By: Mac Becco, LPLA Communications Director
Frank and Cathy Dosdall are your local memory keepers. They have troves of historical stories and memorabilia that illustrate the economic, social, and environmental changes Lake Pepin has experienced over the last century. Proudly hailing from Bay City, WI, they have witnessed their hometown transition from a popular Lake Pepin destination to a quiet village becoming increasingly isolated from the area. It’s no coincidence that Bay City also happens to be the community most impacted by the devastating sedimentation in Upper Lake Pepin. Its history is prophetic for other communities around Lake Pepin and highlights why the Dosdalls are critical players in restoring Lake Pepin.
Frank and Cathy have been married 41 years and holding hands since age 16, all the time residing in Bay City. Frank is a third-generation commercial fisherman and spent six years on the Village Board. He speaks with nostalgic candor about his hometown, as if the entire community is his own family. Cathy is more reserved, an astute observer who quietly fills in critical information gaps, and vigilantly seeks information about the health of Lake Pepin. Unknowingly, she has the air of a natural leader with an unmistakable passion in her voice when she speaks up, almost against her will, when others are complacent or silent.
The Economic Heart: Commercial Fishing
There was a time when Bay City was a lively fishing village, sending millions of carp, buffalo fish, sheep head, and catfish to kitchens across the Midwest. Ultimately, the fishing boom didn’t survive. As a third-generation fisherman, Frank Dosdall knows the rise and fall of the local commercial fishing industry. His grandfather, Otto Ed (O.E.) Dosdall, collaborated with the Lay family to establish the first commercial fishing company in Bay City during the late 1890’s. After buying out his partner, O.E. Dosdall adjusted the operation name to become the iconic Dosdall Fish Company. Other commercial fishing operations emerged soon after, most notably those started by the Sorensons, Tylers, Spriggles, and Minders. At the height of commercial fishing in Lake Pepin, 12 independent fishing rigs were operating from Bay City, WI.
Frank attests that commercial fishing was always strenuous work, especially with year-round operation through cold winters and frozen water. During the summer, fishing crews pushed boats through the mud in extreme heat and pulled in seine nets with tens of thousands of pounds of fish. In the winter, they cut holes in the ice, braided the seine through, and manually pulled the haul to the surface. It was demanding work, but also an enjoyable trade that still brings a smile to Frank’s face as he recalls stories of fish slime and catfish barbs. For decades, fishing was the social glue that brought people together, spurred other local businesses, and provided a buffer during economic setbacks.
“During the depression, everybody had something to eat around here because there was always fish,” says Frank, whose grandfather would regularly give fish to local families in need.
As a fish buyer and seller, the original Dosdall Fish Company needed a way to store fish until transportation was available. In a world without refrigeration, O.E. Dosdall’s solution was to store live fish in a manmade pond designed to hold a quarter million pounds. Two artisan wells were built into the pond, allowing the crew to drain one end and easily access fish at their convenience.
When the Dosdall Fishing Company was passed down to Frank’s dad, Ed Dale Dosdall, the fishing industry was already in decline. Ed Dale continued the family legacy, but eventually reduced operations to smoking carp caught by others. Frank remembers helping the family buy, smoke, and deliver 250-300 pounds of fish every week to grocery stores extending as far as Fountain City, WI. To this day, Frank enjoys the art of smoking carp and passionately defends the taste. He’s eager to share his trademark cooking tips with those who ask.
“Carp is a good white meat if it’s done right. People don’t like it because its carp, but in some countries, it’s a delicacy,” he says.
Young Frank Dosdall also worked for other families with commercial fishing companies, including Sorenson Commercial Fishing*, until he was 18 years old, and later Lloyd Spriggle, a commercial fisherman and boat builder. The fishing itself hadn’t changed much from earlier days. Fishing crews would set the seine in their favorite fishing hole, then manually haul it back while picking and sorting fish by size into different live boats. An average haul of 5K-20K pounds of fish would take an entire day.
Sometimes, when expecting a larger haul, the crew would start by “feeding the bay” gallons of corn, wheat, or oats. Depending on the location, they would then wait hours or days for the bait to attract large groups of bottom-feeding fish. Finally, they would set the seine around the “feeding” location. During these fishing set, which primarily occurred on the St. Croix River, 50K-60K pounds weren’t uncommon and would take a week just to pick and sort fish from the seine net.
Just like the Dosdall Fish Company, other fishing operations eventually disappeared as well. The industry had already slowed, but vanished completely once PCB contaminants were discovered in Lake Pepin. Recreation tried to fill the niche through boat rentals and professional fishing tournaments, but they too were unsustainable with sediment rapidly filling the bay. As it stands today, Bay City has the heart of a fishing village, but without the fish and largely isolated from the water.
The Market Prices (as remembered by Frank)
Carp = $0.05 / pound
Sheephead = $0.25 / pound
Buffalo Fish = $0.30 / pound
Catfish = $0.45 to $0.60 / pound
*Frank Dosdall worked for Milt Sorenson and "Tut" Johnson, who owned their own fishing rig. Ralph Sorenson also owned a commercial fishing rig, but operated independently.
The Historic Charm of Bay City, WI
Frank and Cathy paint a beautiful picture of growing up in charming Bay City. Despite the fishing industry being in slow decline, the village had a bustling downtown, local school, abundant community events, and natural attractions for visitors. Multi-generational families were rooted and the close-knit community enjoyed spending time together. Much of it tied back to Lake Pepin, which was also a perfect canvas for thriving childhood creativity.
“There was always something to do on the lake. It didn’t matter the season,” Frank remembers.
In the winter, the kids would go ice fishing, fashion sails to their sleds, and twirl around on ice skates. One of Frank’s favorite memories is his mom pulling sleds behind her 1965 Chevrolet on the ice. As they got older, they would have campfire gatherings on the ice and visit neighboring towns via their pack of snowmobiles.
In the summer, Frank spent every day on the water with friends, mainly waterskiing behind a small 20 horsepower motor. When the barges would appear, all the kids would hop in their boats and follow behind in the large wake, jumping back and forth, competing for the most air. On land, they would entertain the urbanites from Minneapolis who would regularly show up on homemade rafts destined for the Mississippi River delta in Louisiana.
“They were like Huck Finn and would stop here for a few days and then take off down the river again,” says Frank.
The Bay City beach, however, might have been the town’s star attraction. Its description bursts into conversation repeatedly, as if a ghost with unresolved issues demanding attention. The sand, water, and background made the Bay City beach a prime gathering location, which provided spillover benefits to the local economy. There were even diving boards on a permanent raft anchored just offshore.
“The beach was beautiful when we were kids. It used to be the best beach around. People would travel here just for the beach,” Cathy says with a bittersweet tone.
At which point, Franks adds, “It’s still a nice beach. There’s just no water out there right now.”
Sarcasm aside, the Bay City from Frank and Cathy’s youth has disappeared. The winter ice is no longer safe, a seemingly unspoken consequence of the upstream nuclear plant discharging warm water. Meanwhile, sediment accumulation is clouding the water and isolating the town. There are no sunbathers, games, or visitors flocking to the Bay City shoreline anymore. And diving is completely unthinkable considering the depths are often measured in inches instead of feet. Boat access is also inhibited. Only the rare flat-bottom boats can traverse the shallow water from town to the open water.
Isolated, Bay City has primarily become a drive-by town with visitors speeding through to other downstream destinations. Rental properties have taken over, businesses have closed, and people have limited access to the lake. Frank describes with grief how, “This part of the lake hardly gets used because people can’t get their boats through unless the water is high. So, you know, your businesses can’t make it, but it hasn’t always been like that. Only since we’ve been increasingly cut off.”
Fighting for Bay City’s Future
Sediment has been filling in the bay and degrading water around Bay City for decades. As a kid, Frank would watch from shore as boats would accidently veer into the bay and ground themselves in shallow water. He would jump in his boat and pull them free for a small fee. It must have been a lucrative business for the kids in town. For the village, however, the sedimentation has been an extremely costly problem, especially without outside support.
The village government has paid to dredge the harbor before, but without any upstream changes, it’s just a temporary reprieve. “We’ve always had trouble keeping the mouth of the harbor open. After we dredge, it just fills back in 3-4 years later,” says Frank, “I know it’s a problem, but Bay City is one of the oldest fishing towns around here and we deserve to have it taken care of just as much as anybody else.”
Frank became interested in environmental protection and local politics through his childhood mentors. Frank’s dad, Ed Dale, served the Bay City government for half his life, 20 years on the village board and 25 years as mayor. Lloyd Spriggle, a cousin through marriage and father-like figure, was an active environmental activist. He would frequently lecture Frank on how the environment supports everything else they love, how quickly it can change from human activity, and how important it was to advocate for its protection.
Following in their footsteps, Frank was active on the village board for six years. In time, however, he grew frustrated with the economic challenges facing so many towns in rural America. “When I was in town government, the federal government cut funding to all these small towns in about half. That was huge,” he recalls. By the time the village pays for its most urgent infrastructure needs, there isn’t money left over for anything else, especially expensive dredging projects.
“Like I said, it used to be one of the nicest beaches out there, but it’s hard to keep up and even harder when you have no money…It makes you want to just go live off the grid,” Franks says cynically.
The Dosdall’s believe that if people can reconnect with the lake, it would be easier to reignite a strong local voice for its protection. However, it’s a catch 22 because local restoration is needed to help folks reconnect with the lake in the first place. The stalemate is a challenge, but Cathy seems to keep them both engaged and buoyant about the future. “It’s never going to be a fishing town again, but if people even knew that the town was cool back then, then maybe they would see what it could be again,” she says.
After spending an afternoon with Cathy and Frank, one finds themself missing a Bay City they’ve never even known. While it’s a shame that none of us will have the chance to experience historic Bay City first-hand, the memories serve as ongoing inspiration. They keep Frank and Cathy’s goal of preserving the vision and possibility of a prosperous Bay City alive.
Thank you, Frank and Cathy for joining the Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance! Your contributions are invaluable.
Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance (LPLA) is advocating and fundraising for restoration in Upper Lake Pepin to improve recreational access for small boats and revitalize habitat for better fishing. A feasibility study is underway to determine what actions are technically feasible and sustainable. The next public meeting for this project will occur in February, with the exact date and time still to be determined. Stay connected with LPLA for the latest news and updates.