Discovering Fishing Tales and Art Inspiration
Gabrielle Grobbel – Fishtown Preservation
Fishtown is a place built upon endless stories. After digging through a few history books on Fishtown, I realize I have only touched the surface. The characters and tales I’ve read about are beginning to stray from the pages as I continue to explore, and take shape into real figures. In some moments I find myself immersed, almost sure I have been transported back to a time when I could peer into each shanty and find them all occupied by fishermen mending nets or taking a break from the hot sun.
Historically Fishtown’s shanties were sites of hard work, but also of camaraderie and refuge. They became places to share stories from experiences out on the water, stories that could completely enrapture the listener, or possibly even chill them to the bone. Some, like the long time commercial fisherman Roy Buckler, could recite stories for “hours and hours and hours” according to his friends, and for good reason. He worked in Fishtown well into his 80’s, and although he left a few times over his career he couldn’t help but find his way back to Fishtown each time.
I have come to know Roy Buckler better through the pages I read and the lasting stories he shared, both from the memories of those who knew him and in an interview recorded in 1987. I was particularly captivated by his journey in November of 1940 that served as a reminder of how temperamental the lake can be.
Roy and his crew had planned to stay near North Manitou Island after setting nets the evening of November 10th. It was the start of trout season, and they would lift the nets the following afternoon and head home. By the time two o’clock arrived, the wind had begun to stir. They started for home, but only made it about 25 minutes out. The weather turned worse, and through the mix of rain and snow, they decided to turn around.
“We got to North Manitou and anchored,” recalled Roy, “and in the meantime the wind was blowing harder, probably about 50 miles an hour as we were anchored behind the northeast corner. And the sea was getting so big we had to move.”
Forced farther west, they anchored again and a few hours later were facing winds blowing between 65 and 70 knots. They fled to the east side, snow following close behind. “It was snowing so bad that you couldn’t see 50 feet,” Roy said. To make matters worse, the telephone lines were taken out, and “there were no radios in those days, and nobody knew where we were.”
The morning of the 12th, thinking the storm had died down, they headed toward Leland once more. Once they were about two miles out, “the sea was so big you went down in the valleys and you couldn’t even see the island.” They were forced to weather the storm one more day before making it home on the 13th. Roy explains that after the harrowing experience, he was unable to make another trip out on the lake for about six months.
Many fishermen, including Roy Buckler, are met with astonishment and wonder in the wake of their stories. Why keep doing something so dangerous? Why risk your life for a job? When asked the question “Would you choose fishing again?” Roy replied, “I would, because it was, in lots of ways, a good life.” If he had to start over, his path would be the same. He would be a commercial fisherman again like his father who spent most of his life on the water before him.
The passion for fish and fishing that defined the fishermen in Fishtown in 1940 is still observable today. The many facets of the trade continue to be passed down through generations, along with stories. While there are terrifying tales like the one told by Roy Buckler, today’s fishermen also love to tell jokes and mess with each other to lighten the day’s work. I got a modern taste of this after tagging along on a busy day recently at Carlson’s Fishery and getting to know the crew and how they operate today. Their easy and precise manner along with their bantering jokes indicate just how much of a family and local business this truly is. I couldn’t help but notice the care that each team member has for their craft as well as each other. They all have stories to tell, and watching the crew at Carlson’s demonstrates that there are people dedicated to keeping this part of the commercial fishing industry alive in Fishtown, and there is nothing they would rather be doing more.
A love for other crafts has also touched Fishtown and sculpted it into the rich historical site that it is today. Artists have been attracted to the area since the late 1800’s, and the numbers have been increasing ever since. In 1939, Michigan State University created a summer art school program in the Old Art Building. The school ceased operation in 1989, but the building still serves as an art center today, attracting artists old and young.
Nestled near the stunning lakeshore of Sleeping Bear Dunes and a blue stone’s throw from the Manitou Islands, Leland offers countless sources of natural beauty to be discovered. Fishtown itself is a great reservoir of inspiration. Riverside views and the treasured Joy and Janice Sue tugs are common subjects, but they are always rendered in individualistic styles and perspectives. In many shops you can purchase a little piece of Fishtown art to take home with you, whether that be in the form of a little handmade sketch or locally designed print. Whatever you choose to bring home, you can be sure that it was made with thoughtful intention and care for the place that inspired it.
The exploration of art continues to expand in Fishtown every day. Soon, the Art Shanty will be hosting eighteen artists and designers throughout the summer and fall. This opportunity offered by Fishtown Preservation Society is brand new for the 2021 year! A different artist will be moving into the shanty each week for a pop up experience, so there will always be someone new to visit. It will be exciting to meet so many new faces and find out how each of them will contribute to the art community in Fishtown.
In future posts, I will be taking a closer look at the current happenings in Fishtown as well as the fun activities that I am getting up to here. This includes sharing my experiences shadowing a day’s work at Carlson’s Fishery, getting to know commercial fisherman and Captain of the Joy, Joel Petersen, as well as diving deeper into the art scene and Fishtown community. Although I already feel like I’ve learned so much I know I will have lots more to share in the coming weeks. Having discovered the recorded stories of Roy Buckler, now long gone, I realize that the stories I hear, gather and share, may have a rich life after my summer here is over. After all, the narrative of Fishtown still continues to be lived and written.
Gabrielle Grobbel is the Fishtown Preservation Society Intern for the summer of 2021. She is a marine science student at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina and is happy to be returning to her home state of Michigan and for the opportunity to learn more about the historical and beloved site of Fishtown and the life of the Great Lakes.