Ned Huwatschek's Birch Point History

The Superior Signal, Keweenaw County Historical Society, Eagle Harbor, Michigan
Vol. 25, No. 1, February 2010
Editor's note: The five page article is liberally sprinkled with images and captions. See the Original article for these interesting tidbits. Also, check out a silent movie documentary of the daily operations performed Keweenaw's Birch Point Fishery.

THE SMITH FISHERY REMAINS A LANDMARK ON BETE GRISE

Smith grandson Ned Huwatschek relates the Smith Fishery story to associate editor Eugene Johnson.
Ned Huwatschek gives KCHS President Virginia Jamison a tour of a bunkhouse still used by fishing friends.
Caption (above): Ned Huwatschek gives KCHS President Virginia Jamison a tour of a bunkhouse still used by fishing friends.

You might say Lester Smith died trying to buy the Birch Point fishery on Bete Grise. "Every year he'd approach Jerry Lamerand, and Jerry would say, 'Come back next year. Maybe next year,'" says Ned Huwatschek, Lester's nephew.

Lamerand and others had fished from Keystone Bay for 15 to 20 years. Lester Smith died in 1938, and it fell to his brother, Oliver Smith, to complete the deal in 1943 after leasing the fishery for a few years.

The Smith family (see sidebar story) had a restaurant in Port Washington, Wisconsin. Its menu featured Great Lakes white fish, perch, pike, and especially lake trout. The lamprey eel had damaged commercial lake trout fishing on Lakes Huron and Michigan. So the Smiths were looking for fertile fishing grounds when they came to Bete Grise.

"With the restaurant starting to flourish, we had to keep our contacts in getting lake trout, which was No. 1 in popularity with restaurant patrons," Huwatschek explains.

The Smiths were out-of-state fishermen, so it took awhile for local people to warm up to them. That's where Oliver excelled. "Oliver could rub elbows with everyone from fishermen to loggers to miners to elected officials," says Huwatschek. "He had a knack of getting to know people. And once you get to know the local people, they're friends for life."

At first, the Smith Fishery was land-locked. The only way to get there was by boat. The Smiths leased one of the former Delaware Mine cottages for $25 a year. It overlooks the west end of Lac La Belle. The four cottages were built in 1873 for Delaware Mine executives and later were used by employees of Calumet & Hecla Mining Company that bought the Delaware Mine.

"These cottages weren't used from 1929 when the stock market crashed until we came up here in 1941," says Huwatschek.

The cottage provided a place for family and fishermen to stay. It wasn't until 1950 that the Smith Brothers put a road into the fishery "through five-and-a-half miles of some of the most god-awful terrain with trees and boulders and steep hills."

Then there was no need to lease the mining cottage. However, Ned's father, Earl G. Huwatschek, a Port Washington dentist, took over the lease and eventually bought the cottage. It remains in the family today, appropriately on "Doc's Drive."

"My dad loved coming up here. No phones and no shaving. We'd come up for three weeks in August," Ned recalls.

At first, the main house at Smith Fishery was a log cabin, which Jerry Lamerand had covered with tarpaper. But the 88-acre Smith Fishery grew to 17 buildings: fish houses, net shanties, a sauna, bunk houses, a main house, wood shed, three shop buildings, and a generator house. Today, the main house (a 1950 prefabricated home), a fish house, the sauna, and a generator building remain.

There was no electricity until after World War II when the Smiths were able to buy a 5000-watt diesel generator. Until then, everything was built or done by hand. "It was work, work, work," says Huwatschek, "and it was an eight- to nine-hour drive to our headquarters in Port Washington."

The fishery employed a crew of four men and a full-time cook, "who helped retain the crew." One was the late Minnie Karppinen, whose husband worked for the Calumet & Hecla Mining Company. "She was a wonderful person, who was with us for more than 10 years," says Huwatschek. "Shed go home to Calumet Saturday afternoon and return Sunday afternoon." She worked six days a week from late-April until mid-December when the fishery closed each year.

The first manager was Hugh Miller, who came up from Oscoda, Mich., on the western shore of Lake Huron. He and his crew fished with pond nets, which are live nets as opposed to gill-net fishing, which kills the fish. Another fisherman, Russ Behling, came up from Port Washington in the late 1940s. He went on to become a leading fish buyer for major companies, including the A&P grocery chain.

Typically, the fishermen worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. They received a weekly wage paid in cash. On Saturday, they'd go to Calumet, and some crewmen might not make it back until Tuesday. Most of the men were single, although a few were married.

"I got my drivers license in 1958," says Huwatschek. "One of my jobs was to go look for the crew on Sunday night. I went from thinking this was the greatest job to the worst job. There were a lot of bars on Fifth Street to hunt through."

The second manager was Emil Kallianen from Portage Entry. Others who fished for the Smiths included Ernie Mikkola and his brother Carl. John Kotoneimi was the only local fisherman Oliver Smith could recruit to move and fish from Port Washington, where the season lasts longer.

The fish were iced and shipped to Port Washington. Various fishermen would cut ice from Lac La Belle in winter and store it in an ice house on the western shore of Lac La Belle. The Smiths owned the icehouse, but anyone who helped "make ice" could share it.

Once the Smith Fishery Road went in, Oliver Smith would bring company trucks to pick up fish. He went back and forth to Port Washington. Alternatively, the fish were iced, put on the 4 p.m. train from Calumet and arrived 8 a.m. the next morning in Port Washington.

That's after the Smith Fishery had electricity and an ice crusher. Before that, the fish were salted, smoked, or dried. Even after obtaining an ice-crusher, herring might still be salted.

Anothet crewman was Johnny Johnson, who'd worked for the Jarve's out of the Betsy River. Another was Bucky Strom (or Strong), recalls Huwatschek. Others included Chuck Kumpula, Howie Bennetts, George Bessonen, Jesse Williams, Walter Viernis, and Elmer Haltunen.

Haltunen and his wife Gwen, who cooked, and their whole family worked a year at the Smith Fishery. The Haltunens had three girls ages 13, 11, and 7 when they worked there 47 years ago, recalls daughter Beverly Rastello. All three girls helped with the cleaning chores.

The Haltunens celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary last July. They married June 17, 1934 in Laurium, and they still live in Elmer's Traprock Valley family home to this day. The couple had six children. Haltunen was 95 and Gwen was 91 on their anniversary.

Huwatschek once asked Haltunen why he fished for the Smiths. "Up here you had to do something," Haltunen replied. "But why did you work for us?" Huwatschek continued. "Because you paid the best."

The Smith Fishery's 17 buildings, five-plus mile road, and 88-acre grounds also required the employ of caretakers, beginning with John Buller of Lac La Belle. He worked there in the 1950s and early 1960s. Bill Randa, Mohawk, followed in the mid-1960s. And Byron Muljo followed him and worked at Smith Fishery for about 20 years until it closed in 1988. Muljo was a supervisor with the Keweenaw County Road Commission, and he cared for the fisheries' "like it was his own."

People in the Keweenaw were hard-workers, says Huwatschek. And many had dangerous jobs: Mining, fishing, and logging. One "steamy" December morning, a fishing tug from the Tobacco River struck a Smith fishing tug amidships. It sank, and one crewmember was lost. That's the only fatality from the Smith Fishery on Bete Grise. The company did suffer casualties elsewhere.

"The steam is like fog," says Huwatschek. "It could have been the other way around. Our tug could have hit them."

In winter, wooden-hull boats in the early years would travel to the warmer Port Washington. Later, steel-hulled boats were driven into the lagoons off the Portage Canal and their bows pulled ashore.

When the crew cleaned fish, the innards were collected in barrels and put out for the bears to feed on a couple of miles away from the fishery. But bear could be a nuisance. "When the cook baked pies, bears might rip open a screen to steal the fresh pastry," Ned recalls.

The Smith Fishery on Birch Point near the Montreal River Falls might seem an idyllic place for a kid to spend summers, but Ned said he sometimes tired of the life. Even as a youngster, he'd be pressed into the daily work schedule.

The Smiths fished out of Bete Grise from 1940 until 1968 when the Wisconsin-based company had to give up its Michigan fishing license. Between the lamprey eel and competitive fishing, the fish populations were dwindling.

Fishing was given over to sports fishermen and Native Americans, Huwatschek explains. Today, just four non-Native American commercial fishing operations remain in the Upper Peninsula. One of those families is the VanLandschoots from Munising (see Fishtown Preservation Society). Ned's family once fished Grand Marais, just 40 miles east from the VanLandschoots.

Huwatschek still hosts the VanLandschoot crew twice a week in summer (May 1 to Nov. 1) when it comes to empty their trap-nets of white fish at Lac La Belle. (Non-native fishermen must throw back all other fish.) And although Ned no longer runs a fishing company, he still has the pots and puts on a fish boil now and then for friends and neighbors.

Sidebar story:

THE SMITH BROTHERS WERE FAMOUS FOR FISH

The Smiths were commercial fishermen beginning in 1848 with William Smith. "He was a fisherman and farmer feeding a big family," says great-grandson Ned Huwatschek, who is retired and lives at Lac La Belle.

William had a son, Gilbert, who had nine or 10 children, including Ned's grandfather, Delos. "Really the Smith Brothers Company started with my grandpa Delos H. Smith," says Huwatschek. Delos had two sons and two daughters: Lester and Oliver, Evelyn and Hope. Hope was the youngest and was Ned's mother.

Evelyn was a World War I nurse and spinster "who was tough as nails." She started serving fish after flooding rains had washed Port Washington, Wis., fish shanties out into Lake Michigan. "Aunt Evelyn bought bakery rolls, fried perch, and served fish sandwiches to onlookers, who came up from Milwaukee," says Huwatschek.

The ensuing restaurant became known as the Smith Brothers Fish Shanty. It was a fish market and restaurant, "first with four stools and a table; then six stools and three tables." It evolved to seat 400 people and became a well-known Wisconsin landmark.

Oliver Smith led an expansion of the company when he became president in 1938. Eventually, the company reached from the Midwest to Hollywood in four corporations:
1. Smith Brothers Port Washington;
2. Smith Brothers Sheboygan (Wis.);
3. Smith Brothers of Milwaukee; and
4. Smith Brothers of California

"Oliver was hard-working and well-known up here in the Keweenaw," says Huwatschek. "Old-timers still mention Oliver and talk about his parties; they were
legendary—sometimes with clams and lobsters flown in from Boston."

The company opened two restaurants in California in the mid-1940s. They served Great Lakes white fish and trout to sate the appetite of transplanted Midwesterners, who longed for a taste of something from home. One was located near Hollywood on La Cienega Blvd., and one was in Torrance, Calif.

Oliver Smith greeted Hollywood stars Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, and Raymond Burr (Perry Mason), "who became Oliver's good friend and drinking buddy," Huwatschek adds.

In addition to the Smith Fishery on Bete Grise, the Smith Brothers fished out of Oscoda and Grand Marais, Mich., Port Washington and Sheboygan, Wis.

The company salted fish and smoked fish. Salted fish sold mainly to miners in Kentucky and West Virginia. Smith Brothers was one of the largest smokers of fish in the midwest, and it was the No. 2 producer of domestic caviar.

The caviar came mostly from white fish, although the company's trademark displays a fisherman carrying a 100-pound sturgeon on his back (see logo).

Ned Huwatschek became president of the company in 1982. The famous Port Washington restaurant sold to the Milwaukee-area Chancery Bar & Restaurant chain in 1988. It's now closed. Also in 1988, the 88-acre Birch Point Fishery on Bete Grise sold to a former Michigan Tech student who had made good and wanted a piece of the Keweenaw he had come to love.

Smith Brothers Food Service continued as a large fish distribution business. It sold smoked fish, processed fish, fresh fish, and frozen fish to restaurants, taverns, schools and other institutions.

In the end, it wasn't the lamprey eel or the diminishing returns from commercial fishing that forced the company to sell. It was a pair of misfortunes. The first came when the 42-foot Linda-E sank off Port Washington on Dec. 11, 1998. Leif Weborg, 61, owned the Linda-E and the 52-foot Oliver H. Smith and fished exclusively for the Smith Brothers Company. Weborg and two crew members died when the fishing tug sank. That ended fishing out of Port Washington because Weborg held the licenses (quotas).

The fate of the Linda-E remained a mystery for two years until a U.S. Navy minesweeper, The Defender, found the sunken fishing tug in 240 feet of water. A U.S. Coast Guard inquiry determined the Michigan-Great Lakes, a 454-foot fuel barge, struck and rolled the Linda-E over sending it to the bottom.

The second tragedy came when the Twin Towers went down on 9/11/2001 in New York City. "The east-coast supply for our restaurants and our wholesale fish business was cut-off for three weeks," Huwatschek recalls.

In 2002, the Smith Brothers Company sold to another food distributor, and the well-known name disappeared with the sale.

Original article:

Forward by Ned Huwatschek


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