The Fisherman Who Saved Fishtown

Bill knows that it is a long shot for a fledgling nonprofit to raise that kind of money – and he doesn’t want to think what will happen if they don’t. But he has reason to believe that people will rally around preserving Fishtown. Bill grew up in the shadow of a story that embodies the emotional bond between Leland, its fishing industry and its fishermen.

On an August morning in 1941, two years before Bill was born, his father, Lester, and his grandfather, Will, loaded their 34-foot wooden fishing boat the Diamond with gill nets and motored out of the Leland River.

The scene the father and son left behind as they headed to the fishing grounds between North Manitou and South Fox islands had changed little in a half-century. In those peak decades, Fishtown housed about eight fishing operations, each with two to three partners. Fishing started with the spring breakup and lasted until Christmas. The catch was shipped on ice by rail to Detroit, Chicago and New York City. The fishermen used the dozen or so shacks clustered at the river mouth to store equipment and to huddle inside when foul weather meant time to mend nets. At night, after the catch was emptied, the fishermen boiled the nets in huge kettles out in the sandy dirt behind the shanties – the nets rotted if they weren’t kept clean – then dried them wound around wooden reels that lined the wharf.

That day, out in the deep blue triangle between the port and the two islands, Fishtown had blurred into the horizon when the Diamond’s gas line sprung a leak and ignited the engine. The Carlsons had a fire extinguisher aboard, and they almost had the fire under control when the extinguisher ran out. But with gas still pouring from the line, the entire boat caught fire. Lester had just time to give his father the least burned of the boat’s two lifejackets. Then he pulled the cork (the material then used in life jackets) out of the more damaged lifejacket and tied it into his shirt. Burned and already exhausted from fighting the fire, Will, 63, and his 31-year-old son began the long swim to North Manitou Island.

Hours passed, the cold numbed their bodies, and they had made little headway to the island. After 11 hours Will died. Lester towed his dad’s body until he could no longer hold him. Before he let go, he turned his father over so that the birds wouldn’t peck his eyes.

When the fishermen didn’t return to Leland, Lester’s wife, Rita, called the Coast Guard but was told no officer was available to authorize a search plane. The fishermen formed their own search party, coming back after dark empty handed. But two stayed out. "They were known for their consumption of alcohol and had taken a couple of jugs with them," Bill says. "After they’d searched for hours with no luck, one of them said, ‘Let’s just follow that moonbeam over there,’ and they took off on this trail to follow the moonbeam, and they just about ran over my father." After 20 hours in the water, Lester was still alive. Will’s body was recovered several days later.

Lester recuperated, and Bill remembers his father as a strong, "full of the dickens" man. Even so, the incident was so traumatic he didn’t talk about it unless asked. And then he didn’t offer much: "I wanted to know, What did they talk about in the water?" Bill says.

But Bill did grow up with a tangible ending to the story: the Goodwill, a boat the Carlsons fished on until 1966. The boat was a present from the people of Leland – the locals and several of the families who summered in the town – made so that Lester could fish again to support his young family. The name was for Will and for the spirit behind the gift.

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