I came to know Fishtown through senses and stories, the way most of us do. Iâ€™ve walked the docks several times a week year-round, through the flattening heat of summer, the piled snows of winter, and everything in between. Iâ€™ve also talked with hundreds of people, sometimes casually, often in Fishtown, and sometimes more formally, in interviews with a microphone in my hand. As Iâ€™ve come to know Fishtown, Iâ€™ve also gone searching the Great Lakes for our twin, for another survivor from that time when small, wooden, weathered fishing villages hugged the lakeshores. For six years Iâ€™ve searched, and even as Iâ€™ve come to know the singular role that Fishtown plays in the lives of so manyâ€”as one place with many meaningsâ€”Iâ€™ve also come to realize that there is no longer any other place quite like this. This place we love is the last Fishtown.
Our Fishtown, Iâ€™m happy to report, is very much alive. When I mention that I work for Fishtown Preservation, countless times the reply has come: â€œI love Fishtown!â€ Fishtownâ€™s new book, Fishtown: Leland, Michiganâ€™s Historic Fishery, and new exhibits in Fishtown this summer were born out of that love. They are a celebration of this place and the people who made it, and are making it still. Fishtown has survived and grown through many kindnesses and much generosity, and in our newest projects we hope to share with you some of what has been shared with us.
Itâ€™s difficultâ€”maybe impossibleâ€”to capture in words the lasting impression that Fishtown makes upon the senses. Tom Kelly, executive director of Inland Seas Education Association and a man who has lived a life around water, canâ€™t imagine Fishtown without the sound of the water cascading over the dam, the pulsing life of a river town. Mike Grosvenor, who for years operated Manitou Transit, the ferry service to the Manitou Islands, came to taste Fishtown through the saltiness of chub still hot from the smoker. â€œMaybe itâ€™s imprinted in our genes,â€ says Jeff Fisher, whose family has summered in Leland since 1903, â€œbut I think thereâ€™s a certain allure of Fishtown that draws people in.â€ That allure for him is also the smell of smoking fish. The sensory richness of the placeâ€”the way smells and sounds can bring back to life the moments weâ€™d long forgottenâ€”is probably why I see so many wedding parties in Fishtown, these wood walls photographed as the background for two clasped hands and the beginning of a shared future.
Iâ€™ve come to know Fishtown through the stories Iâ€™ve heard. Iâ€™m by training a folklorist, and shortly after the Fishtown Preservation Society (FPS) completed the purchase of Fishtown in 2007, I began interviewing fishermen and their families, local and summer residents, past shanty business owners, and many of the annual visitors bursting with their own Fishtown experiences. Iâ€™ve come to see Fishtown from these multiple perspectives and to understand that Fishtownâ€™s story is about collective knowledge and experiences both shared and personal.
I realize now that the book and the new series of exhibits began in those collected stories. In the months immediately following the purchase, FPS began a series of planning projects built upon the information gathered in these interviews. Project built upon project, culminating in the completion of an authoritative Historic Structure Report for Fishtown last August. This report, we realized, would be the basis for a much-needed history of Fishtown as well as the resource materials for telling the story of Fishtown on site. The next time youâ€™re in Fishtown, take a moment to learn a little more. Read some displays and find a copy of the book. Be more a part of Fishtownâ€™s world.
Several years ago longtime Fishtown fisherman Alan Priest said, â€œThatâ€™s my home down there. It means the whole world to me. Itâ€™s not just a placeâ€”thatâ€™s my whole world.â€ For more people than we can know that is what Fishtown is: More than a place. A whole world.
Yes, all of the above. And also, for a visually oriented person, the lasting impression of Fishtown is the huddle of little buildings along the banks at the mouth of the river – a collection of utilitarian folk / vernacular buildings like no other place I’ve seen.
We just love coming up to Leland/Fishtown. I have been coming up from the Livonia area since I was a little girl to get a chunk of smoked fish and sit on the hill which is now a parking lot. A lot of memories!!
I spent part of each summer in Leland from the age 2 to 21 when I got married and lived so far- in Virginia. I have the fondest memories of Fishtown. My grandfather used to drive around town back in the 40’s each morning and he always drove past Fishtown and would proclaim, “Small craft warning” if the red pennant flag was flying. My great Uncle Mike, his brother, was known as “the Judge” and he lived at Blackledge Point I think this is now called “Whaleback”) with his wife and the Blackledges, Elder and Isabel. Elder was a world renowned magician and one can read about him in Google. He used to hold us spell-bound with his tricks but warned us not to get too close.Tommy Bracken aspired to be a magician as a child from watching him there in the Indiana Woods. Sometimes as a teen I would ride the mail ferry out to Manitou Island with my good friend, Sarah Freeman (Roloson) just for something different to explore. We would have lunch over there and come back. We loved to have parties as teens at Fishtown all around the docks. Sometimes we sat in the gazebo in the little park there and played the uke and guitar with Jerry Gits , Joanne Gits Burnham, and many others and sang “Landlord ‘Fill the Flowing Bowl Until it Doth Run Over” and “The Souse Family” and other little known ditties. Uncle Mike had the only telephone, being a Supreme Court judge, and he got important calls. If someone had a medical emergency they would go to his house and use it. My, that WAS a long time ago. If you wanted to invite people to a bridge party or boat party, you drove around as my grandfather did(He called it “looping the loop” as he covered cottages on the big lake and the little lake) and he would come back with all the news–like “The Dunshees’ grandchildren are visiting”.. In these days of computers and smart phones it seems so much more personal and friendships ran deeper, I believe. The Bluebird was legendary and I’m so glad it’s still there. When I was 2 my mother told me that I loved to sit on Mike Hafe’s lap….he was an old fisherman with white hair and white beard which I thought intriguing, I guess. All parties ended up at
“The Bird” with it’s chrome chairs , wooden floors and juke box. My family especially loved it when they had”live music”. My family loved music and singing and dancing. Leona Telgard, Martin’s wife (they were the founders of the Bluebird), made wonderful pastries and her cinnamon buns and cherry pies were to die for, as they say!.
Every summer I miss Leland, the artists, the smell of oil paints and the beautiful seascapes in the art building on Main St., and yes, the smell of the fish.