The Fisherman Who Saved Fishtown

But even the benevolence of a village couldn’t prevent the disasters Lake Michigan’s commercial fishery faced over the next half-century. No sooner had Lester, now fishing with his uncle Gordon, launched the Goodwill than the sea lamprey brought the fishery down. The creature, with a toothy, showerhead-shaped mouth, sucks the blood from host fish and kills them. It first migrated to the Great Lakes through the Welland Canal in the 1920’s. By the 1940’s lampreys had spread to Lake Michigan, and within a decade they’d all but decimated the lake trout and whitefish populations.So, like other Lake Michigan commercial fishermen, Lester and Gordon switched to fishing for chub – the small, oily fish is a delicacy when smoked.

Disaster almost struck again in 1963 for the fishermen when the Goodwill, with Lester and Gordon aboard, was hit by a freighter in a snow squall. But the fishermen and their boat came through intact.By this time, Bill had graduated from Northwestern Michigan College. He’d considered becoming an engineer but decided that was "way too much work." He’d had some luck modeling locally for magazine and television commercials, then he’d moved to California to try acting. He’d been there seven months, long enough to miss home, when his Uncle Gordon got sick. Lester asked him to come back and fish with him.

In his hometown again in the late 1960’s, Bill took a look at the state of the commercial fishing industry and the forlorn shanties and had several revelations. The first was that his family needed to change the way they did business. "I said to my dad, ‘We’re never going to feed the world’s population with what we can catch here. Let’s just feed who we can locally, and let’s catch them, process them and distribute them here. Let’s get the highest economic return we can.’" The Carlsons had always sold fish out of their small Fishtown building, but they enlarged it, and opened a retail store in Traverse City. "We created a tremendous local market and developed products like whitefish pâté," Bill says.

Bill saw in the old shanties the basis for a symbiotic relationship: fill them with businesses to attract tourists, who would also buy fish; customers who came for fish would have reason to spend more time in Fishtown. In California he’d been out to Monterey’s Cannery Row and seen the old buildings deteriorating. "There was a tourist business there, but they weren’t utilizing those excellent old buildings," he says. "I thought, How sad that is."

Proof of what fate awaited Fishtown if someone didn’t step in to protect it was as close as Falling Waters Lodge, a three-story hotel that was wedged into the picturesque Fishtown scene in 1968. The hotel sits where the fishermen once pulled up their boats and where they stored the stakes for their shallow-water pond nets.

When the largest piece of property in Fishtown, with four buildings on it, went on the market in 1971 Bill bought it. "They wanted $100,000 for it and everybody thought that was ridiculous because the buildings were falling down," he says. "I didn’t have any money, so I went to a local banker and borrowed a down payment. He’d been a charter boat fisherman, so he understood."

To pay off the mortgage, Bill, working with his friend Jim VerSnyder (whom he credits with having the needed renovation skills), went to work fixing up the buildings so they could be rented, trying to be as historically accurate as possible. They replanked the old wharf using thick hemlock boards that matched the original sections. When a shanty needed a new foundation, they hauled in fieldstone from an old Leelanau County barn.

As Fishtown property came up for sale over the years, Bill bought it. The purchases included the Carslon’s Fisheries building from his great aunt, and the old icehouse where fishermen had once stored ice cut from Lake Leelanau and covered in sawdust. In the late 1970’s Bill’s brothers, Leon and Mark, became silent partners.

From the beginning, Bill hoped an organization would step forward to buy Fishtown and preserve it – to that end, years ago, he approached the National Park Service and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. But nothing ever came of it. So year after year, he put the rent from the shops back into Fishtown’s upkeep. "Every penny of it," he says.

By midday the sun beats down and Fishtown is packed. A preschooler darts around the back corner of a shop called The Crib, his blue moon single-dip just misses Darrell Herman – who with Clay’s help is opening the doors of one of the smaller of Carlson’s two smokers. Heat and smoke radiate from the black interior, just feet away from a woman inspecting a white shirt at the open door of the boutique, Haystacks. This is Bill Carlson’s Fishtown, where tourism meets fishing; land meets lake.

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