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Captain Sylvanus Smith

 

April 3, 1913

Capt. Smith Tells of the Old Days

Last summer, when lying at anchor in my motor boat at "Long Cove," Rockport, my mind went back to the long ago, almost to the very beginning of the fisheries in Sandy Bay, and the scenes about this place in these old days came back to me as though unchanged after all these years.

"The piers and breakwater were unbuilt in my early memory, but in the fish houses about "The Cove", in summer evenings, would gather the old men, (many of whom had fought in the war of Independence) as well as privateersmen of the war of 1812. As a boy I would listen to their tales of adventure on sea and land during the wars; the stories of sea captains all the almost blood curdling tales of hand to hand combat up the deck of an enemy, which not only filled me with awe, but a great respect for the men who had fought their country’s battles on both land and sea.

There is not a place in New England where nature provided so little and where the people have done so much as in Old Sandy Bay, and the stone wharves that were built by the bone and sinew of these thrifty people have withstood the storms and the elements these many years and will be handed down to future generations as monuments to their thrift almost until the end of time.

There have been many changes since my early memories and it may be interesting to recall those early days when "Sandy Bay" was a prosperous fishing center, in fact, one of the most important centers for this industry in New England.

Our records of the early fisheries of old Sandy Bay are woefully incomplete.

History tells us that in the year 1695 John Babson received a grant of land at Straitsmouth Point to set up a fish house and an old cellar still marks the site this house was located.

Without doubt the fisheries were conducted or carried on from Long Cove and small boats were used which were easily pulled up on the shore out of danger from the sea.

The point of land called Bear Skin Neck, tradition tells us, received its name from the fact that Babson killed a bear there, drying the skin upon the rocks; his weapon, it is related, was an old fish knife and it was a common expression when I was a boy, if one had an old knife, to remark, "this is the knife with which Babson killed the bear." (It is quite probable that this tradition is founded upon some actual happening, for there were families living upon the Neck at that time and without doubt bears often came down from the woods attracted by the smell of fish.)

I hope that the Sandy Bay Antiquarian Society has preserved that old knife (or some one of the numerous knives claimed to have been this historic weapon.)

Whether all the Babsons on the Cape claim lineage to this renowned bear slayer I do not know, but if so they might in all justice take as their coat of arms, the engraving of a mighty arm suspended over the form of a slain bear, and in the hand a long fish knife.

While in the early fisheries very small boats were employed, with the increase in the industry larger craft were built and as these later craft were too cumbersome to be easily hauled up on the beach or upon the shore, moorings were put down in Long Cove and the boats were thus anchored.

These moorings were made from large stones with a hole drilled through, attached to which would be a long chain or cable. While in the main this was safe anchorage during very heavy easterly storms, sometimes either from the moorings parting or dragging, many craft would be thrown high upon the shore.

The craft which followed the very early small boats were from six to fifteen tons burden, standing from affairs, or partly decked over carrying from two to four hands.

I very well remember some of those old time boats and their crews, some of them old men whose memory went back to the very beginning of the early fisheries of Sandy bay. As a small boy, I took great interest in their stories of earlier days, and I recall the quaint dress of many of them, their long hair done up in queues hanging down their back. Even then this style of dressing the hair and the wearing of knee buckles was fast disappearing and was uncommon except with the very old men.

These newer and larger boats were called Chebacco boats for the place where they were built (now Essex).

When a severe easterly threatened, most of the boats were taken around to the harbor, or perhaps 'Squam, where they might safely weather the storm. It may be seen that these early fishermen pursued their calling under some considerable disadvantage.

In the late fall when the fishing season was over the smaller crafts would be hauled out upon the shores about the Cove, long spars being laid down, well greased and with block and tackle the boats would be drawn up above the high water mark while the larger crafts were taken around to the Harbor or laid up for the winter at ‘Squam.

In those early days there was no such things as "race suicide" and large families were common, there was a great supply of boys and these were put into the fisheries very early in life often at the age of nine or ten.

The schooling was very simple and consisted of but few weeks in the winter time. There was little time for idling for when the fishing season was done, in the late fall, there was the winter’s wood to get in, there being no coal in those days, and if it happened so there was snow, sleds were used in hauling in the wood, but often it was burdened in and those old-fashioned fireplaces consumed much wood as we boys could testify.

It is said that parents would suspend a cod-line from an attic window and attached to this would be a dried codfish and here the small boys had their first lessons in hauling in fish. Many of the families had in the yards an old dory and the children would play in this, throwing out the anchor or playing at rowing, but this pastime was soon left for the greater sport of fishing fur cunners and pollock from the rocks about the shore. At the age of nine or ten these boys would be in the boats with the men, preparing their simple meals and while very young would often be numbered among the crew.

In the spring when the season for fishing opened, the first thing to be done was to prepare the mooring which had been taken up in the fall and some sailor man would be engaged to make a splice nor would he touch a marlinspike until the main brace (a drink of New England rum) was first furnished.

The boat would have been previously tarred and made ready for launching, which was not a difficult matter and after being put off to the moorings, the fireplace would be rebuilt. An old man, whom we called "Uncle" Mike, did all this work and he would not touch a brick until he had first been furnished with a pint of New England rum, after which the job would be speedily completed.

Most of the boats, practically all, carried at least one boy ad he was supposed to be provided with a tinder box, with tinder (dry rags), with pine chips dipped into hot brimstone. With flint and steel it was possible to get a light, but when fishing a brand was always kept burning in the cabin fireplace as the noise of the flint striking against steel often awoke the sleepers. The friction matches of our present day were unknown to these early fishermen.

There were no Ingersoll "dollar watches" nor were clocks in use on fishing boats in those days and time was reckoned by the hour glass and the height of the sun by the Robert B. Thomas Almanac. At night the movement of the stars in the heavens would tell them the hour.

A boy’s duty aboard these craft was to cook the plain repasts, make stew and fry fish, fill and light pipes, mixing grog and such minor things as he might be called upon to do. A boy of nine or ten was considered quite old enough to act as cook on these boats and acting in this capacity a few short years he soon graduated into a full-fledged fisherman, even while very young.

In the early days there were no wharves where boats might lay and take on cargoes and fish was loaded on vessels to be taken to Boston and other places under severe difficulties and much inconvenience.

In 1819 some parties obtained permission and built piers at what was called Whirlpool Cove. This made a safe harbor for the craft that could not use Long Cove.

With a better harbor larger craft were built to pursue the Grand Bank fisheries and in the spring, when these craft were fitting and being made ready, Sandy Bay was indeed a busy place.

There were no railways in those days, where vessels could be hauled out and painted and in the spring it was a familiar sight to see many craft hauled up high and dry on the beach, as many as the shores would accommodate, all leaning one way, with their crews, like human ants, working on the under body, cleaning scraping and painting, or at work in the rigging, bending sails, etc.

As this fleet was a large one, almost every family had one or more members, sometimes all of the make members, sailing away at one time and on the occasion of the getting away of the Grand Bank fleet the women and children, mothers, wives and sweethearts would come down to the shore to watch them fade away in the distance, sometimes never to return to the watchers at home.

Those old wharves and piers, now deserted, still stand as a monument to those early fishermen, to the perseverance of the people of Sandy Bay of that period.

In 1836, the needs of greater protection for the large increase being apparent, the national government was induced to build a breakwater.

At this time there were some 12 vessels engaged in carrying fish to New York, Boston, and other places, some going as far even as to southern ports and the West Indies.

With the building of the breakwater the fleet largely increased both in size and numbers and there were some 80 craft kept at the moorings of the cove.

There was no lack of numbers of boys and as they grew competent they were pushed ahead, first on perhaps a quarter shore and later one-half, until they become a full sharesman which was indeed a happy day.

I remember shipping on one of these craft on a three-quarter share and went several trips; when the first trip was sold the skipper told the share agent to give me a full share and you may be sure that I was greatly pleased to be thus advanced. It was always a happy day when the boy arrived at the distinction of a full sharesman and he was the envy of the other boys who had not yet arrived at this distinction.

When the Breakwater was finished, long wharves were built and a new and better class of vessels, craft of 30 to 40 tons burden, took the place of the smaller craft.

In the spring the vessels, many of them, fished along the shore, Boone Island was a favorite fishing ground and the vessels would harbor during bad weather at York, Maine, Old York we used to call it.

Often there would be as many as 15 or 20 boats anchored there at a time for it was a most benevolent harbor. York was not much of a place then, a few log wharves, several farm houses nearby and a grocery store where they kept "West Indies goods", terms for this was before the days of the Maine prohibition laws.

After visiting the grocery store, the skippers, often as well as the crew, sometimes would feel quite lively.

For a few years, during the spring fishing seasons, I often visited York and then, engaging in other branches of the industry it was some 65 years after when, a few summers ago, I next viewed the place.

I would scarcely have recognized the old town of the years ago in the changes which had taken place since I had last harbored there; the same beach, harbor and headlands as in years ago, but all above the waterline was changed, the old farm houses of years ago had disappeared, the grocery store was gone, the ox carts had served their day and were also numbered with the relics of the past. Great hotels and fine summer residences had taken the place of the old farmhouses, a model market had sprung into existence in the place of the old grocery store, (driven out of business by the Maine laws) and the ox-cart had given way to the automobiles which were dashing through the streets with ease and comfort to their passengers. Trolley carry carried people to and from the beaches and into the surrounding country ad I almost wondered, (like Rip VanWinkle) if indeed I could be in the right place.

Theatres and moving picture shows, stores on every hand made the popular summer resort seem almost as a great city; even in the harbor were splendid looking yachts, gasoline craft and memory took me back to the old days, 65 or more years ago when I had last visited this place.

Last year while at York in my boat I talked with an old man, verging onto 90, an old native of the town who still tends his lobster post near the harbor mouth. His memory of old times set me thinking of by-gone days and one incident of that time comes back to me after all these years as though it Happened yesterday.

There were quite a fleet of boats fishing off York, many of them I well recall after these 70 years. (The boats Hake, Roscoe, Democrat, President, Silk Worm, Camel and Osprey are a few that were numbered among them.)

The boat Roscoe, Haskell skipper, had been more successful than most of the boats one day (he had never been in charge of a boat before) and some of the skippers of other crafts came aboard and told him how lucky he had been and after having the jug passed around they took off the hatch to look at the fish. They told Sol that he had not salted them enough, that there were more fish than he reckoned so the catch was repacked and again salted.

Then there were visits to the shore, the jug refilled and then another look at the fish and the same performance of resalting was gone through with. By this time old Sol was feeling pretty nice and he boasted that he did not care for any man out of Sandy Bay in catching fish, claiming his catch at 30 quintals (he really had but 12). It was fun for us boys to sit around and see the fun, as we were in on the joke.

Among the crews of many of these old boats was a great rivalry, almost laughable seem their boasts, as well as the pride they took in their favorite craft when compared with the smart trim boats of our day.

Gathered about in some fish house or perhaps the grocery store, the sailing qualities of the various craft would be argued heatedly until if it were possible, after a challenge had been issued, boats’ crews would be chosen with great care, particular attention being given to a clever helmsman as well as a good man for the scoot horn, a horn on a long pole with which the sails were drenched with water. The old fashioned duck, make of hemp, when dry was very open and the many drenchings served to shrink the fiber until it would hold considerable wind.

After much arguing, the boats would start out, the crowd gathering at the "Watch House Point" on Bear Skin Neck to see the contest.

Excitement would run high, each man on the shore having his favorite boat and when the supremacy was finally settled, never finally, perhaps temporarily, the race would be gone all over again in the arguments of those ashore and the interest was as great as though it were a contest for the International Cup, among the people of the town.

In 1840, after completion of the breakwater, the winter fishery was engaged in many of the craft taking their fish to Boston while fish landed as Sandy Bay was often hauled over the road to Gloucester in teams, and from there to Boston.

This winter fishery became quite prosperous and many men were employed during the winter months who had previously to the beginning of this branch of the industry had found nothing to do this season, between fall and spring.

The mackerel fishery assumed great proportions, these later day craft being well adapted to the fishery as then pursued. A great many fish were landed on the wharves and piers at Long Cove (I have seen them literally covered with barrels of mackerel).

In keeping with the changes in other branches of industry the mode of catching fish has changed and much of the picturesque and poetry of those old days has passed into things more modern, the old fish houses are crumbling in decay, the flakes years have wholly disappeared and the men of former days are gone, almost forgotten but in the old stone wharves and piers they leave a monument to perpetuate their memory which will survive, reminding future generations of their energy, almost to the end of time.

Captain Sylvanus Smith

 

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