Jordan Evans, Fishtown Preservation, Summer 2023
I grew up in the city of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and I remember counting down the days not just for summers, but for up north summers. Living in Leelanau County every summer was a chance for me to escape reality and explore all that Northern Michigan has to offer. Full of blossoming cherry trees, endless shores of sandy beaches, clear starry nights, and rolling hills, a summer up north feels like it came straight out of a movie scene. With Fishtown just a short drive away from my family’s summer home, I quickly became entranced by the beauty of the environment, and by the look of pure joy I saw on people’s faces as they explored Fishtown along with me. Fishtown has continued to keep me coming back for more and has become a cherished part of my summers. Among all the shanties and the calmness of the river, I have built so many friendships and lifelong connections that have stemmed from a love for this community and the people here.
Growing attached to places can start very young and in simple ways. I remember days when my friends and I counted all the change we could find in the bottoms of our purses and in our parents’ change drawers, and then meet in Leland to get a sandwich from the Cheese Shanty and candy from the Dam Candy store, and then walk across the bridge over the dam to Vans Beach. My friends and I would spend the rest of the day seeing who could eat their entire sandwich, looking for rocks that caught our eyes glimmering along the shore, and swimming in vibrant blue water. We would end our summer days wrapped up in Tug Stuff sweatshirts and huddled together watching the most magical sunsets I have ever seen.
My friends and I have always cherished our special days in Fishtown and continue to do so even as we have grown up and entered different stages of our lives. I know that these experiences will stay with me forever. Although I grew up with core memories of North Shore sandwiches and rock candy, I’ve long been aware that Fishtown has always been much more than that. Full of art, culture, and history, Fishtown and the community that supports it has impacted me not just by what I see, but from what I feel whenever I step foot into Fishtown.
As I reflect on my childhood experiences, I realize that Fishtown played a role in the career path I am following at college. I am a senior at Grand Valley State University, pursuing a Major in Environmental and Sustainability Studies and a Minor in Marketing. Some of my coursework over the past three years has taught me the importance of maintaining and preserving historic sites, and how knowing their history plays an important role in determining their futures. This past spring one of my classes was focused on The Grand River, which flows through the heart of Grand Rapids and westward to Grand Haven and Lake Michigan. I was shocked to learn that I’d lived right next to this amazing, powerful, and historic river for years and passed by it every day on the way to classes and work—but that I’d never really seen it before.
In my class the history of the Grand River unfolded through people who have studied it and worked hard to keep it healthy. I learned of its industrial heritage, projects to restore the rapids, replacement of the old wooden dams with new electric dams, and projects to bring the beavers back to the river. I began to wonder what other places I have neglected by not knowing or understanding the history and stories that make them what they are today. I wanted to apply this knowledge in a place where I already had a personal connection to—Fishtown. The Fishtown Preservation Society’s
Internship Program presented the perfect opportunity to discover Fishtown through a different perspective, all while learning more about the place that I love.
I arrived for my internship in late May, eager and excited to learn more about Fishtown, but was not expecting to get thrown into the mix as quickly as I did. On my second day I spent a morning working at Carlson’s Fishery serving up fillets of fresh whitefish and by my fourth day I was out on Lake Michigan by 6:00 a.m. charter fishing with Bill Stephenson, of FishBilly Charters, catching lake trout.
I quickly realized that the previous knowledge I’d had about Fishtown was the tip of a really big iceberg. Reading books and articles about the history of Leland provided a great base of knowledge as I began my journey, but I confirmed that nothing compares to learning from the people who work in the heart of Fishtown and depend on Fishtown for their inspiration and livelihoods. Through conversations and experiences with those who work in Fishtown, whether business owners, employees, or those with other long ties here, I hope to have behind the scenes experiences that will help me understand their deep commitment and love for Fishtown.
Through my internship I will be getting the full Fishtown experience, including a trip to South Manitou Island, commercial fishing on the Joy, working in the Welcome Center, and interacting with those that visit and work in Fishtown. I look forward to continuing my journey and drawing connections between its history and future and the older and younger generations that work in Fishtown today. Everyone has their own connection to Fishtown, and I am eager to uncover what those connections are. I am excited to share my experiences and stories throughout my internship with you, and hope that they will inspire you to expand your knowledge of Fishtown too, and to get more involved with its preservation.