Gabrielle Grobbel – Fishtown Preservation
I meet people all the time in the Fishtown Welcome Center who ask me why Fishtown is worth preserving and what makes it so special. This is what I have to say.
Fishtown has grown through the years as a booming commercial fishing village and a beloved summer getaway. Once a small 19th century ironworks town, Leland has come a long way from the smelting and logging factories that operated in this region previously. Throughout this growth and transition, the community of Fishtown has lasted, refusing to leave valued traditions in the past.
I have had the opportunity to discover the traditions of Fishtown during my internship this summer. Meeting those who have lived, worked, and visited here has
allowed me to define Fishtown for myself, and inspired me to share my experience with others.
Along with the community, another lasting part of Fishtown is the commercial fishing industry. I had the chance to meet Joel Petersen, the captain of one of Fishtown Preservation’s commercially licensed fishing tugs, the Joy. Joel continues the commercial fishing line throughout his own family history and is proud to do what his father, grandfather, and so on have done before him. He heads out before the sun in the mornings, tends and mends his nets, and polishes his trade after years of fishing since he was a young boy. With Joel’s help, Fishtown has remained an active commercial fishing village despite the decline of commercial fishing since the 1960’s.
The task of providing freshly caught fish to the greater community of Fishtown continues at Carlson’s Fishery, where the team processes the fish caught by Joel and other fishermen all over the Great Lakes. The methods of preparing freshly caught fish and other fish products have remained largely unchanged with only a few minor tweaks for efficiency. Each member of the Carlson’s team is hardworking and precise, proud to provide freshly prepared and smoked fish filets to locals and travelers alike.
Another answer that I provide for why Fishtown is worth preserving is that there is a place for everyone in Fishtown, and thus a wide variety of influences that shape it. I was able to further explore my personal interests during my time here, and I discovered that those interests, whether they were connected to art, nature, or animals, were often tied to the community of Fishtown and other individuals who are connected within it.
The creative side of Fishtown is vibrant, especially this summer with the introduction of the Art Shanty. At the start of each week, from June through October, a new artist or craftsman takes over the first floor of the Ice House and completely transforms it with their paintings, photographs, jewelry, clothing, beauty products and more. I looked forward to stopping by each week to introduce myself and learn what brought each person to Fishtown. I found that locals and out-of-staters alike were easily able to meld right into the Fishtown community.
Leelanau Artisan Pottery opened in Fishtown at the start of the summer as well. I loved stopping in to say hi and chat with Bob Babich, and check out all the lovely new pottery his wife, Sarah Johnson, crafted each week. Leelanau Artisan is a small family business, but the care and thought put into each piece is immaculate and true to Fishtown flair.
The art of Fishtown is representative of the individuals who find themselves attracted to this beautiful region, and I have noticed that no matter where the artist is from, their creations compliment Fishtown perfectly.
With my background in marine studies, I couldn’t help but grow curious about the life in the river running through the heart of Fishtown. To learn more about the creatures in the river, Matt Heiman, Leelanau Conservancy Director and local fish expert, took me on a tour around the Fishtown docks and Leland Harbor to discover what species inhabited our waters. In mid-June, the smallmouth bass population was spawning in the river, and inspired by their beautiful and well cared-for gravel nests, I became invested in the rest of their story.
As the weeks passed, Matt and I were able to follow along with the life history of the bass. Whenever I had extra time, I would head down to the docks in the hopes of finding young bass, especially during the period when preparations were being made to drive piles into the river for construction on a new shanty foundation. Most weeks, we could find a juvenile bass that had hatched this season, and watch as they developed and slowly grew larger. It was fascinating to conduct an informal research project following the development of the smallmouth bass in tandem with the development of the shanty foundation that was situated among their nesting grounds. It was rewarding to find a thriving individual each time, and be assured that the young smallmouth bass were finding their own place in the hum of Fishtown.
I found myself included in another community during my time in Leland, and I have Fishtown to thank for it. I was introduced to the Chair of the Fishtown Preservation Society Board of Directors, Kathryn Eckert Omoto, near the start of my internship this summer. She was key in getting Fishtown and Leland on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970s and was part of the Save Fishtown effort beginning in 2004. What I didn’t realize initially was that she has been riding horses since she was a young girl.
During my time at college, I’ve largely had to put horseback riding, one of the most impactful things throughout my life growing up, on hold. Kathryn invited me to the barn where she keeps her horse, and I have visited at least once a week ever since. Waking up early and heading to the farm before going into the Fishtown office was a special part of my day, and I quickly became friends with Kathryn and her horse Marieke. I would help her take care of Marieke in the morning, happily taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the barn while I was there. She allowed me to be a part of a barn community that I so dearly missed, and I cannot thank her enough for all her kindness. I am very happy to have met Kathryn and her horse, and I’m so glad I was able to make a connection with her through Fishtown.
The connections that people make within Fishtown are what set it apart and make it so special for so many. Fishtown allowed me to create new relationships while pursuing my interests, and discover new ones along the way. I am grateful to all the people I have met this summer who have helped me grow and find my own place in the community of Fishtown.
There are two people to whom I owe so much to for introducing me to the wonders of Fishtown and for encouraging me to intern here for the summer. Amanda Holmes and Summer Meyer, the staff of Fishtown Preservation Society, have made my internship experience truly special. They guided me throughout my exploration of Fishtown and have sent me on exciting journeys all over this area. I traveled to South Manitou Island, shadowed Carlson’s Fishery for a day, and even ventured out to see the newly restored Crib Lighthouse in the middle of the Manitou Passage. These things and many more have inspired many of my blog topics, and allowed me to better know this region.
Writing this blog has been one of the highlights of my internship experience. I struggled with it at times, weighed down by my own expectations, but it was completely worth all the time I put into it. Interning in Fishtown allowed me to explore my writing voice, and I am grateful for all the writing advice and feedback I received while working with Amanda. I admire her skill and thoughtful manner with written language, and I feel as if I have grown immensely since blog 1.
Summer helped me with design questions, taking photos, and getting everything online so it could be shared with all of you. She helped me with projects big and small throughout my time in Fishtown, and I can’t thank her and Amanda enough for providing me with the opportunity to join the Fishtown Preservation team.
I could go on for pages and pages telling you about my stories and what Fishtown means to me. In fact, I have been doing that for some time now in my past blog posts. Fishtown, however, is a place that must be experienced. You must visit it yourself in order to understand why I speak the way I do about Fishtown.
I hope that you do venture down to Fishtown, whether it’s the first time, or the 100th time. For it is not just a place, or a collection of shanties along a river. It is the familiar faces that you see when walking down the streets, and the sound of the dam rushing over the river. It is the lasting family memories that grow with the passing of each year. It is the appreciation of tradition, and the dependability of those who carry it out. It’s a simple afternoon of fishing off the worn docks, and the scent of freshly smoked whitefish in the air. It is the art that so perfectly captures the coastline of Lake Michigan, and the stones that carry within them a forgotten industry.
Fishtown is many things, but at its foundation, it is a strong community worth preserving.
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.