Leelanau News and Events

Historic Carlson’s Fishery Demolition (And $500K Rebuild) Underway This Winter

By Emily Tyra | Nov. 15, 2021

Another high-profile demolition in the county — that of Cedar's Sugar Loaf Resort — may have distracted from the history in the making in nearby Fishtown this past week. But for the first time in over 50 years, the two weathered shanties that together made up Carlson’s Fishery were separated. One was demolished (see photo, above right) to make way for a half-a-million-dollar rebuild. The retail portion of the iconic building was able to be saved and was moved to a temporary home in the Leland Harbor parking lot.

Fishtown Preservation Society (FPS) owns the historic Carlson’s Fishery building — the Carlson family sold it to FPS in 2006 — and the nonprofit made the difficult choice to preserve only half of it.

“It ultimately boils down to keep all of the building or lose the fishery business,” FPS Executive Director Amanda Holmes tells the Leelanau Ticker. Members of the Carlson family cobbled two shanties together with multiple additions through the years, and due to heavy use, high water and leaks, the declining state of the building threatened ongoing fishery business.

Explains Holmes, “Operating any kind of food business requires strict adherence to handling and working with seafood has its own set of regulations. The essential issue was that the whole processing part of the building was rotted beyond repair — to the point that it could no longer be ignored by health officials.”

FPS has been making repairs to the shanty since 2007 in order to keep it functional, but this “had become a losing proposition.”

See the blueprint for the new fishery building, which will be rejoined to the original retail shanty over the winter, here. It’s strikingly similar to what was torn down, a decision made with input from current co-owner Nels Carlson and family. “The more we reviewed the options and what was possible, it was clear that the optimal arrangement had already revealed itself through year after year of working in the shanty.”

The action in Fishtown continues this week as crews begin driving sheet pile where the new building will meet the river. Because part of the project is new construction, the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office will require signage to explain the history of the shanty, decisions behind the changes and “ensure that people will not confuse the old from the new.”

The pricetag for the Carlson's Fishery project is $500K. Holmes says this is the most ambitious and “most challenging” project yet for FPS in part because the water source for the other businesses went through the fishery and then under the docks. Water access will now be rerouted through the middle of Fishtown, which will allow fellow shanties Village Cheese and Dam Candy to connect independently of the fishery. “We’re still trying to determine if we need a new well driven,” Holmes adds.

FPS is still fundraising for the campaign — started in 2017 — for Fishtown’s most pressing needs, including projects like the fishery rebuild, the now-final payment of the 2007 mortgage, and other shanty rehabilitation. “The emergency of high water levels did drive up our cost estimates quite a bit, but they also inspired us to create an endowment for the ongoing care of Fishtown,” shares Holmes. “At this time, we have raised $4,434,000, and still need to raise $856,000. We’re getting there!”  

Once the Carlson’s Fishery rebuild — overseen by Biggs Construction, Kasson Contracting, Team Elmer’s, and HopkinsBurns Design Studio — is complete, the fishery will have about ten additional feet to the west for processing, but the general layout of the building will be exactly what it was, keeping the Carlson’s traditional practices alive (pictured, above left, is Mark Carlson and Alan Priest processing fish in 1979).

Commercial fishing has been going on in Fishtown since the 1850s, and certainly fishing was going on from the river shore long before that by Tribal fishers. Nels Carlson (named after the business’s first-generation Norway-born founder) is the 5th generation of the Carlson family in Fishtown — he bought Carlson’s Fishery in 2012 from his uncle Bill Carlson and co-owns it with lifelong friend Mike Burda.

“That [heritage] means something,” says Holmes. “But know that if for any reason a Carlson family member no longer wanted to be a part of the business, it would still be our commitment to keep fish processing in Fishtown.”

Today Carlson’s Fishery itself no longer holds a fishing license (back in that 2006 deal, the nonprofit FPS reached an agreement to purchase Fishtown for $2.8 million for the real estate and $200,000 for the two fishing tugs Joy and Janice Sue and the fishing licenses from the Carlson family). However, Carlson and Burda continue to operate as processors and distributors, buying fish from commercial fishers and selling it locally and through wholesale channels. Meanwhile FPS has worked with Captain Joel Petersen since 2009 to keep Fishtown fishing, often against considerable odds.

Carlson, Burda, and Holmes all expect Carlson’s Fishery will be able to re-open for fresh and smoked fish (and its famous pâté) in summer 2022. “Our hard deadline is May 1st,” says Holmes. Carlson and Burda will be taking care of their own interior finishes and getting processing equipment back up and running.

Adds Holmes, “FPS and our contractors know how much is riding on this for the Carlson’s Fishery business.

“It’s no exaggeration,” Holmes says of the contractors, “that they love this place.”

Photos: Left, from the collection of Joanie Woods; right, by Summer Meyer.

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