2014-10-09 / Life in Leelanau

Ferry and mail service a Fishtown family tradition since 1917


THE NEW ferry building, freshly painted in white, with freight piled on the curving dock that followed the river shoreline east to the dam, 1930s. Photo Courtesy of the Leelanau Historical Society THE NEW ferry building, freshly painted in white, with freight piled on the curving dock that followed the river shoreline east to the dam, 1930s. Photo Courtesy of the Leelanau Historical Society Editor’s note: The following story was reprinted with permission from Okemos author Laurie Kay Sommers and the Fishtown Preservation Society. It was taken from chapter 7 of Sommers’ book “Fishtown: Leland, Michigan’s Historic Fishery.” The chapter is about Fishtown’s Manitou ferry and mail boat.

In 1909 Andrew Paetschow hired boat builder Christian Telgard to add a covered cabin to the Lawrence, which provided protection for passengers, mail, and freight. Paetschow began operating his North Manitou Ferry Line during the peak era of Cottage Row, North Manitou’s resort colony, and occasionally brought excursions over to Leland from the island.

Tracy Grosvenor, John Paetschow’s brother-in-law, began assisting on the mail runs in 1917. A member of the Grosvenor family has run the mail boat and ferry service since, each with a period of mentoring before assuming the helm on his own: Tracy Grosvenor, 1921-1952; son George (known as Sonny), 1953-1983; and George’s son, Michael, beginning in 1984, after the two had partnered together for some 20 years. Although Mike Grosvenor still pilots the boat, he has conveyed Manitou Transit Inc. to his children. Each generation inherited the innate ability to run a boat, what Mike describes as “something that comes up through the bottom of your feet from the boat. It talks to you — this current’s got your bow the wrong way, or you’ve got windage here, and you need more power. It’s just something that seems to be an instinct.”

The family hasn’t always worked on the water. Tracy Grosvenor’s parents came to North Manitou Island in 1910 where his father worked as a sawyer in the burgeoning west-side timber industry at the island town of Crescent. When Tracy joined the North Manitou Ferry Line, his employer was the Manitou Island Association (MIA), a quasi-corporate entity of Chicago-area businessmen and professionals, successor to the earlier Manitou Island Syndicate, which by 1923 owned most of North Manitou Island and controlled the island’s social and economic life. The MIA focused its operations on agriculture (especially free-range cattle and orchards), timber harvest for the maintenance and construction of island buildings, and sport-oriented recreation: a small deer herd was introduced in 1926. All of these enterprises required a dedicated building and dock space in Fishtown to accommodate passengers and freight. Within a decade after taking over the business, Grosvenor oversaw the construction of a new warehouse and post office in Fishtown for use by the North Manitou Ferry Line. The MIA probably funded construction. Completed in i928, the building anchored the east end of Fishtown and gave the mail boat a tangible footprint in the evolving landscape of boats, docks, and buildings.

Tracy’s son, George, recalled that “a small compass was his father’s only piece of navigation equipment. ‘He sailed by instinct more than anything else; he knew the waves.”’ Writer Karl W. Detzer, a resident of Leland, captured the essence of Grosvenor in his special 1931 report to the Detroit News. “Capt. Grosvenor is the island mail carrier, and there is hardly a man on the whole rocky length of the fishing coast who does not know and respect him. There, where never a hull, or a spar, or a streak of smoke marks the steamship lanes after January 1, he sails his lonely course, with no thought of calendars. The greatest hazards lie along the mainland shore. Westerly winds pile the ice up there, all along the beach, and Leland Harbor mouth is a treacherous port at best. Ice-sheathed pilings thrust out at both sides of the narrow entrance, and a swift current rushes outward to meet the lake. There, buffeted by waves, yanked by current with the sharp jaws of the ice packs snapping, he must steer skillfully and truly to bring his boat to dock.”

Like the fishermen of Fishtown, the mail boat captains relied on their skill, the grace of God, and above all on their boats. John A. Johnson, the Omenabased builder of so many of the Leland fish tugs, built Tracy’s first new mail boat in 1919 (most likely the Bob, Tracy’s first boat after the Lawrence). A succession of vessels followed: Manitou, Shirley, Fern-L, Manitou II, John A. and the converted fish tug, Smiling Thru. The Shirley and the Fern-L were named for Tracy’s daughters; the latter was a converted Coast Guard boat from North Manitou Island. Johnson crafted the Manitou II and the John A. in Fishtown and the latter was named for him. He originally built the Smiling Thru for Northport fisherman L.J. Strayer; she was Tracy Grosvenor’s last boat.

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