Catch a bit of history at Fishtown in Leland, Michigan
We’ve witnessed much growth and development in Northern Michigan over the years, but a bit of Lake Michigan’s commercial fishing heritage remains alive at Fishtown in Leland.
The small gaggle of fishing shacks and docks bustle with activity in the summer with tourists, shoppers, fishers, and boaters checking out the scene as they weave through racks of drying fishing nets, stop at the Cove Restaurant for chowder and beer, or check out the boats on their way out to Lake Michigan.
Quiet descends upon Fishtown during the colder months when tourist traffic tapers off and many of the dockside businesses close for the winter season.
Visitors can easily imagine themselves in an early 1900s fishing village, but they might have missed that opportunity to experience living history if not for a fishery owner who managed to purchase a cluster of weathered wood shacks in 1971 and help preserve the area before eventually selling it to an non-profit organization dedicated specifically to preserving Fishtown and its northern Michigan maritime history.
Bill Carlson, owner of Carlson Fisheries, worried that a way of northern Michigan life might simply vanish, bought a large piece of Fishtown property with several buildings on it in 1971. Carlson bought several other pieces of Fishtown properties over the years, renovated some of the buildings, and rented them out to small, mostly seasonal, businesses to help fund the project.
Carlson hoped all along to sell Fishtown to a group that would preserve it, but he had no luck over the years in gaining the interest of the National Park Service or Michigan Department of Resources for purchasing the village.
The Fishtown Preservation Society formed in 2001, and, in 2004, began negotiating with the Carlson family to purchase the village.
The non-profit group of community volunteers acquired the fishing village, with its 7 historic buildings, in early 2007. Efforts continue to raise additional money to pay off the property, continue preservation efforts, and develop educational and interpretive programs to highlight Fishtown’s history.
These days, Fishtown still appears much as it did more than a century ago. It is fun to compare vintage photos of the fishing village from the preservation group’s site to our own memories of Fishtown through many summertime, autumn visits, and wintertime in Leland.