The Fisherman Who Saved Fishtown

Early on a July morning in 2006, Fishtown is peaceful. Below the wharf, a foot of mist hovers over the moss-green Leland River, and Leland Harbor is a soft, waking-up shade of Wedgwood blue. In a few hours, the hodgepodge of fishing shanties, collectively one of the region’s most iconic tourist attractions, will come alive. A line will form for fresh-made sandwiches at the Village Cheese Shanty, children will cast into the river, hoping to land one of the fish that dart back and forth around the wharf pilings, and people will leave Fishtown’s pint-sized boutiques loaded with shopping bags.

But at 7:15 a.m., Fishtown looks as it did a half-century ago, when it was simply a fishing port. The commercial fishing boats the Janice Sue and the Joy bob slightly on gentle wakes left by charter boats heading out of the river. And smoke drifting from the crooked-arm chimneys of a smokehouse beside the white clapboard Carlson’s Fisheries is a sign that the business of fish mongering is well underway.

Inside, a second pot of coffee is brewing in the big Bunn coffeemaker, and a hundred pounds of whitefish have just lost their pinbones to the deft hands of four Carlsons: Bill Carlson, owner of the fishery and of Fishtown, his wife Jennifer, his son Clay, and his great nephew, Chris Herman. Clad in suspendered foul-weather pants, streaked now in blood, the foursome has worked shoulder-to-shoulder for over an hour. They banter as they work – Bill quips that his white hair is really blonde, turned from eating too much fish. And they all toss out jokes for the benefit of Geromy White, a brawny football player for Suttons Bay High School they call The Rig, who has been busy moving 20-pound trays of whitefish into the smokehouse all morning. They work steadily – and no one takes time even to glance out the small, open window with its harbor view.

At age 63, Bill has been working the long, grueling hours of a commercial fisherman since he was 11. He has pinboned fish, gutted fish, filleted fish and caught fish – by gill net, chub net and purse-seine – in weather that has iced the boat over and battered off its doors, and on days when he had to bail to make it back to Leland Harbor. Arguably, only God has touched more Lake Michigan fish than Bill Carlson.

He looks 10 years younger than his age, he’s strong and tall, though he says he’s "wearin’ out." He’s ready for, at least, semi-retirement. It’s time to sell Fishtown, and he hopes it will be to the Leland-based nonprofit Fishtown Preservation Society (see Fishtown Preserved, p.71). If the organization can come up with money to match the price, Bill will hand over 200 feet of river frontage, his seven buildings – divided into 11 businesses including his fishery – five charter boat slips along the wharf, and his two boats, the Janice Sue and the Joy. Under the terms of an 80-year lease held by the preservation group, Clay will operate the fishery.

It has taken two years to agree on a price: $3 million. The negotiations, set in this small, close-knit village, were often tense. There is no real estate formula for what Bill Carlson did with Fishtown. There is a way to calculate what cobbled-together buildings are worth, what river frontage is going for, and what property suited for luxury condominiums will bring. But what is just compensation for almost single-handedly saving a village’s heritage – a slice of an entire region’s past that has all but vanished?

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