised in the Town of Liberty Grove on land that’s now part of Newport State Park. Her father, Emil Elquist – Mitch’s great-grandfather – was the carpenter who helped build Ephraim’s Edgewater Hotel and many homes in Ellison Bay.
Mitch’s great-grandmother, Mrs. Wenzel Bunda, owned Bunda’s in Sister Bay. The store featured cloth, groceries, shoes, watches and other necessities of the day. Son William Bunda took over the store in 1912 and made it a fixture of Door County life. Bunda ran other retail stores throughout the area, including Sturgeon Bay and Oshkosh. In a quirk of fate, Bunda also leased the Lundberg General Store on Main Street in Fish Creek for a year during the 1930s. No one could have known that, 70 years later, grandson Mitch Larson would own that same Fish Creek building. Today, the corner of Main Street and Spruce is home to On Deck Clothing Company’s main location, the Fish Creek Market and The Lower Deck sales store, as well as On Deck – The Women’s Store.
Mitch’s father, Wink Larson, was a pioneer thinker, an early entrepreneur in Door County. “He had been a skier most of his life and was part of the Army ski patrol in Garmisch, Germany, in the 1950s,” Larson relates. “He loved Door County and wanted to bring skiing here.” Although residents had always made use of the local hills for downhill skiing, Wink set about grooming the hills, adding rope tows and building a lodge – all part of Nor-Ski Ridge, which officially opened in 1959. “There were several runs, beginner to expert,” Mitch recalls, “and it was really something special. The restaurant was run by my mom and grandmother. There was music playing outside, and the lodge had a roaring fireplace. It was the spot where all the locals came together.”
An appreciation of family, of tradition and the history of Door County all influenced Mitch Larson in his own life. “I must have inherited some business savvy from my grandfather Bunda and what he did with retail, and also the passion and fun side of my father,” he says. Although Mitch always had an interest in clothing, longtime friend John Ostrand triggered his interest in retail. “John was a cook at Al Johnson’s practically from the beginning,” Mitch says, “and then he opened a men’s clothing store, Telemark Boutique, behind Al’s.” Ostrand talked Larson into accompanying him to a clothing trade show in Dallas about 20 years ago “and I got the bug,” says Larson. “I went to another couple of shows and really enjoyed it. When the Top of the Hill shops came on the market in 1986, John and I said, ‘Let’s open a store.’”
Deep Roots In the Door
On Deck Clothing Company has been in business for 15 years, but owner Mitch Larson’s family traces a Door County history that dates back several generations. It’s no stretch to say that his family has helped to build today’s unique local community.
Mitch’s great-grandmother, Mrs. Wenzel Bunda, opened a grocery store in Sister Bay in the late 1800s. Located at the corner of Maple Drive and Highway 42, she owned and operated the store for many years. Her first cash register could calculate no sale greater than $2.99 and the majority of her business was actually conducted through a barter system. Basically, bolts of cloth, boots, hatpins and pocket watches were exchanged for eggs and butter.
Destroyed by a fire in 1912, the store was rebuilt and subsequently sold to Mrs. Bunda’s son, William Bunda. He operated the store until it was again destroyed by a fire in 1941; after WWII, the store was rebuilt. Interestingly enough, the entrepreneurial William also leased the Lundberg General Store of Fish Creek, now known as On Deck Clothing Company.
Hazel Elquist Larson, Mitch’s grandmother on his father’s side, also grew up in Door County. She was born and raised in Liberty Grove Township on land that is now part of Newport State Park, and her father, Emil Elquist, Mitch’s great grandfather, was a carpenter by trade. Hazel once said of her father, “Dad walked to work every day, there was nothing to ride in those days. So he walked. He helped build the Edgewater Hotel in Ephraim — that was a long walk — and all kinds of homes in Ellison Bay.”
As a teenager, Hazel worked in many restaurants in the county, including the Garrett Bay Hotel, the Birchwood Hotel and the Pine Grove Hotel. While working at the Pine Grove she would wait on the vacationers who visited the county via steamers from Chicago. She said of the tourists, “They came by Goodrich Steamer and when they left they usually left me a $10 tip.”
Hazel married fisherman and cherry grower Everett Larson in 1933. Following her marriage, Hazel worked in local hotels and in the orchards. She also canned pickles and noted, “I still can 50 jars of pickles every fall but they all walk out of here. Mitch can’t get enough of my pickles.”
Hazel and Everett had two children, Wink and Betty. Wink, Mitch’s father, ran a summer fish boil and founded the former “Nor-Ski Ridge.” The ski ridge was a ski hill in Fish Creek that taught an entire generation the art of downhill skiing. Wink had been on ski patrol in Garmish, Germany while with the U.S. army in the 1950’s. Following a trip to Aspen, Colorado, he was inspired to build his own ski hill in Fish Creek. Nor-Ski offered a variety of hill types that appealed to skiers of all abilities.
Mitch grew up working alongside his father in all of his varied endeavors. He peeled potatoes for the fish boils and worked on the ski hill. Not surprisingly, Mitch brought all that hard work, attention to quality and detail to On Deck Clothing Company and today is simply following in the rich tradition of his many Door County ancestors.
Primary renovation goals were to keep exteriors of the buildings historically authentic, while keeping interiors attractive, with features like dramatically displayed antique Chris Craft boats, symbolizing the quality workmanship and reliability that the On Deck name strives for.