A place called Fishtown — like no other historic fishery
Editor’s note: The following excerpt is reprinted with permission from Laurie Kay Sommers and the Fishtown Preservation Society. It is taken from Sommers’ book “Fishtown: Leland, Michigan’s Historic Fishery.”
On a blustery April morning, the door to Carlson’s fishery in Leland’s Fishtown opens with a blast of cold air. Two tourists, visiting Leelanau County, Michigan, on their spring break warm themselves from the chill as they take in their surroundings: the display case of fresh fish, employees processing the day’s catch, the pungent smell of smoked fish.
The walls of the sales area overflow with faded photos and newspaper clippings of the generations of Carlsons who have worked as commercial fishermen. Nestled within this gallery of Fishtown memories is a family treasure: a torn and yellowed commercial fishing license from 1909, owned by Swedish immigrant Nels Carlson, the first Carlson to ply the fishing grounds off Leland, and his Norwegian-born partner, Severt Johnson. Intrigued, the visitors ask, “What is this place?”
The answer is both simple and complex. Although known today as Fishtown, the fishing village on the Leland (historically Carp) River did not assume that name until the 1930s. Fishtown today is a tourist destination, inspiration for artists, working waterfront, and centerpiece of a district listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the shrinking world of Great Lakes commercial fisheries, Fishtown is a survivor, and Carlson’s of Fishtown is its heartbeat. Of all the commercial fishing operations once based in Fishtown, only Carlson’s, now solely a retail operation, remains. Since 2007, Carlson’s and seven other shanties have been owned by the Fishtown Preservation Society (FPS), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving the historical integrity of Fishtown as a living link to Great Lakes maritime heritage.
The “Historic Fishtown” sign atop the Ice House — along with the historic marker describing the Fishtown Historic District — declares that this is a place of history. But it is also one of the few remaining commercial fisheries on Lake Michigan. Above all, it is a place of stories. “The fishing is over for the season,” quipped the Leelanau Enterprise newspaper in 1904, “but not the yarns.”
The stories are of place, tradition, and memory; of family and community in the face of adversity; of heroism, humor, luck and tragedy on the Big Lake; of priceless fishing knowledge passed on from father to son; of artists and art students who captured the personalities, colors, and textures of Fishtown; of generations of summer visitors who infused the local economy with dollars even as the fishing ebbed and flowed. New stories emerge each day.
The Leland River flows through the heart of Fishtown and bears silent witness to these stories. Barely 4,000 feet in length, it connects Lake Leelanau (originally known as Carp Lake) to the east with Lake Michigan to the west.
The portion that passes through Fishtown extends a scant 300 feet below the dam, which separates the upper river and Lake Leelanau from the outlet at Lake Michigan. River otters play in its clear green waters and, in the early autumn, large salmon rest on the sandy bottom, thwarted from swimming upstream to spawn by the six-foot waterfall over the dam. Pioneering settlers knew the river by the name “Carp River.” Generations of fishermen called it “the fish creek.”
The river is Fishtown’s soul. Without it, there would be no Fishtown. It is the reason early bands of Ottawa established a town at its mouth. Its water power led to Leland’s founding by French Canadian millwright Antoine Manseau in 1853. Its waters sheltered fish tugs, pleasure craft, and the Manitou mail boat and ferry decades before Leland became a Harbor of Refuge. Children swam and played here, and generations of local residents and summer resorters fished from the docks at the water’s edge. Along both sides of its banks stand the fish shanties that give Fishtown its name and identity.
The river, like Fishtown, has its seasons. On the April day when those tourists stumble upon Fishtown, the sky spits snow, and Lake Michigan is a wild froth of whitecaps. The frigid river ripples as the wind howls off the Big Lake. Fishtown’s two remaining steel-hulled fish tugs, the trap-netter Joy and the gillnetter Janice Sue — the only craft in the river — rock at their moorings. They have just completed their first fishing runs of the year.
Six months later, on a warm September afternoon, the river at Fishtown will be full of boats. The commercial fishermen will have met their state-mandated quotas for whitefish and chubs, and the tugs will not go out again until early spring. Most other boats at Fishtown will be fishing charters.
That September day is clear, and the islands dominate the western horizon, dense dark green forests broken by pale streaks of dune. Jim Munoz, captain of Leland’s oldest charter service (established 1972), relaxes after a successful day with clients. He and another longtime charter captain, Jack Duffy, have just returned from fishing for trophy Chinook and Coho salmon and steelhead, lake and brown trout off nearby North and South Manitou Islands. Lake Michigan has a light chop. In the distance, the Manitou Isle ferry motors across the Manitou Passage, the historic shipping lane that separates the islands and mainland. Currently owned by the fourth generation of the Grosvenor family of Leland, the ferry service is now called Manitou Island Transit. It operates under a license from the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and transports campers and day-trippers between Leland Harbor and the Manitous.
— Copies of the book are available for $19.95 in Fishtown, the FPS offices next to the Leland Library and at local bookstores in the Grand Traverse Region.