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Fish stories

Becky Vargo • Dec 28, 2015 at 8:00 AM

 In Grand Haven’s commercial fishing heyday, there were probably a couple dozen fishing boats based in the Tri-Cities area.

Fishing families like the VerDuins and Vissers had shanties along the waterfront where they kept their nets, equipment and boats.

But invasive species caused a die-off of key fish and fishing regulations changed after the introduction of sport fishing. A tragedy involving a local fish house also caused that business’s demise.

That information and much more is part of the Tri-Cities Historical Museum exhibit – Fish Stories – being displayed on the mezzanine now through September 2016.

Lots of local families were involved in the commercial fishing industry in the Tri-Cities area, according to Mike VerHulst, the Grand Haven museum’s exhibits facilitator. The idea of this exhibit is to tell their stories, he said.

Commercial fishing in the area boomed in the 1850s to 1860s all the way to the early 1920s, Verhulst said.

“Then invasive species came in and there was a big decline,” he said.

Commercial fishing was a hard job and the local families started getting out of the industry after the fish they were after started to become scarce and the onset of the sport fishing industry came along with new fishing regulations.

Sport fishing gained way in the area in the 1960s with the stocking of salmon.

Things also went downhill for commercial fishermen when H.J. Dornbos and Brothers went out of business following the death of four people in 1963 who ate tainted fish. The fish house employed 50 people at one time.

About a third of the mezzanine exhibit is devoted to items from H.J. Dornbos and Brothers, which used to be located at 615 Monroe St., including nets and a desk.

Grand Haven Township resident Ken Clark remembers visiting the fish house with his parents when he was a child. The museum visitor also recalled a neighbor who went out into Lake Michigan with an old wooden boat and pulled nets by hand.

“He used to bring over big trays of smoked chub to block parties,” Clark said.

The man, whose last name was Brady, Clark recalled, would sell his fish out of the backyard of his home on 177th Avenue.

A large net in the middle of the museum’s display room is covered with a variety of pictures of fishermen and commercial and recreational fishing activities in the Tri-Cities area. There are also interactive displays showing what kind of fish were found at certain depths in three different time periods.

Pamphlets are also available, through the Michigan Sea Grant, on what people can do to prevent the spread of invasive species.

Although the exhibit centers on commercial fishing, VerHulst said it’s important to note how big recreational fishing is in the state. In the year, 2006, there were 460,000 registered anglers in Michigan alone, he said.

If anyone has pictures or items they would like included in the exhibit, VerHulst said they can bring them to the museum’s front desk. Staff can make copies of the photos, if needed.

The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.

Upcoming exhibit:

The Winterfest photo contest and awards event is Jan. 29, 2016, at 7 p.m. This exhibit will be up through Feb. 21, 2016.

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