Fishtown lights up ahead of financial milestone

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News
Keith Burnham stands on a bridge overlooking Leland's Fishtown, where he has been honored for his love of the iconic shanties and the commercial fishing center by dedicating the first-ever illumination of the site.

Leland — The roofs of the weathered wooden shanties of historic Fishtown are illuminated with strings of white lights this holiday season, beaconing not only a message of holiday cheer but also one of gratitude.

The first-ever illumination of the popular waterfront community, which straddles the Leland River at the edge of Lake Michigan, is a holiday treat, for sure, but it also honors local resident Keith Burnham, who helped spread the word about preserving the commercial fishing center.

The lighting also marks an important milestone for the nonprofit that purchased the shanty complex for $2.7 million in 2006: a pending final mortgage payment in February.

Leland's Fishtown sparkles with hundreds of lights lining the rooftops of the shanties.

“We wanted to round out the year with something extra special — to celebrate Keith, our donors, volunteers and everyone else who has made the preservation of Fishtown possible,” said Amanda Holmes, executive director of the Fishtown Preservation Society, the nonprofit that owns and operates the village.

“We wanted to end the year with something hopeful, something a little quieter that people could come and enjoy during the holiday on their own terms.”

The response, so far, has been overwhelming, with a few hundred people showing up for the inaugural lighting earlier this month, in an otherwise quiet time of the year, void of the thousands of tourists who descend on Leland and the Leelanau Peninsula in the summer and fall.

“It’s a very nice way to celebrate the hard work that was put in by the fine volunteers of the Fishtown Preservation Society,” said Don Lund, a retired civil engineer who lives north of Leland and was among those who came the first night. “It’s very pretty, very festive. It was nice to see all those people there.”

For the unfamiliar, Fishtown is a tiny village comprised of a handful of historic structures and 11 shanties, ancillary buildings and docks, a still-working commercial fishing center. Many of the shanties have become small shops and boutiques. The village also serves as an education center about commercial fishing. The society owns two iconic fish tugs, the Janice Sue and the Joy, which are leased to a local fisherman to catch whitefish and chub.

Fishtown, which also includes privately owned buildings such as Falling Waters Lodge, lures some 250,000 to 300,000 visitors a year. They come not only to shop but to dine at The Cove restaurant, famous for its Chubby Mary (a Bloody Mary served with a smoked chub), to fish along the docks and river, and to hop the ferry to the Manitou Islands, part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, to backpack and hike.

Concerned about the future of the unique village, a group of locals began fundraising efforts in earnest around 2006, to purchase the properties from members of the Carlson family, who still operate a fish processing center and retail shop in Fishtown.

Burnham, an Illinois transplant who moved to Leland nearly a quarter century ago, helped promote fundraising in his online diary and photo blog, The Leland Report, which chronicled life on the Leelanau Peninsula.

“The Leland Report was a good vehicle to advertise for the purchase of Fishtown,” said Burnham, 84, who steps foot in Fishtown every day, arriving in his red Jeep with his lab, Biscuit, at his side. “I saw the news that they needed someone to get out there and spread the word. I had The Leland Report and used that to reflect the money that was collected every day.”

Burnham, who still publishes The Leland Report, now limited to photos and weather reports, credits the broader community with saving Fishtown.

“The people of Leland, the community and the county were really behind this. Everybody knows everyone here. It’s one big family,” Burnham said. “I love Leland. It’s just a beautiful place.”

Without the nonprofit’s purchase of Fishtown, where commercial fishing began around the 1850s, who knows what would have happened.

“Fishtown could have been lost to development,” Holmes surmises. “The lighting event is also a way to remember that back then we knew we couldn’t take Fishtown for granted — and we still can’t.”

As a commercial fishing hub, Fishtown’s heyday occurred in 1930s and 1940s. The industry remained largely viable through the 1990s, surviving despite industry pressures, invasive species, changing state regulations and priorities.

The preservation of Fishtown has been an evolving endeavor. Some commercial fish families began converting some shanties for retail and other uses as far back as the 1950s, hoping to bring more customers to buy fish. Those efforts helped Fishtown broaden its appeal, ultimately shaping its future.

“The families realized that to draw more people to come and buy fish, they needed to do other things,” Holmes said. “Some created retail space but also continued fishing. It’s enabled the community to survive. It was driven by fisherman to keep their livelihoods going.”

While Fishtown is celebrating its achievement, organization members and the community are keenly aware their work is not done.

Another fundraiser has been launched to raise money to improve infrastructure, including retaining walls, docks and the foundations of some buildings.

“There will always be projects because of the types of buildings these are and the use of the buildings and being on Lake Michigan,” Holmes said. “It will never end. Fishtown will always need our care, but we have to celebrate this milestone, to pause and appreciate what we’ve accomplished.”

The string of white lights — about 4,000 feet long — were donated by Shine, a holiday lighting business in Traverse City. For the illumination to become an annual event depends on future sponsorships, Holmes said.

Rooftops will remain lit through Jan. 6.  The nonprofit organization will make its final mortgage payment on Feb. 7 and the lights will be turned again for another week.

Fishtown in Lights

When: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily through Jan. 6; and Feb. 7 through Feb. 14

Where: Fishtown in Leland