In it's beginnings, Leland, Michigan was one of the oldest and largest Ottawa villages on the Leelanau Peninsula. The site where the Leland River meets Lake Michigan was a natural spot for white settlers from Europe to migrate during the 1-30s. Antoine Manseau and his son settled on the land, building a dam and a sawmill along the river. The area was completely forested with hardwoods, maple, beech, cedar and pine. Using those ripe and previously untouched hardwoods, construction of the dam raised the water levels and Lake Leelanau was created. The new body of water allowed for boats to come in and out carrying lumber and other supplies and it wasn't long before other industry moved into the area, including the Leland Lake Superior Iron Works and commercial fishing.
During the 1800s, commercial industry came and went, along with ships carrying cargo and people. But, it wasn't an easy journey. Travelling through the Manitou Passage was very difficult and ships often wrecked. In one infamous instance, a ship wrecked seven miles south of Leland. "Most of the survivors walked to shore, got help from people and walked all the way back in the middle of winter. It took them weeks," says Francie Gits, President of the Leelanau Historical Society. And still today, ship wrecks wash up on shore as the river ebbs and flows.
Despite the difficult travel conditions, it was around 1900 when wealthy residents from Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio began to hear about the beauty of Leland, named for the westerly winds coming off Lake Michigan. Summer tourism picked up as people built cottages and campsites. "It really created a boon for Leland because the tourist industry was now the bread and butter," says Gits.
With a new boost in Leland residents, commercial fishermen began building wooden shacks to help them process and serve their daily catches. The historic fishing settlement became known as Fishtown. "It's the perfect location for any ambitious soul settling in this region to want to select the Leland River and that is the spot out of which Fishtown grew," says Amanda Holmes, Executive Director of the Fishtown Preservation Society.
Settlers recognized the prime location for easy access to both shipping and trading But, the fortune of Fishtown has fluctuated with the health of the Great Lakes. Even still, most of the buildings in Fishtown are original fishing industry shanties, some of which have been converted into shops. These shanties aren't shacks in the traditional sense of the word because the immense local pride means they're seen as beautiful businesses. "It's an emotional place, it's a historic place, it's a great visiting destination and a lot of people hang their hearts here," says Holmes.