Are any traditional industries or skills in your area disappearing?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.