Past Meets Present
Directly next door to the entry into Fishtown lies the Leland Yacht Harbor. Here you can see luxury new yachts directly juxtaposed next to working old fishing boats that have pulled into the pier. It paints a striking picture of the past next to the present as if you are a time traveler standing at the verge of two intersections into different portals of time. It’s your last sign of the present before you slip away into the past.
Fishtown – A Portal Through Time
Stepping into Fishtown feels like joining another world. Or at least some place far away from home. But this is not some destination on the other side of the globe. I am still in the United States, and this is Michigan. A piece out of Michigan’s past no less. But it still stands before me in 2016– a legacy almost unchanged from its inception in the late 1800s.
Commercial fishing began as early as the 1870s to 1890s in Leland, and it has provided a livelihood for residents of the town for over a century.
All of the paths in Fishtown will ultimately lead you to a deck that goes out onto the water. It’s here where you will catch your first glimpse of the active fishing culture that is still very much alive in the district today.
The first thing you’re bound to notice before stepping onto the docks is the fishing nets. Workers leave their nets strung over a rack to dry in the sun. From a distance it looks a bit like yarn and evokes in my mind images of weavers at a loom. Except this is not a fabric making shop. This is fishing. But fishing is still art. When a fisherman casts his nets out onto the water, with a precision not unlike a painter’s fingers as he carefully draws his hand across an easel, all of the ocean becomes a canvas, and each throw draws something new while the crashing waves play a sweet lullaby on repeat in the background. Although I know little about fishing, I have endless respect for the craft.
The Fishing Boats
When fishing first began as a commercial activity in Fishtown, wood dominated building materials used in constructing the boats. Small sailboats remained the standard means of transport until around 1900 when fishermen enclosed their open boats and added gasoline engines. John Johnson built many wooden fish tugs in Fishtown during the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that the first steel-hulled tugs were built. Better to endure ice and waves than their wooden counterparts, these boats changed maritime culture forever.
Brought in by brothers Henry Junior (Hank) and Louis Steffens in 1958, the Janice Sue was one of the first steel-hulled tugs in Fishtown and still remains today to continue Leland’s proud commercial fishing legacy.
The Joy launched in 1981 and introduced trap-net fishing to the industry. She still fishes today and, like the Janice Sue, has become an icon of Fishtown. The Fishtown Preservation Society purchased both boats in 2007 and considers them to be like family. They are an essential component of Fishtown that locals love, cherish, and adore.
Small fishing shanties, ice houses, and smoke houses were constructed during the first three decades of the twentieth century–the peak years of the fishing industry in Fishtown–but many of them still serve their original purpose today.
One such establishment, Carlson’s Fisheries, has been in operation for five generations. Their building on the dock prohibits entry from tourists and customers, but if you stand on the deck long enough, you can watch as workers pull up in a boat out front and bring newly caught fish into the building to be prepared for sale.
The customer side of Carlson’s Fisheries serves as a gift shop for tourists to purchase the finest fresh fish, jerky, and smoked fish products. They’re pretty well known all over Michigan, and even my dad gets excited at the mention of their name: “You went to Fishtown?” he said after I mentioned my trip. “Aw man, I should have had you pick me up some smoked fish!”
I honestly have no idea why I didn’t bring him some automatically. Perhaps because I was so preoccupied with taking great photographs for this article. Or maybe I just wanted another excuse to return to this place that was quickly capturing my heart.
Not far from Carlson’s another shop, Tug Stuff, sells merchandise depicting the unofficial logo of Leland– an old fashioned fishing tug characteristic of 1900 Fishtown– as a reminder of the town’s heritage.
There’s also the Village Cheese Shanty which serves fine cheeses, wine, and the best sandwiches in town. They’re a cash-only establishment, though, so make sure you bring a pocket full of change with ya before your visit.
In operation since 1969, the art gallery Reflections first launched in response to Fishtown’s growing tourism industry as a way to attract customers who, once in town, would end up staying to explore the rest of the village and ultimately end up buying fish. The cleverest name award goes to the Dam Candy Store, though. It originally opened as the Fishtown Candy Company in 1977, but owner Bill Carlson later decided to change its name since it’s located next to the falls of the Leland Dam. “Sales skyrocketed,” recalls Bill. “Kids could say ‘dam’ without getting in trouble!”
Many of the fishing shanties are now private residences, but they’re still being put to good use. Looking across the docks I could see three or four kids fishing outside the homes. You’ll notice how many of the shanties are raised several feet above the water. Buildings were elevated, and new docks were built in the 1980s in order to compensate for the high water.
The Dam and Lodge
First completed in 1854, the original Leland Dam and Sawmill raised the water level on the Leland River by twelve feet. In 1908, Leland Light and Power replaced the wooden flume with an eleven feet high concrete dam that functioned using a water wheel and electric generator. Its existence was short-lived, however. Angered by the destruction to farmland that the damning of the river had ignited, farmers dynamited the new dam the same year it was constructed. It was rebuilt again the following year, and it still exists today, though it ceased to generate power in 1929.
The View From Above
The main entry to Falling Waters Lodge can be accessed from a bridge that crosses over the top of Leland Dam. If you stop in the center of the overlook, you can peer over the edge for a close-up encounter with the cascading falls as well as an aerial view of the boats, dock, and shanties that collectively form the riverfront of Fishtown.
This is my favorite view. Fishtown radiates with such a humble charm. It takes my breath away, and I could stare at the water for hours.
If you venture even farther up from the dam, you’re awarded with another view: this tranquil picture that marks the highest boundary of Fishtown.
The Art of Fishtown
Outside of Fishtown but still within small town Leland we quickly noticed that many of the local shops displayed art or small gifts depicting images of the nearby historic fishing village. A pretty pastel painting sits outside the doorway to a clothing store called Rustic Roots.
And displayed inside the shop window of At the Lake, a wooden sculpture details the smokehouses, fishing shanties, and boats that line Fishtown and Leland Harbor. Everywhere you venture, there’s a distinctive pride in the local heritage that seems to permeate the atmosphere from street corner to street corner. Local vendors even set up shop on the sides of roads, so passing tourists can easily take a look at their collections. And a few blocks away a couple is famous locally for running a rare bookstore out of their home. Visitors freely walk right up to the side of their house and let themselves right into the shop though a side door. It feels like a small town that managed to hold on to the simpler times of the past, and that’s something that just doesn’t exist where I live in Atlanta. I wouldn’t be surprised if people here still keep their doors unlocked at night without worry for their safety.
You can read about the bookstore in our other article here:
(Fishtown article continues below)
Leelanau Historical Society Museum – Fishtown Through Time
Special thanks to the ladies at the Leelanau Historical Society who showed us around the museum, eager to give us a tour and help out anyway they could. Their small exhibit on Fishtown provided us with a lot of historical data used in this article. And, of course, it gave us the opportunity to take a silly photo in front of this picture depicting Fishtown in 1952.
The Fishtown Preservation Society
We didn’t know about the Preservation Society before visiting the fishing district, but they have a splendid website that you should visit for more details about Fishtown and their efforts to keep it in tip-top shape for generations to come. Extensive information about anything and everything you could expect on a vacation to Fishtown as well as details about their past, historical photographs, and community events all constitute the best source of information for Fishtown on the web.
[jumbotron background=”#8224e3″ color=”#ffffff”]EXPERIENCE THIS ADVENTURE: Fishtown is located in Leland, Michigan at the following address –
205 W River St
Leland, MI 49654
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