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The Italian Fleet of Boston


November 16, 1909

The Italian Fishermen of Boston
Coming to Be an Important Factor in the Trade of That Port
Have Developed Flounder Trade From Little to $50,000 a Year

When Italian fishermen first began to ply their trade in Boston harbor, they formed merely a picturesque addition to an old-established business. Nobody considered them as a possible important element in the development of the New England fisheries. Now, when the fish business of Boston has grown to such proportions that new quarters for its dealers are desirable, the Italians are seen clearly, for the first time, as an important part of the city’s fishing fleets.

From humble beginnings of nearly 20 years ago, they have grown numerically and economically important. Coming here chiefly from Sicily, poor and unversed in the language of the country, these fishermen have built up a business which, were it transferred to a smaller port, would make a greater showing than some of the old-time fishing communities that aged men today are wont to lament as part of the "good old days when New England had flourishing fisheries."

There were, in fact, by the last count, not less than 310 boats in the Italian fishing fleet of Boston, having a value of not less than $125,000. These boats, chiefly of the dory type, or variants of it, are each equipped with gasoline power. The average per boat is not far from $400, although there are boats in the fleet worth far more. One recently launched, cost $3,000. The tendency in the fleet is toward larger and more expensive boats each year, and therefore there is a steady increase in the capital invested in them.

When the census department sent a special agent to Boston not long ago, to gather statistics on the fisheries, the official lad some difficulty in getting the desired facts about the Italian dory fleet, until he came in contact with a man who knows all about it, who is, in fact, the Father of the Fleet.

This is Frank Ragusa, one of the pioneer Italian fishermen in Boston, and financial backer of many of the fishermen when they are getting a start in the business.

Mr. Ragusa could tell the census man everything he wanted to know, and did so with exactness and in perfect English. He stated that in the 310 boats of the gasoline dory fleet there were employed 450 men. Their average earnings are not far from $800 a year each. This brings their total earnings up to about $350,000 a year.

These figures bear eloquent testimony to the importance of the Italian fleet from an economic standpoint. Mr. Ragusa contributed further facts on interest, by stating that not less than 2500 people depend on the earnings of the men in the fleet for their living, for the fishermen are invariably men of liberal-sized families.

The fishermen work hard for what they get, and members of their families help them, for in busy times the wives, boys and girls take a hand by baiting trawls at home, while the father and husband is away with another set of gear on the harbor fishing grounds. The fisherman’s earnings, therefore, represent the labor of more than one pair of hands.

One windy afternoon, when the frosty autumn air was nipping ears and fingers, a reporter found Mr. Ragusa at the Eastern packet pier, superintending the transfer of a load of gasoline barrels from one dory to another, one part of his business being to supply gasoline to his countrymen.

Quick, genial and intelligent, and speaking English fluently, Mr. Ragusa talked interestingly of the Italian fishermen.

"People in Boston are just beginning to understand Italian fishermen." He said. "The Italians are very hardworking, industrious men. I don’t know of any class who work harder. They are up early and late, and they go out in all kinds of weather, winter and summer. Some of them start for the fishing grounds at midnight, others at 1 o’clock, others at 2, and so on.

"With an early start they are back here by 10 or 11, ready for the market and otherwise preparing for the next day’s fishing. They go to bed early, and the next day they are ready to start on time for down the harbor.

"So you see, they work hard for everything they get. There are no loafers among them The women and the boys and girls work too, and in that way a good living is made.

"Most fishermen have two sets of trawls and in the busy season they take one set home to be baited while they are out fishing. The women bait them, and when the next set is brought home the baited set is ready to go out."

Anyone who sees the Italian fisherman walking along Atlantic avenue in the afternoon with tow or three tubs in a nest on his head, may know that he is bound home with them, and that the hands of his helpmate will soon by busy baiting them for tomorrow’s fishing.

Nearly all the Italian fishermen of Boston come from Sicily, according to Mr. Ragusa. Some few come from Naples; scarcely any from the northern ports of Italy.

The Sicilians were the first to find a footing in the fisheries of Boston, and Mr. Ragusa was one of the pioneers. He came here as a lad from Palermo, attended the public schools, acquired in his plastic days of youth the American spirit of independence, and a knowledge of English, and when he arrived at proper years, started to make a place for himself where none seemed to promise.

This was in fishing in and near Boston harbor. He bought a worn out yacht at the Savin Hill Yacht Club, and, fixing it up, began his patient quest. That was 18 years ago. It was hard at first. Nobody wanted to buy fish of an Italian fisherman. The Italians, with their old boats, were laughed at by the regular fishermen, sailing in trim schooners. But the men of Italy, bided their time, toiled long and hard, and at last were rewarded.

Nine years ago Mr. Ragusa installed in his boa the first gasoline engine used by an Italian fisherman in Boston. It was the pioneer boat therefore of the fine fleet of today. Owing to a lack of knowledge on the part of the Italian boat builder who installed the engine, the arrangement was not successful; but the next year Mr. Ragusa had a dory built by Emmons of Swampscott, and in this was placed an engine that worked.

From that moment, the old yacht, the lumbering fish boat, built by the Italian workman, and in fact, the oar and the sail, were discarded by the Italian fishermen of Boston.

The fleet of 1909 shows what rapid progress toward prosperity the adoption of gasoline has effected among the Italian fishermen, for now not a single boat not using gasoline power is employed in their fleet.

Many Americans suppose the Italians are a kind of excrescence on the fish business of Boston; that they do not pay their way in dockage, as other fishing interests do, and that they represent no vested interest. This is a serious error, and one that does injustice to the Italians.

Not only do they pay dockage at a rate satisfactory to the owners of the dock property they use, but they are formed into an organized body, which looks after the interests of their trade.

This is called, most appropriately, the St. Peter’s Fishermen’s Society of Boston. This society has no permanent headquarters, but when occasion arises for a meeting, its officers hire a hall for the purpose. Matters relating to the trade and advancement of the common interests of the members are discussed.

This organization is sometimes spoken of on the water front as a "union". It is scarcely that, but an organized expression of the strong feeling of fraternity that exists among the fishermen. This brotherly feeling extends to mutual helpfulness in many things, and especially in the fitting out of new boats for men recently come from the old country.

"I am always ready to help a new man get a boat or an engine," said Mr. Ragusa. "I advance the money without interest. I know I won’t lose it, for the fishermen are all honest. This year I had one who owed me $225. He came and paid me $100, and said ‘I will give you the rest next year at this time.’ I said ‘All right; you’re all right; I’m not worrying.’ That man will come around next year and pay me. That is the kind of a thing that has built up our dory fleet."

One feature of the growth of the Italian fishing fleet of Boston that should not escape the economist, it that the fishermen have made a market for a catch that was not considered worth marketing before they became a feature in the fish business in Boston.

This is the flounder catch. When the Italians began bringing in flounders, 18 years ago, they were a drag on the market. Nobody wanted them, therefore the dealers could not buy them. The Italians were persistent, and at last a progressive dealer took 300 pounds of flounders from Frank Ragusa at three cents a pound. He disposed of them, and bought more. The flounder trade in Boston thus began. The Italians have cultivated it assiduously, and now, a considerable part of their fleet, or about 60 boats are devoted to it exclusively. They have dockage space between the heads of Long and T wharves and it is their boats the visitor to the wharves usually see.

The importance of their catch in 1909 may be judged from the fact that in a single week in September they marketed $5000 worth of flounders. This was an exceptional week, yet in the flounder season, which is form March to November, these boats bring in nearly $50,000 worth o flounders, which are readily sold.

"People have become educated to eating flounders, since I began in the business," said Mr. Ragusa. "It was slow business showing them how good flounders are. Now we have no trouble selling them. They all go to parts of Massachusetts, and the other New England states are taking them up. The fish you see offered for sale in baskets at the head of T wharf are what are left after dealers have been supplied. I don’t mean they have been culled out, but they are the surplus."

The flounder season begins about March 15, and is at its best in September. About November 15, the flounders disappear, going into the mud for the winter.

Deep water flounders are caught the year round, but these form only a small portion of the supply at Boston. One feature of the Italian fisherman’s progress, of which little note has been taken, is the use of the trawl for catching flounders. No one hereabouts thought of trawling for flounders until the Italian came. He had ideas of fishing brought from the old world - ideas as old as the Romans - and these he thriftily merged into what he saw of American fishing practice. The result was the flounder trawl.

This apparatus is a lighter trawl than is used in the offshore fisheries for cod and haddock, and the hooks are smaller. There are between 500 and 700 hooks on a trawl, set about 18 inches apart.

This trawl, set at daybreak, catches a fish to a hook when drawn an hour or two later. By this method the Italian fisherman has garnered from the harbor bottom a catch that the Yankee fisherman despised, and despising it, did not know how to secure in a quantity that would pay for the labor.

The bulk of the Italian fleet are not in the flounder business, however, but are engaged in catching the same sort of fish as other shore fishermen, namely cod, haddock, herring or other food or bait-fish in season. The present herring fishing season has not been profitable to the Italians, owing to a prohibition placed by law on catching the fish by the aid of torches.

The future is promising to the Italian fishermen in Boston. It is probable that a marked increase in their dory fleet will be noted from year to year.

The fisherman, unlike the Italian laborer, is a permanent resident of this country. His property interest in his boat ties him to these shores, and he does not aim to go back to Italy when he has made his "pile". His family is being reared here in the American style. His children are attending the public schools, and are living in better circumstances that they would experience in Italy.

The Italian fisherman of Boston, therefore, is a factor in the city’s permanent growth, and his success compensates in a very considerable measure for the falling off in the New England fisheries in other ports.


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