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The Fishtown Model: An Integrated Approach to Historic Preservation and Folklore

Laurie Kay Sommers
Independent Folklorist


Executive Summary

The River Runs Through It, Report on Historic Structures and Site Design in the Fishtown Cultural Landscape[1] provides a detailed and ground-breaking example of a historic structures report prepared in 2010-2011 for the Fishtown Preservation Society (FPS), a non-profit organization in Leland, Michigan, which in 2007 purchased a significant portion of this historic commercial fishing village known as Fishtown, located within the Leland National Register Historic District. Leland is a small resort community situated on Lake Michigan along the Leland River in the scenic Leelanau Peninsula of northwest Lower Michigan. The project team included Laurie Kay Sommers PhD, folklorist and historian (Laurie Kay Sommers Cultural Consulting, Okemos, Michigan); Eugene C. Hopkins, FAIA, and Evan Hall, Associate AIA preservation architects (HopkinsBurns Design Studio, Ann Arbor, Michigan); and Mark Johnson, ASLA, and Jessica Neafsey, ASLA Associate, landscape architects (Johnson Hill Land Ethics Studio, Ann Arbor, Michigan). As described in the FPS Request for Proposal, the historic structures report was "intended to guide future treatment of the structures, site and landscape features in Fishtown, and to build a greater understanding of the complex built and cultural history of Fishtown and its environs.”[2] Fishtown includes vernacular current and former commercial fishing buildings, structures, objects, and fish tugs; a family-owned ferry operation; and a Mid-Century Modern lodge and restaurant. Many of the historic fish shanties now house low-impact retail establishments that cater to tourists, but commercial fishermen still use three Fishtown buildings for the surviving commercial fishery, Carlson’s of Fishtown.

Fishtown, Leland, Michigan, showing the trap-netter Joy, two historic fish shanties to the left and right, and the historic ice house in the center. Photo by Laurie Sommers, 2010, courtesy Fishtown Preservation Society, Leland, Michigan.

Such a complex site prompted a detailed and integrated approach: 1) by folding a cultural landscape study into a historic structures report, paying attention to land and water-based structures and traditional fishing grounds; 2) by incorporating the cutting edge technology of high definition laser scanning to enhance and streamline the work of architectural drawings; 3) by exploring the varied historic contexts that have shaped Fishtown, but underscoring the primacy of commercial fishing and the dynamism of a still active working waterfront; and 4) by combining traditional historic preservation research with folklore methodology for a richer and more nuanced understanding of the use, significance, and meaning of place. This integration of folklore with historic preservation and its implications for the future is the focus of this case study.


Background and Project Team

The Fishtown Historic Structures Report (HSR) grew out of a distinctive set of circumstances and individuals. FPS previously had taken various steps to ensure proper stewardship of the Fishtown site, including a master plan completed in 2009. FPS had atypical preservation expertise for a small non-profit in that the chair of its Board is Kathryn Bishop Eckert, Leland resident and retired State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) for Michigan. The FPS Executive Director is Amanda J. Holmes, a Folklore PhD from the University of Pennsylvania who had previously worked for HABS/HAER. Both women understood the importance of folklore and local knowledge to the history, interpretation, and preservation of Fishtown. In the RFP they wrote, "The vernacular buildings that are characteristic of Fishtown are for the most part simple structures. Discovering more about the uses of the buildings and the many fishermen and their families who worked in them is one of the objectives of this report.” From the outset they recognized that "the experience and memories of individuals are considered a valuable source of information,” and anticipated a methodology that included archival research, oral histories, and "identification of traditional cultural and folkloric materials and activities in Fishtown, past and present.” The first two methodological approaches are routine in historic preservation; the emphasis on a building’s use and the inclusion of folklore and traditional culture is not, especially outside the context of National Register Bulletin 38.

Prior to this project, I rarely had opportunity to use my expertise in both historic preservation and folklore in the same project. My first work in preservation was completing preservation surveys and National Register nominations for the Michigan SHPO office during the 1970s and 80s. After completing my PhD in folklore, I considered a return to historic preservation, but at the time (mid-1980s) the Michigan Civil Service form automatically disqualified persons with a degree in folklore (as opposed to history and architectural history, for example) from consideration for any historian position. The Fishtown HSR was the rare project in which I was hired precisely because I had worked in both fields, and because the caliber of my work was known to FPS board chair Eckert from my earlier work for the SHPO. Because FPS leadership recognized the importance of folklore to understanding Fishtown as a cultural landscape, this project provided the first opportunity for me to implement the integrative model that I had been formulating over a number of years. I served as co-principal investigator, historian, oral historian, and folklorist, and wrote the Introduction, Developmental History, and Chronology of Development sections of the report, while the rest of the team focused on assessment of existing conditions, treatment and work recommendations, graphics and maps.


National Register Framework for Integrating Folklore and Historic Preservation

The concept of "cultural tradition” already has a central place in two National Register Bulletins, Rural Historic Landscapes (#30) and Traditional Cultural Properties (#38). These bulletins provide a framework within the existing National Register process to integrate folklore and historic preservation. Among the eleven landscape characteristics in a rural historic landscape, for example, are "cultural traditions,” "response to natural environment,” and "land uses and activities.” The three are seen as interrelated: "Religious beliefs, social customs, ethnic identity and trades and skills may be evident today in both physical features and use of the land.”[3] I used these concepts as a framework for the Fishtown HSR, weaving into the document narrative, material culture, custom and belief, and the ethnography of current fishery practice, combining the methods of folklore and historic preservation in order to achieve a richer, more nuanced sense of place. Data was gathered through oral history, primary and secondary print sources (including photographs), and folklore fieldwork.

Why is the integration of folklore with historic preservation useful to a historic structures report? As a planning tool and overview of a site’s historic character, an HSR should provide a template for preserving not just buildings and structures but also a "place that matters.” Ensuring the long-term viability of a historic site requires deep human connections to the place on the part of major stakeholders. Places matter because they are meaningful to the people who use them, and meaning derives from tradition, memory, and story.

In his book Place, Race, and Story, Place Matters founder Ned Kaufman observes, "Historic preservation protects man-made aspects of the cityscape, especially architecturally significant buildings. Largely unprotected are resources that are valuable in their ability to convey history, support community memory, and nurture people’s attachment to place.”[4] These are the "associations and feelings”[5] mentioned in National Register criteria as key to historic integrity: the ways places are used and made meaningful to the community that sustains them. People care about preserving Fishtown because of associations, feelings, stories, and traditions that connect them to the place. As the Leelanau Enterprise astutely observed in 1904, "The fishing season will soon be over but not the yarns.” In researching the Fishtown HSR, I conducted fifteen new oral interviews, and examined previous interviews and archival sources not only for dates and chronologies, but also for the stories and traditions they contain. Stories of personalities, storms and ice on the Big Lake, accidents and close calls, and the uncanny skill of old-timers are embedded in the HSR to provide insight into the meaning of Fishtown to those who cherish it.

Fishtown during the peak fishing period, 1920s. Photo courtesy of Leelanau Historical Society.

An integrated approach also allows for a more comprehensive exploration of context, combining the National Register’s notion of historic context, i.e., "historical patterns that can be identified through consideration of the history of the property and the history of the surrounding area,”[6] with the folklorist’s more ethnographic approach. An integrated approach, for example, pays as much attention to the use of a building as it does to character-defining features. National Register Bulletin 30, Rural Historic Landscapes, emphasizes that "continued use and occupation help maintain a property’s historic integrity if traditional practices are carried on.”[7] Because the ethnographic present is the key to the significance of Fishtown, this HSR pays keen attention to the occupational techniques and traditions of a working fishery. Carlson’s of Fishtown is the most pivotal contributing building because it sustains an on-going commercial fishing operation now run by the fourth generation of the Carlson family. The fishermen frequently answer visitors’ questions about their work. Fisherman Bill Carlson, who has played a central role in the preservation of Fishtown, wanted to keep the feel of a 1930s fishing village while maintaining a viable commercial fishing presence. Fundamental to that vision is the ethnographic present: "My whole idea was that this is a living history of what’s happened,” Carlson explained in a 2007 interview, "and that it’s pretty much self-evident what’s going on here. We catch fish, we clean fish, we smoke fish, and we sell fish, and that’s what’s happening today….We show people how we do that, right now. I don’t go in to the history much, because it’s changed so much. I’d have to pick out a time in history to talk to them about….So when people come in and I talk to them, I talk to them about what’s happening right now.”[8] The HSR methodology included field notes and photodocumentation on use of the fishery, including fish processing, smoking, and preparation of fish sausage and pâté. Discussion of continuity, change, and use of the site past and present is woven throughout the HSR.


Lessons Learned from the Fishtown Model

The Fishtown cultural landscape is not merely a collection of weathered historic fish shanties and ferry buildings. Rather, as folklorist Michael Chiarappa has observed, Fishtown and other working waterfronts are unique integrations of land and water-based structures.[9] Landscape is linked with waterscape. In Fishtown, the site makes sense only in relationship to the traditional fishing grounds. "We’re still going back to those traditional fishing grounds that have been passed on from generation to generation,” explained Bill Carlson. "The information that’s been passed down to us, traditional spawning grounds, traditional feeding areas, ways fish move, that’s stuff that somebody learned the hard way and we’ve learned the easy way.” [10] Simply put, there is no Fishtown without the Lake Michigan fishing grounds. Accordingly, the Fishtown HSR includes discussion of traditional fishing grounds in addition to landscape, structures, boats, and objects. Lake work became a focus along with the structures, objects, and techniques of shore work.

Two excerpts from the Fishtown HSR illustrate the integration of folklore into the historic structures report. Both excerpts come from the Developmental History section, which is organized according to "Areas of Significance,” in turn based on the National Register’s established categories of historic contexts. The Maritime History/Commercial Fishing Area of Significance is the most extensive. "Lake Work and Fishing Grounds” is one of the subheadings. Its presence in an HSR is unusual, since such documents—like historic preservation in general—typically focus on the built environment and structures. Fishermen assisted us in creating a fishing grounds map to go along with our various land-based maps and architectural drawings. The excerpted section also illustrates the incorporation of narratives and traditional environmental knowledge into the report. Bulletin 30’s landscape characteristics include patterns of spatial organization, circulation networks, response to natural environment, and boundary demarcations, concepts intended to describe land-bound features but equally applicable to waterscape and fishing grounds. The second excerpt, "Fish Smoking,” comes from the "Shanties and Shore Work” section of the Developmental History, which emphasizes use of the fish shanties and related structures such as smokehouses. This excerpt illustrates the importance of occupational skills and techniques, and also the incorporation of current documentary photos of fish smoking along with the historic images, to illustrate continuity and change of a working fishery.

Nels Carlson (left) and Alan Priest place fish on the smoking racks at Carlson’s of Fishtown.
Photo by Laurie Sommers, 2010, courtesy Fishtown Preservation Society, Leland, Michigan.

All the major stakeholders in Fishtown agreed that the continuity of an active fishery—in this case, Carlson’s of Fishtown, housed in an historic fish shanty and employing two working fish tugs—is crucial to Fishtown’s future. Fundraising for ongoing maintenance will continue, strengthened by tapping into the deep associations personal experiences of the many tourists and summer resorters who have come to Leland and Fishtown over the years, creating their own Fishtown narratives that help make Fishtown a place that matters, a place worth preserving, and a place worth supporting with charitable donations. When FPS began the fundraising campaign for their 2007 acquisition of Fishtown, they raised $2.7 million in just seven months. This is not just the result of a good development campaign. It demonstrates the power of story and tradition in creating meaningful places that people truly care about preserving and supporting. Traverse Magazine wrote about this power in its 2007 article on the Fishtown Preservation Society’s purchase of Fishtown:

Bill Carlson's faith that the community would save Fishtown proved correct. In February 2007, after a seven-month fundraising whirlwind, the Fishtown Preservation Society ( became the new owners of the iconic fishing village. Like Carlson, the board members share emotional attachments to the slice of history. There were no ice cream cones, sandwiches or T-shirts in Fishtown when Joanie Woods, the organization's treasurer, was a child, summering in a family cottage down the beach. But she says it was still the place to hang. "We'd paddle down at the end of the day, watch the boats come in, talk to the fishermen about their catch. Watch the cats." Craig Miller, chairman of the organization's board, recalls sailing a toy boat at the mouth of Leland River as the fishing boats came in for the day.

When the Fishtown Preservation Society set out to raise $2.5 million of the $3 million Fishtown purchase price between June 12, 2006 and December 31, 2006, they banked that they weren't alone in their passion. They also believed the region would step up and help save a major tourist attraction, second locally only to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Still, four months after the Fishtown Preservation Society officially became Fishtown's new owner in February of this year, Woods and Miller can hardly believe the outpouring of support that started in Leland, reached across the nation, and clinched the deal to buy and preserve Fishtown. The donations were large - and as small as the $10 that came with a letter from a woman in Virginia telling about her family's wonderful memories in Fishtown. Donors included the children and grandchildren of some of the people who bought the Goodwill for Lester Carlson after his tragic fishing accident in 1941, and kids who offered the proceeds from their lemonade stands.[11]

The Fishtown model breaks new ground for Historic Structures Reports and offers a template for embedding folklore into the National Park Service’s existing historic preservation programs and approaches. Ultimately, the end result of an integrated approach involves the question of significance. A deeper understand of significance comes through addressing both historic past and cultural present, the nexus of architecture, place, and community life.

[1] This project was made possible through various financial contributions. The Midwest Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded FPS a grant from the Jeffris Heartland Fund, which was made possible by the Jeffris Family Foundation. Seed money set the stage for the other generous grantors to help support the project. The Edmund F. and Virginia B. Ball Foundation, the Dogwood Foundation, the Americana Foundation, Alexander and Sally Bracken Family, Jennie Berkson and David Edelstein, Carol F. Maxon, and Edward and Lisa Neil all stepped forward to help match the grant. Digital scans of Fishtown, key to the presentation of the site and building studies, were funded through a grant from the Michigan Coastal Zone Management Program, Department of Environmental Quality. An extensive collection of oral histories was supported by a NOAA Preserve America Initiative Grant, part of Preserve America, a White House program aimed at preserving, protecting and promoting our nation’s rich heritage.

[2] The Fishtown RFP transcended the typical historic structures report in its requirement of folklore and ethnographic components. NPS Preservation brief 43 describes a historic structure reports as typically providing "documentary, graphic, and physical information about a property's history and existing condition. Broadly recognized as an effective part of preservation planning, a historic structure report also addresses management or owner goals for the use or re-use of the property. It provides a thoughtfully considered argument for selecting the most appropriate approach to treatment, prior to the commencement of work, and outlines a scope of recommended work. The report serves as an important guide for all changes made to a historic property during a project-repair, rehabilitation, or restoration-and can also provide information for maintenance procedures. Finally, it records the findings of research and investigation, as well as the processes of physical work, for future researchers.”

[3] National Register Bulletin 30, Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Rural Historic Landscapes (Washington D. C, US Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1990, rev. 1995), page 5.

[4] Ned Kaufman, Place, Race, and Story (New York and London: Routledge, 2009), p. 38.

[5] See, for example, National Register Bulletin 38, Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Traditional Cultural Properties (Washington D. C, US Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1990), page 10.

[6] National Register Bulletin 15, How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation (Washington D. C, US Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1990, rev. 1995), page 7.

[7] National Register Bulletin 30, page 23.

[8] Bill Carlson, interviewed by Amanda Holmes, 9 August 2007, Fishtown Preservation Society, Leland, Michigan.

[9] Michael J. Chiarappa, "Great Lakes Commercial Fishing Architecture: The Endurance and Transformation of a Region’s Landscape/Waterscape.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture: Building Environments. Vol. 10 (2005): 212.

[10] Bill Carlson, interviewed by Michael J. Chiarappa, Fish for All Project, 26-27 May 1999, courtesy Michael J. Chiarappa and the Great Lakes Research Library, South Haven, Michigan.

[11] Elizabeth Edwards, "Fishtown Preservation Society,” Traverse Magazine (web version 4 March 2008),, accessed 23 September 2011.

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