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Tourists Leave and Islanders Take Over as Winter Arrives at Put-In-Bay

photo of Put-In-Bay flag
Many island businesses only stay open during the tourist season.

On the small islands in the Great Lakes, ferry service is shutting down and tourism is grinding to a halt. Elizabeth Miller of Great Lakes Today was on South Bass Island in Western Lake Erie in the days before its ferries stopped running.

For most of the year, two ferries serve the village of Put-In-Bay, which sits on an island in Lake Erie. But in winter, ferry service stops and residents face a quieter, more isolated, lifestyle.

As the shutdown approached, village life was slowing down. The main street, Delaware Avenue, was empty. The gift shops, bars and other businesses that cater to summer tourists had closed. Only a handful of cars passed the ferry dock.

That’s how this Ohio village will be for the next four months.

Most workers are laid off when tourist season ends. They use unemployment and the money saved from the summer season to sustain themselves.

By November, most of Put-In-Bay’s seasonal employees had gone and there weren't many year-round residents remaining. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 138 people - but islanders say the number might be two or three times more.

“What you’re left with is what any little town would have: the post office, the gas station, the general store, the hardware store,” said Peter Huston of the Chamber of Commerce.  “We have one little restaurant called Tipper’s that is open daily.”

This isn’t just any little town. This town is in the western part of Lake Erie, 5 miles from the mainland.  It’s accessible by ferry and plane, but that’s not always available. Huston says weather determines everything in terms of island transportation.

“All of the sudden that random part of the world affects your life,” he said. “The planes don’t fly, the ferry can’t leave the dock because it’s too windy or too icy.”

Huston says year-round islanders have spent the last two months stockpiling frozen and nonperishable food since trips to the mainland are a luxury.

There is a grocery store on the island, the Island General Store, which is open year-round.

“The main goal for people is that they have a place to get something if they don’t have it,” said store owner Greg Hughes. “If I don’t have it -- it’s an island, we improvise.”

Hughes and his wife also run a hotel, but it closed for the season in October. He says the general store survives because of the money made during tourist season, when Delaware Avenue is packed.

'All of the sudden that random part of the world affects your life. The planes don't fly, the ferry can't leave the dock because it's too windy or too icy.'

In the offseason, Hughes cuts his staff from ten to three. It’s one of the few full-time jobs on the island, along with teaching, law enforcement, and local government.

But most workers are laid off when tourist season ends. They use unemployment and the money saved from the summer season to sustain themselves, says Peter Huston.

“If you run a business on the mainland, you have 12 months to make a living,” Huston said.  “Here, you have four.”

Once the ferry stops running, the Island General Store gets its supplies by plane.

A time to bond
A lot of planning goes into staying on the island all winter. But for general store employee Diana Kartheiser, the winter she spent on the island several years ago was one of her favorites.

“In the summer, we work so many hours a week so many days a week that we don’t have social time with one another,” Kartheiser said. “Winter is when we bond with locals and friends.”

Another resident, Caroline Conrad, was looking forward to the change of pace, too. This winter will be Conrad’s 12th on the island. She first visited in the 1980s, and now it’s her home.

She’s laid off from her seasonal job bartending at a local hotel, but is using her free time and the money she’s saved to finish a few home-improvement projects. 

Conrad has a message for those who might take pity on folks stuck on an island all winter: “People shouldn’t feel sorry for the people that live here because we’re not bored.”

Now residents are hoping for good conditions for ice fishing – one thing that can attract winter tourists and provide entertainment for residents.

Great Lakes Today is a collaboration of WBFO Buffalo, ideastream Cleveland and WXXI Rochester.

Correction:  Our headline originally referred to year-round residents as "Townies."   We have adjusted that to "Islanders."