How the LeClair Family Shaped the Susie-Q Fish Company
Some have compared history to a raging river that flows heedlessly, carrying humanity into an uncertain future. Others look at history as if it were a lake where we diligently row our way into the future while inventing things along the way.
If history is indeed a lake then the LeClair family has definitely made their impression on it. The Susie-Q Fish Company is entering the fifth generation of fishermen that have plied their trade on Lake Michigan out of Two Rivers. How they got to this point in history is an interesting story.
There was a great migration of French-Canadians that occurred in the early 1800’s. One group resettled in Louisiana while another group headed west and settled around Lakes Michigan and Superior. They were trappers, fur traders, farmers and fishermen looking for a better life. These French-Canadians had run out of space to expand their trades in Quebec Province and were looking for opportunities to create successful businesses. Coincidentally, the United States had developed forts in Wisconsin to protect settlers after the War of 1812. In Green Bay, Fort Howard provided protection as well as trading opportunities for fur trappers and fishermen. Between 1812 and 1900 approximately one million people left Eastern Canada for the Western frontier.
Charles LeClair initially settled in the Two Creeks area where he trapped mink and fished for lake trout using Mackinaw boats, which were nothing more than oversized canoes that had been rigged with a centerboard and sailing masts. The Mackinaw canoes were small, tippy and depended on wind for power. This arrangement limited the season but the LeClairs were a hardy bunch, fishing well into December when possible. The bounty of Lake Michigan including lake trout, whitefish and perch probably played a significant role in creating the Friday night fish fry that is ubiquitous in every little corner tavern and neighborhood restaurant.
The family settled in Two Rivers not long after the city incorporated in 1848. Over the years the LeClairs adapted their catch according to the change in the ecosystem of Lake Michigan and increasing regulation of the commercial fishing industry. The sea lamprey nearly wiped out the lake trout population, but another invader, the alewife, kept the business humming when the DNR asked the LeClairs to harvest the fish in order to avoid smelling up the beaches. In those days (1970-90) semi-trailers of alewives were sent to Chicago pet food manufacturers. On one of their best days they shipped 265,000 pounds. They also have a significant presence in the smoked chub market and today sell over a million dollars of smoked chubs to Supreme Lobster in Chicago.
The name Susie-Q comes from one of the company’s bigger ships, a 42-foot steel vessel purchased in 1946. It was named after Pete LeClair’s youngest sister. This ship replaced a previous 32-foot wooden boat with a 100 HP diesel engine. The system of catching fish also changed when Pete invented and patented the enclosed stern trawler that eliminated the booms most of us are familiar with used in shrimp trawlers like the one in the movie Forrest Gump. The steel ship and the prow shaped to break through ice allowed the family to fish well into the winters as well. In the harsh winter of 2013, the Twin Rivers froze solid and the LeClairs used their boats to break up the ice so that ducks would have access to the water.
Still there with all the memorabilia intact from his heyday in the 1950’s. Jamie talked about Grandpa going out into the lake during storms with minus 70-degree wind chills and 40-knot winds and coming back with 35,000 lbs. of ice encrusting the boat — to the point where the boat was so heavy that the water was lapping over the gunwales.
Today the family primarily fishes for whitefish and chubs. The chubs are smoked but with a modern twist. Susie-Q now offers smoked fish in a variety of flavors including Siracha, Teriyaki, Door County cherry, and Cajun (homage to the other French Canadian emigrees no doubt). One thing that has not changed is the tough life; in the 1940’s there were 18-different fishing companies operating out of Two Rivers.
Susie-Q is the only one enduring. As I left, Jamie introduced me to her teenage daughter, Raven, who represents the sixth generation of LeClairs; her vice-like handshake confirmed that the company will be in good hands going into the future.