Saved from recent high-water levels that threatened its very foundation, Fishtown in Leland, one of Northern Michigan’s most iconic tourist attractions is working to help with a save of its own: preserving the state’s fading commercial fishing heritage.

This article first appeared in Traverse Northern Michigan. Find this story and more when you explore our digital issue library. Want Traverse delivered to your door or inbox monthly? View our print subscription and digital subscription options.

In the winter of 2021, as the pandemic raged on and much of the world was locked down, Guinness, the famous Irish beer company, and Carhartt, the well-known Michigan-based outerwear brand, teamed up on a St. Patrick’s Day advertisement called #MakeYourOwnParade—a nudge to beer drinkers to celebrate the holiday even in isolation, and maybe do it wearing Carhartt’s Guinness-branded clothing.

The ad’s primary setting was Fishtown, the 170-year-old enclave of weathered fishing shanties in the Lake Michigan village of Leland. While most folks know it as a picturesque warren of shops that line the north side of the Leland River—visited by some 300,000 people each year—Fishtown is much more. It is in fact one of the last commercial fishing villages in Michigan’s Great Lakes and was recently named to the National Historic Register. The 14 shanties, 300 feet of wharf and two fishing tugs, the Joy and the Janice Sue, are owned and cared for by the nonprofit Fishtown Preservation Society (FPS). Awash in the sound of waves from the big lake and the rush of whitewater pouring over the Leland River dam, the tiny village has a timeless ambiance—especially in winter, when the crowds are gone and it isn’t difficult to imagine fishermen of yore snug in the shanties, repairing nets and passing a bottle.

Fishtown’s allure was not lost on Kevin Steen of Rathaus Films, who shot the ad. When commercial fisherman Joel Petersen, who trap nets whitefish from the Joy, stepped up to be in the commercial, Steen knew he had something truly authentic. “He lives and breathes by the water and his trade. He’s the real deal,” says Steen. As the footage in #MakeYourOwnParade moves along, we see Petersen decorating Fishtown’s iconic green tug Joy for St. Patrick’s Day, then captaining it out of its slip in a one-boat, one-man parade—an emotive sight that plays on our inner rugged individualism and pulls a bit on our hearts.

The ad was a huge success—hoodies and tees sporting the Guinness logo sold out on Carhartt’s website within minutes of its premiere. But moving as it was, it belied the real-life drama playing out behind the scenes. The truth was, even as Steen’s camera rolled, the shanties and wharves of Fishtown were drowning in historically high waters; equally critical, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources was instituting management provisions that would effectively put Petersen out of the fishing business—along with most if not all of the 11 remaining state-licensed fishing operations.

In the summer of 2020, Fishtown Preservation Society Executive Director Amanda Holmes waded through boot-high water in the old Morris Shanty on the south bank of the Leland River. While across the river tourists swarmed Fishtown’s shops, light pouring through slatted walls illuminated old floorboards under the aqua water that covered them. Holmes pointed out a calendar opened to 1969 tacked to a wall as well as ceiling joists peppered with nails where cedar fishing floats or “corks” were once stored. “The high waters threatened such tangible legacies for all of Fishtown,” she says.

Holmes first started noticing the rising water in 2018 after a very wet spring and summer—water levels rising in Lake Leelanau at the other end of the Leland river are regulated by a dam: “And so the floodgates basically opened, and parts of our dock washed away,” she explains. And then Lake Michigan water levels began to rise, too. Early in May of 2019, a seiche—the term for a sudden rise in water from atmospheric pressure—flooded Fishtown.

Photo by Andy Wakeman

Knowing they needed to act immediately, Holmes and her board put the word out to contractors for estimates on what it would take to save the wharf and the most critically affected shanties—including the Village Cheese Shanty (which houses a beloved local sandwich shop), the Morris Shanty and the legendary Carlson’s Fishery where fish have been processed for as long as commercial fishing has existed in Fishtown. The estimates were astronomical. Undaunted, Holmes and her board rolled up their sleeves to fundraise while Biggs Construction, their chosen contractor, assembled a group of businesses to pool their skills and work through the complicated logistics of saving the fragile, cobbled-together shanties and docks on both sides of the river. Because Fishtown is a historical site, all the work was overseen by HopkinsBurns Design Studio based in Ann Arbor—a firm that specializes in preservation.

Most of the work was done in bitter, wintery weather and through Covid shutdowns and restrictions. But the team’s passion turned the renovations into a labor of love—especially for Project Manager Drew Miller of Biggs Construction, who once commercially fished on the Joy, and Tim Newman of Kasson Excavating who owns the Mary Ann—the twin tug to Janice Sue. Both boats were brought over from Wisconsin in 1958 by Fishtown fishermen and used there for decades. Newman purchased the Mary Ann from someone who was going to scrap it. Currently, he is working with Fishtown Preservation to turn it into a floating classroom that’ll be tied up to a dock. “That tug is a piece of history,” he says. “If you lose it, you’ll never get it back.”

Photo by Andy Wakeman

Photo by Andy Wakeman

In January of 2020, the Village Cheese Shanty, slumping precariously into the river then, was the first shanty to be lifted like a tiny dollhouse by an enormous Team Elmer’s crane and set high up on the Leland Harbor parking lot located on a plateau above Fishtown. By spring, it was back snug on a brand-new raised foundation and ready for business. The line for sandwiches the May morning it reopened was the talk of the Leelanau Peninsula.

Work continued on the Morris, Otherside (so named by fishermen because it was on the south or “other side” of the river) and Carlson’s Fishery over the next two winters. The sight of shanties dangling at the end of the Elmer’s crane when they were lifted up and put back down months later on new raised foundations and new wood or sheet piling reinforcements (depending on the shanty) became events attended by a cheering crowd and local media.

Photo by Andy Wakeman

Last December another push came when a barge owned and operated by a crew from Beaver Island, 50 miles across Lake Michigan, barreled its way into the Leland River. Working from a small floating platform attached to the barge, the crew hauled away the old rotted dock and pilings, replacing them on both sides of the river with historically accurate hemlock planks and more than a hundred telephone pole–sized wood pilings driven deep into the river bed. “It’s set for another hundred years,” says Bob Biggs, owner of Biggs Construction.

In a true testament to the public’s devotion to the weathered hamlet, the needed funds came rolling in. “They came from our donor base, as well as from people from all over the world who just happened to come through and love the place,” says Holmes. “There’s a person in Wisconsin who loves Great Lakes’ preservation projects and who has given us $330,000—and he’s never even been here.” As the work wound up this summer, Fishtown Preservation was just $225,000 shy of raising an ultimate $5.29 million campaign to fund these and several remaining projects.

Photo by Summer Meyer

As the architectural crisis was being resolved one shanty at a time, Joel Petersen and his small brotherhood of remaining commercial fishing families in the state were facing a plight of their own. In late 2020, the Michigan DNR put a management provision into place that would effectively shut down Great Lakes state-licensed commercial fishing for 2021 and beyond. Among its stipulations was a 90-foot depth limitation for trap nets (versus the existing 150 feet) and closing the whitefish season at the end of September—a full month earlier than it has traditionally been.

The restrictions could have been the final nail in the coffin for Michigan’s nearly 200-year-old commercial fishing industry that once spanned the 35,000 square miles of the state’s Great Lakes waters. For the last 100 years, the fishery has been hit hard by invasive species, beginning with lampreys who swam in through the Welland Canal in the mid-last century, then more recently zebra and quagga mussels and goby fish—brought in via the ballasts of foreign freighters coming through the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Despite the damage wrought by invasives, commercial fishing proponents believe that Michigan is capable of managing a healthy commercial fishing industry as Canada does (most of the Great Lakes fish you order in restaurants are from Canada), even while facing the influence of the powerful sports fishing lobby. Over the decades, the state, pressured by the sport fishing lobby, has effectively winnowed down the fish that can be caught commercially to whitefish and chub. The chub population in the Manitou Passage off the coast of Fishtown collapsed in the 2000s—effectively turning the chub tug Janice Sue into an artifact tied to a dock.

While whitefish catches have slowly diminished over the years, they have shown themselves to be fairly resilient—and very delicious. Petersen, a fourth-generation commercial fisherman, has stayed in business by trap net fishing for whitefish between his home waters near Muskegon and the Manitou Passage. When he ties up in Fishtown, he sells his catch to Carlson’s Fishery steps away, where it is processed on the spot and then sold to legions of devoted patrons who understand that lake-to-fork fish is a true delicacy.

If Petersen goes out of business, Nels Carlson, the fifth-generation Carlson to operate the fishery, worries about the obvious effect on his business. But the loss would go even further. It would mean, as both Petersen and Carlson point out, that unless people have the money to buy or charter a boat, locally caught fish will be off-limits to them. “You know, when everyone is so big on local and sustainable food—and we are one of the most managed fisheries in the world, they know every pound of fish we catch and where we got it—it’s just not right,” Carlson says.

Photo by Andy Wakeman

Moreover, Petersen points out that if commercial fishing dies, a set of fishing/waterman skills will be lost with it. Captaining the boat while the huge nets are being put down and pulled up from the lake bottom, for instance, is something only learned through years on the water. The nets—typically 40 feet high, 150 feet wide at the mouth and 1,300 feet long—are held down with nine anchors that weigh about 60 pounds each. Tying the intricate knots that fasten the nets to the anchors is another dying art. “They’re hard knots to learn if you don’t have a photographic memory,” Petersen says.

As those skills fade, it will be up to entities like Fishtown Preservation to preserve the knowledge. Indeed, preserving commercial fishing history is already a major focus for the group, as witnessed in the handsome posters set around the shanties introducing visitors to Fishtown’s legendary fishermen of the past, who called risking their lives on the big lake part of a day’s work.

But last winter, Fishtown Preservation stepped into a more activist role to get the word out to legislators and the general public about the new DNR provisions. Their work contributed to Public Act 34 of 2022, signed into law last March by Governor Whitmer, that threw a metaphoric life-saving ring to Petersen and his peers: Among other stipulations, it allows up to 150-foot fishing depths and extends the season through October for whitefish.

This fall, if you are in Fishtown at the right time of day, you just may see Petersen captaining the Joy up the Leland River to unload his catch. You’ll know him by the green tug, the scent of freshwater fish and his weather-worn hands—a man devoted to his trade, making his own parade.

Photo by Raquel Jimenez

Elizabeth Edwards is senior editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. // Andy Wakeman is a Northern Michigan-based photographer inspired by the characters and scenic views of his hometown.

Photo(s) by Andy Wakeman