Written by Chief Petty Officer Alan Haraf.
If you’ve ever visited or driven through the beautiful town of Sturgeon Bay in famous Door County in northern Wisconsin along the shores of Lake Michigan, you’d probably never know that it has a 130-year relationship with the Coast Guard and its predecessors. In fact, many of the town’s residents didn’t know that fact either.
That doesn’t diminish their support, respect and appreciation for the men and women of the Coast Guard who serve and call this town “home.”
And after a recent ceremony, they now know the history, tradition and why their town has been designated a “Coast Guard City.”
The relationship dates back to 1881 with the establishment of the Dunlap Reef Light Station and to 1886 with the building of what is known today as Station Sturgeon Bay. Over the decades, three more lighthouses, several Coast Guard cutters and personnel that staffed the station and marine inspection facilities have brought thousands of Coast Guard men and women to this maritime community city where they have felt welcomed and supported.
The weather could not have been better for the commemorative event which brought out a large contingent of Coast Guard men and women and town residents to Sawyer Park, located along the channel and near the Coast Guard Cutter Mobile Bay.
Rear Adm. Fred Midgette, commander of 9th Coast Guard District, and Capt. Matt Sibley, commander of Sector Lake Michigan, were joined by Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble and Sturgeon Bay Mayor Thad Birmingham in officially proclaiming Sturgeon Bay a “Coast Guard City.”
“When you move a lot and have a nomadic lifestyle, to be able to find that place where you are treated just like one of the family, it’s a special thing,” said Midgette of the partnership between the Coast Guard and the citizens of Sturgeon Bay. “There are places where the connection is so strong and the relationships are so strong, that people will come back.”
Senior Chief Petty Officer Wayne Spritka, officer-in-charge of Station Sturgeon Bay, would echo those words. Spritka, who will soon retire after 24 years of Coast Guard service, spent three tours in Sturgeon Bay and plans to remain in the community with his family.
“The Coast Guard is dotted throughout the state,” said Spritka. “And for Sturgeon Bay to be named a Coast Guard city, that’s a special thing. They are whole-heartedly accepting of us and we look forward to spending our lives here.”
“That’s exactly the kind of word we want to get out to the personnel in the Coast Guard, that this is a very good place to be stationed,” stated Birmingham.
Each year, the town celebrates Maritime Week around the Coast Guard’s birthday with a concert dedicated to the Coast Guard. There is also an annual dinner at the Sturgeon Bay Yacht Club to recognize the Coast Guardsman and mariner of the year, a Coast Guard golf tournament and an annual picnic for Coast Guard members and their families.
In addition, the city sends a “welcome” letter each newly-stationed Coast Guard member in Sturgeon Bay and another letter to their parents.
Bob Desh, retired Coast Guard captain and now the executive director of Door County Maritime Museum located in downtown Sturgeon Bay, recalls when he was stationed aboard the cutter Mesquite in 1972 as a third class petty officer.
“Within a few days of my arrival, I knew I was ‘home,’” said Desh. “The local residents were friendly and welcoming and, despite the relatively small size of the town, there was much fun to be found when liberty was piped.”
He also remembers comments from visiting cuttermen about how lucky he was to have Sturgeon Bay as his homeport.
Sturgeon Bay becomes the 16th “Coast Guard City.” The program recognizes communities that have made special efforts to acknowledge and support the military services and professional work of the Coast Guard men and women assigned to their area.