Ren Carlisle in his store, Carlisle’s Home in the Harbor. (Laura Johnston, RocktheLake)

Meet Ren Carlisle, who helped spearhead the comeback of the Historic Ashtabula Harbor. Carlisle’s family has been in Ashtabula since 1835 and for decades owned the department store chain Carlisle-Allen. Now he and his wife, Toni, run Carlisle’s Home in the Harbor in a former brothel on Bridge Street. (Look up and you can see where the ladies paraded for men to take their pick.

The 74-year-old Carlisle – whose full name is Lorenzo, like his grandfather – was among the merchants who in 2007 formed the Lift Bridge Community Association, named after the Bascule Bridge that traverses the Ashtabula River and leads into town. The Ohio Department of Transportation closed the bridge for more than a year, stifling businesses. So the businesses hosted events and bands to bring tourists.

Now they’re looking to bring more tourists to the harbor, once the biggest and roughest in the Great Lakes.

Thousands of visitors flock to Bridge Street for the annual Wine and Walleye Festival in July. And they come regularly for several well-regarded restaurants and cute shops. Now the harbor is getting a boutique hotel and luxury townhomes.

“This is a lost gem here, from Cleveland’s perspective,” Carlisle said.

Read on for a look at Ashtabula harbor, past, present and future.

This article has been edited for length and clarity.

How long has your family been in Ashtabula?

The first Carlisle to come out this way was Frederick. This was about 1835. He had trained to be a tanner. I don’t know why he was motivated to leave New Hampshire. There must have been a tanner in residence there. He got on his horse and headed west. He was looking for a place to build a tannery, and that needed water, so he was attracted to place that had river. He decided Ashtabula was the place, and so we’ve had family here ever since.

Frederick did build a tannery in Ashtabula, right off of Main Avenue, which is now called Tannery Hill, right alongside the Ashtabula River. Within relatively short period of time, he developed lung problems; it might have been early tuberculosis. He sold the tannery because he couldn’t do physical work that required. He opened a retail store with his son-in-law, in 1857. From that time on there was a member of our family involved in the retail business.

Carlisle’s in Ashtabula. (Ren Carlisle)

Carlisle’s started as a department store in Ashtabula and eventually grew to 14 stores, in Northeast Ohio and Pennsylvania, before selling to Peebles. What’s the history of the business?

Over the years it changed. The original store specialized in things like flooring — linoleum was a big piece of the business — and yard goods. This was before readymade clothes. Millinery – hats — that was a big business. Then it was really my grandfather, L.T. Carlisle, who had to shut down the original Carlisle store for a few years when one of his relatives stole a lot of money from the store. L.T. went to work for a Cleveland outfit in Ashtabula. Then he started store in the harbor, on Bridge Street, during the boom period. I think he did so well because of the boom, really, that he had enough money and got into a partnership with a guy by the name of Miles Allen, who had a furniture store. They decided to build full department store in Ashtabula: a three-story building, the first building with an elevator in Ashtabula. People thought he had lost his mind to do something so ambitious. But it became very successful. It became the local institution. It was where people shopped. For a long time, from the early 20th century until the malls really came, Carlisle Allen had the market to itself.

Can you talk about the boom period?

Post-Civil War, we had a pretty active harbor. But we didn’t have a railroad. It was hard to get iron ore coming down the Great Lakes to our port and Cleveland and Conneaut without rail service. So when the railroad came to the harbor about 1873, Ashtabula harbor became the most direct port to get iron ore to Youngstown and Pittsburgh, two of the most important sources of steel manufacturing at the time.

It was a very labor intensive business to manually unload a ship of iron ore onto to horsedrawn carts and carriages and transport it to the railroad. Literally thousands of immigrants from European countries – Finland, Sweden, Germany, Italy, Portugal – they flocked to the harbor, because they were good jobs. For that 20-year period, it was a boom time.

We became internationally famous. It was rough for the workers, immigrant groups who settled up that night, who got to unload the ships and who didn’t.

Then nearby in Conneaut, the Hulett shovel was invented and reduced the labor force needed to unload a ship, from 150 to 10. Almost in the blink of an eye, the boom ended. The harbor, which had been this vital retail, bar, brothel center, became almost a ghost town for a while.

What started the Lift Bridge Community Association?

In 2007, ODOT lifted the lift bridge. They said it would take six months. It actually took over a year. It just cut our main source of traffic out. It was killing us.

We pooled money to do advertising. We had a weekly event called Hoppin’ in the Harbor.

The dynamics of working together, I think, opened all our eyes. We soon thought, let’s think a little bigger than just trying to get people together for an event. We adopted the mission to become a regional destination for tourism, recreation and entertainment.

Early on, we tried to identify communities that did what we’d like to do. One was Willoughby. We met with the mayor, and he told us they went after good places to eat and drink. So that’s what we did. It’s a lot harder than it sounds. At least in our case, the set-up of Bridge Street and the relative amount of parking doesn’t fit te prototype of chain. Applebee’s wouldn’t think of coming to us because we don’t fit their parking requirements. We had to find entrepreneurs who work long hours and know what they’re doing. That combination is not that easy to find.

I think what Bridge Street shows is that in a very tough economic environment, which is Ashtabula, good things can happen. It isn’t easy. It takes a lot of effort.

What are your plans for the future?

Our strategic plan unveiled in 2012 allowed us to do a lot of infrastructure improvements. Our intent is to continue with the progress we’ve been making with attracting tourists. We don’t have very many places for people to stay. During the season, which runs from mid-June to Labor Day, if you decide a week before if you’d like to come out and spend a few days in Ashtabula, it is really hard to find a room.

We are working hard at becoming a center for recreation. The Ashtabula River used to be one of the most polluted rivers; now it’s one of the cleanest rivers flowing into Lake Erie.

Lake Erie draws most of the tourists to the harbor.

What do you like to do on the lake?

I like sitting in a lawn chair right on the lake, watching the eagles fly by and what’s going on in the lake. We enjoy gardening. We have a wonderful lawn. Every day on the lake is different. It’s a painting. Our back yard is a great body of water, and it’s a wonderful thing.

Sounds lovely.