Few people are as intimate with Fishtown as Bill Carlson.
Long before the cluster of wooden shanties began to rise along the banks of the Leland River in the early decades of the last century, Carlson’s great-grandfather and grandfather were fishing the bountiful waters of Lake Michigan, netting lake trout and whitefish along the coast and around the Manitou and Fox islands. His father and uncles would eventually pursue commercial fishing as their livelihood.
And Carlson, beginning as a boy at age 11, followed in their wake, initially working along the shore, helping to reel in nets, before joining the crew on the Good Will, a wooden tug. In his late teens, he toiled long hours in the summer, often working from dawn to well beyond dusk, helping dress the day’s catch on the way back to the shanties of Fishtown.
“It was a special time of my life,” recalled Carlson, now 77. “Not many people have that kind of opportunity. We worked hard and we were tired. But we were young and strong. How can you not like being on the water?”
By the early 1970s, Carlson noticed changes taking place in Fishtown, a once thriving commercial fishing village, pushing him down a long path to preserve the weathered buildings and a way of life that was rapidly disappearing from the Great Lakes. Changing times, however, would be the first of several challenges in the coming years. The most recent comes from Mother Nature: rising waters of Lake Michigan, now at record-high levels.
“I saw possibilities. They were powered by my being there,” Carlson recalls. “Fishtown was my childhood. It was almost everything to me. It represented the fishermen before me, my father, my grandfather. It represented so much of my heritage and roots. I had a goal: to preserve it.”
While some families transformed their shanties into shops or other businesses to lure new customers, others sold their structures. As they became available, Carlson bought them and began rebuilding and preserving the past, from his own personal memories. In its heyday, Fishtown contributed to the livelihood of more than a dozen local families and provided fresh fish for customers in Detroit, Chicago and New York City.
Today, the village of 11 weathered shanties, ancillary buildings and docks remains intact at the mouth of the Leland River, drawing about 300,000 tourists each year from Michigan and all over the Midwest.
Commercial fishing endures, on a limited basis, but much of the appeal is the uniqueness of the worn village of pint-size shanties. Once used to store fishing equipment, pack fish and repair nets, the shanties now are home to shops and eateries. Tourists come to dine at The Cove restaurant, famous for its Chubby Mary (a Bloody Mary served with a smoked chub) or stand in long lines to grab a freshly made, thick sandwich from the Village Cheese Shanty.
They fish along the docks and river and can still buy smoked fish — lake trout, salmon and whitefish — from Carlson’s Fishery, now owned by Bill’s nephew. A ferry hauls hikers and backpackers from the docks to the Manitou islands.
Fishtown, which also includes privately owned buildings such as Falling Waters Lodge, has become as iconic as the Grand Traverse Lighthouse at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
“It’s a great place,” said Phil Anderson, owner of Diversions, housed in one of the shanties and a purveyor of hats, Fishtown T-shirts and gifts. “It’s a great place to run a business because of the traffic. It’s really intense in the summer. The season is much longer than it used to be. It used to get quiet after Labor Day but we’re seeing a bigger following in the fall.”
Anderson, whose business traces its roots in Fishtown to the 1970s, believes its appeal lies in its uniqueness — similar fishing villages along the Great Lakes have vanished — and because it evokes another era, long gone.
John Norris, who has been visiting Fishtown since he was a boy and worked summers at The Bluebird restaurant and the Harbor House, a gift shop on Leland’s main road above Fishtown, agrees.
“I think it’s a connection to a different, simpler time,” said Norris, who is the owner of Leland Books. “It’s still an active fishing village. You can smell the wood burning to smoke the fish and you can smell the water. You see people fishing and you hear the rush of the water over the dam.
“It just touches all these senses as you walk through there,” he said.
Norris, like other business owners in Fishtown and Leland, has become an ardent supporter of its preservation.
“One of the things I check to see if I want to support a charity is the amount of volunteer support,” Norris said. “I want to see people not only writing checks but also giving their time, the number of volunteers getting involved. You can’t find more broad-based grassroots support than you do for Fishtown.”
“… It’s a connection to a different, simpler time. It’s still an active fishing village. You can smell the wood burning to smoke the fish and you can smell the water. You see people fishing and you hear the rush of the water over the dam.”
— John Norris
PRESERVING A LEGACY
As a commercial fishing hub, Fishtown’s heyday occurred in the 1930s and 1940s. The industry remained largely viable through the 1990s, surviving despite industry pressures, invasive species, changing state regulations and priorities.
The preservation of Fishtown has been an evolving endeavor, beginning with Carlson’s efforts in the 1970s.
“The more we did, the more people would come,” Carlson recalled. “There was nothing else in northern Michigan attracting them. There were no casinos at the time. There was no great shopping. It drove us to continue.”
Concerned about development and the future of Fishtown, Carlson created a nonprofit organization in the first decade of this century to preserve the site. He bowed out shortly afterward as Fishtown Preservation Society began fund-raising efforts to purchase the shanty complex from his family for $2.7 million. The mortgage was paid off a year and a half ago.
Besides retail and dining options, Fishtown also serves as an education center about commercial fishing. The society owns two iconic fish tugs, the Janice Sue and the Joy, which are leased to a local fisherman to catch whitefish and chub.
RISING LAKE LEVELS
These days, Fishtown faces a threat more formidable than development or changing times: the rising waters of Lake Michigan.
Last summer, as the lake reached record water levels, shanties like the Village Cheese Shanty flooded, forcing the business to close well before the tourist season ended. The ever-churning, flooding waters intensified concerns about the overall infrastructure, including the docks, retaining walls and pilings.
The flooding hastened Fishtown Preservation Society’s long-planned efforts to make infrastructure improvements. The organization has been in the midst of a $2.5 million fund-raising campaign to have the work done.
With emergency grants, the Fishtown Preservation Society was able to begin some of those improvements this past winter, focusing on the Village Cheese Shanty and the Morris Shanty, the oldest structure in the village, dating to 1903.
The Cheese Shanty was removed by crane from its foundation and temporarily planted in the marina parking lot. Workers replaced the cement foundation and shored up the retaining wall. The shanty has been returned to its location and it’s expected the popular sandwich shop will open this season, as usual.
While rising water is not a new threat, news coverage of the flooding and Fishtown’s plight helped garner more attention for its fund-raising efforts.
“It’s created a lot more visibility for Fishtown,” said Amanda Holmes, executive director of Fishtown Preservation Society. “We’ve gotten more donations. It’s exciting that so many people want to be a part of it.”
There’s plenty more money needed, and fund-raising efforts will continue, she said. If the group’s lofty goals are met, the remainder of the infrastructure work could begin in the fall and be complete in 2021.
“There will always be projects because of the types of buildings these are and the use of the buildings and being on Lake Michigan,” Holmes said. “Fishtown will always need our care.”
Carlson, who splits his time between Florida and Leland, is proud of his role in preserving a unique Michigan and Great Lakes locale as a historic spot and tourist destination. He has long removed himself from any involvement in its operations. Lake Michigan is a concern but can be overcome.
“In the short term, you can only do what my dad used to tell me: Let it blow,” Carlson recalled, explaining that there might not be much that can be done in the short term so focus on the long term and be patient. It’s fixable.
“I’ve spent every day of my life being in Fishtown or thinking about Fishtown. It has consumed me,” he added. “It was a fairytale for me to go down to Fishtown and watch the fishermen do their jobs. I always knew it was going to be a special place.”
Greg Tasker is a Traverse City-based freelance writer whose works have been published across the country.