Fishtown, in Leland, is a valued stop for people touring Leelanau County or anyone looking to grab a sandwich or hop a charter boat for some Great Lakes fishing. Fishtown is a historic site. And, while there are many examples of vibrant historic sites turning into gaudy tourist traps that lose the sense of history and purpose, happily, Fishtown, has avoided that fate. For decades the weathered fishing shanties were home to a hardy commercial fishing industry and now house shops and galleries. The cluster of buildings next to the Leland marina have been carefully managed—first by the Carlson family (Read, “The Fisherman Who Saved Fishtown”), a family with strong commercial fishing roots, and now the Fishtown Preservation Society. Visitors can wander the picturesque docks alongside a river that rushes to Lake Michigan, browse shops and galleries that fill the shanties, and all the while see and feel the presence of the fishermen and their craft.
Fishtown literally teams with life. People wander about eating a famous “Cheese Shop” sandwich, browsing shops filled with clothing, jewelry, shoes and art or simply sitting alongside the river taking in the spectacular setting. But in that mix are also people climbing off charter fishing boats with the day’s catch, day-trippers and campers boarding the Manitou ferry preparing to spend time on either South or North Manitou Islands or others standing in line for the fresh fish from Lake Michigan being filleted by people in yellow rubber overalls.
Docked in the river are the fish tugs that are, in many ways, a symbol of Fishtown. In 1958 Louis Steffens launched the newly built Janice Sue, which he named for his three-year-old niece, a steel-hulled tug better able to endure ice and waves, that replaced hand-built wood tugs. The Janice Sue went on to be owned by the Carlson family and now the Fishtown Preservation Society. Through all the ups and downs of the commercial fishing industry, she has never called another port home. The Joy, a trap-net tug, was launched in 1981 and is now owned The Janice Sue and the Joy are Fishtown icons that were purchased by the Fishtown Preservation Society. In Leland’s historic Fishtown, today’s visitor can experience one of the few remaining commercial fishing complexes on the Great Lakes.