Book tells history of commercial fishermen
by Green Bay Press-Gazette columnist Tony Walter
November 11, 2007
The last person you’d think would be writing a book about the history of commercial fishing in Door County is a building inspector in De Pere.
The first person would be someone who grew up on Washington Island and was weaned on stories about the rugged individuals who confronted every mood of Lake Michigan to get the fish that provided a living.
Both men are Trygvie (Dennis) Jensen.
He spent the first 12 years of his life on Washington Island, enough time to be indoctrinated to a way of life that kept his ancestors alive. Both of his great-grandfathers, Oliver Bjarnarson and Harry Hagen, were among the 400 commercial fishermen who plied their trade on Lake Michigan 100 years ago.
Today, the number of commercial fishing businesses in Door County can be counted on one hand. That’s exactly why Jensen decided it was his calling to record the stories.
Myths and dangers
He wrote a book, “Wooden Boats and Iron Men,” that traces the history, myths, dangers and people who chose a profession that the U.S. Coast Guard announced was the nation’s most dangerous in 1984.
“It was so important to me to preserve this history,” said Jensen, 41. “Nobody really understands how precarious it was.”
Jensen first thought about chronicling the commercial fishing history while talking with his grandfather more than 10 years ago. As he saw the industry dwindling and the years beginning to take their toll on the men who fished, he decided that if a book was going to be written, it had to be written soon. And if anyone was going to write it, he was that person.
“I taped about 150 hours of interviews,” Jensen said. “I’d write early in the morning and late at night so I still had time for my family.”
He also went fishing. Jensen spent one February day with the Hickey Brothers of Baileys Harbor as they lifted their nets and retrieved the chubs despite high waves and wind. Jensen remembers that because he spent part of it curled up in the fetal position, concluding that death would be easier than spending any more time on that boat.
“All I could think of was the Beach Boys song, ‘The Sloop John B,’” Jensen said.
While the tales of the fishermen became the personality of Jensen’s book, the declining commercial fishery was a dominant theme. There was the loss of the lake trout because of the invasion of the lamprey eel in the 1950s, then the rise in sport fishing in the 1960s that included more restrictions on the commercial fishermen. Now there are even more threats from invasive species.
Jensen pored over archives in museums and interviewed dozens of people. With each interview, there was greater admiration for a culture that the general public knew only through the fish platter.
The book took Jensen almost two years to write and left him with a thirst for more. The fishermen tales that didn’t make it into his first book will be the cornerstone for his next one, “Through Waves and Gales Come Fishermen’s Tales.”
The first printing included 1,000 books, many of which were being marketed in Door County.
A second printing is in the works.
It’s our history and it’s dying before our eyes.