Last Link In The Chain?

Are any traditional industries or skills in your area disappearing?

Ken Koyen, commercial fisherman, preparing a traditional fish boil at his restaurant.

Last week Scott and I vacationed on Washington Island, WI, off the tip of Door County in Lake Michigan.  While having dinner at KK Fiske Restaurant, we heard something startling.  The owner, Ken Koyen, is the only full-time fisherman left on the island.  Three fish tugs are in the water this year, but the other men fish part-time.

Mr. Koyen and his family own these two tugs. The Welcome (on left) was built in Jackson Harbor by Rasmus, Hans, & Art Hanson in 1926.

It seems that a once flourishing profession and skill is in danger of becoming locally extinct.

Native peoples have fished these waters for centuries.  In 1850 the Town of Washington was founded—actually on Rock Island, the next island to the north.  A small fishing village briefly flourished on the east side of Rock Island.  Coopers made barrels to hold fish.  Children salted and packed them.  Women mended nets for their men to cast each day.  Within a few decades, though, most residents moved to Washington Island, which had deeper harbors.

This peaceful meadow on Rock Island was once the site of a bustling fishing village.

Many of the whites who settled this area were Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, or Icelandic, and they were primarily fishermen.  Once, a fleet of nearly fifty commercial boats cast their nets for chubs, whitefish, and herring.   Ships docked in Washington Harbor to pick up barrels of fish, which were exported to Green Bay and Milwaukee and Chicago.

The skills needed for this arduous profession were passed down. Laurence Daubner, a long-time Door County fisherman, once explained, “You know when I decided to go into fishing it was like on the job training; you couldn’t find out anything about fishing by books, but rather you had to have it by experience. And that was handed down from the older generation to the younger generation.” (Quoted in Wooden Boats & Iron Men: History of Commercial Fishing in Northern Lake Michigan & Door County 1850-2005, by Trygvie Jensen.)

Today the fish tugs leaving Washington Island do so from beautiful Jackson Harbor.

The village’s commercial fishing legacy is preserved at a Maritime Museum.  When we visited the museum a few years ago, a retired fisherman showed us around.  Who better to tell stories of days on the water?

The museum, which is funded only by donations, continues to grow; this year I enjoyed seeing a restored fisher-family’s cottage.

This tidy fisherman's cottage faces the water.

But I suppose the day will come when the volunteer guides can relate only those stories they’ve read or heard.  The first-hand knowledge will be gone.

For now, Mr. Koyen heads out into Lake Michigan, summer and winter, and sets his nets.  Sometimes the catch is good; sometimes it isn’t. Fishing doesn’t pay well enough to let him hire a partner, so he usually goes alone. And patrons at his restaurant know they are getting fresh fish.

The huge kettle holds fresh whitefish, potatoes, and onions.

From the lake (and garden) to the table.

A few years back, a newspaper reporter called Mr. Koyen “the last living link in a chain of commercial fishermen that stretches back into the 19th century.”

Are there industries at risk in your community?  Are the traditions and folklore being documented?

Some things are harder to preserve than others.

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6 Responses to “Last Link In The Chain?”

  1. Mary E. Trimble Says:

    Kathleen, this is most interesting. And sad. Our timber industry for years has suffered. It started with the spotted owl, feared soon to be extinct. Now many small towns, once booming with the timber industry, are almost ghost towns. I don’t know if the Northwest will ever fully recover from those days.

  2. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    I know that change is inevitable, and I firmly believe that natural resources must be protected…and yet I feel sad whenever I contemplate the impact on lives, on families. Sometimes the best we can do is try to document what’s happening, and tell the stories.

  3. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    And a follow-up thought: The changes don’t happen just in professions immediately linked to natural resources. My cousin, who lives in Michigan, shared this link; it provides a visual and poignant reminder of loss and change in the heart of a city:

  4. Ronnie Says:

    It has happened all over the USA,what was once a proud and honorable trade is now looked upon with scorn by the huddled masses of the citys and they push to get rid of us at every turn,there are very few fishhouses left in the entire state of Fla,instead we have condos and millions of recreational fishermen who want to take away your right for fresh seafood.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Ronnie, there seems to be a major disconnect for many people who don’t give any thought to where their food comes from. I hope that somehow the balance tips back, here and in Florida and everywhere else. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Sarah Sue Bird Says:

    We went to Washionton Island last June, but the fish boils had not started yet – in fact hardly anything was open. We had seen the Wisconsin Foodie show about KK Fiske and Washionton Island and just couldn’t wait to get there – but we went too early!

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