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Michigan Heritage Awards

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Photo of employees of Carlson's Fishtown at the fillet table
From left, Joe Camp, Alan Priest, Jim VerSnyder and Nels Carlson at the fillet table.
May 2010, photograph by Laurie Sommers

Photo of Bill Carlson places fish on a smoking rack

Bill Carlson places fish on a smoking rack.
May 2010, photograph by Laurie Sommers

Carlson's of Fishtown
2013 awardee, Leland (Leelanau County), Great Lakes commercial fishing occupational traditions and fish foodways

Carlson’s, a commercial fishery located in Leland’s historic Fishtown, is a key element in keeping Fishtown a working waterfront. It is increasingly rare to find working commercial fisheries on the Great Lakes. It is rare for a working fishery to be so accessible to the public. Rarer still is a fishery operating in situ, in a historic shanty that has housed generations of commercial fishermen. Carlson’s is all of these things, continuing a threatened occupation throughout the ups and downs of the Lake Michigan commercial fishing industry, by adapting to new markets and new situations in order to remain viable.

The Carlson family has been involved in Fishtown’s commercial fishery since the early 1900s, and has continued to ply the same fishing grounds for more than a century. Five of Fishtown’s surviving historic shanties have housed the Carlson fishing operation. Fourth-generation fisherman Bill Carlson played a key role in saving Fishtown as an important economic and cultural centerpiece to the local community and surrounding region. Since 2007, Carlson’s current fishery building is leased from Fishtown Preservation Society (FPS), which purchased eight historic buildings on the north side of the Leland River from Carlson Properties, along with two fish tugs and related fishing licenses. FPS now hires the fishermen, and Carlson’s handles the processing and sales.

In September 2012 the Carlson fishery business passed to Nels Carlson and his partner Joe Campo. Nels is the fifth generation of Carlsons to work in the fishery, and, fittingly, is named for his great-grandfather, Nels, a Swedish immigrant and the first generation of Carlsons to fish out of the river at Fishtown. While a handful of other Michigan commercial fishing families also can claim five or more generations in the business, this is a significant accomplishment in the dwindling world of Great Lakes commercial fishing.

Like most other longtime family-based fishing operations, Carlson commercial fishermen have partnered with many other local fishermen and fishing families. These include Severt Johnson, Henry J. Steffens, Warren Price, Roy Buckler, Louis Steffens, Ross Lang, Terry Buckler, Jeff Houdek, Andy Miller, Alan Priest, Jack Duffy, and Jim VerSnyder, among others. In essence, most of the major fishing families and individuals of Fishtown have been interconnected with the Carlsons throughout their history, making this an award that transcends a single business or family.

Compiled by Marsha MacDowell based on Laurie Sommers’ 2013 Michigan Heritage Award nomination package, Michigan Traditional Arts Research Collections

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