Wednesday, July 30, 2014
The taking of herring by the town of Middleborough inevitably required facilities to process and preserve the fish, either through smoking or salting. In time herring or fish-houses were established near the two principal fishing pools at Muttock and the Lower Factory. In these houses fish were smoked and salted, and kept there for distribution to town residents who were eligible for free fish. According to Muttock resident James A. Burgess his father “every year cured and dried 30,000 herring for the people of the town.”
The drying process involved first cleaning the fish by removing the scales and viscera, then pickling the eviscerated fish in brine. The longer the fish were pickled, the longer they could be preserved. Following brining, the fish would be rinsed in cold water and left to dry in a spot out of the sun where preferably there was a breeze. Then, the fish would be hung on sticks which were passed through the fishes’ eye sockets. Frequently, children would be engaged in the task of placing a dozen fish on a stick in preparation for smoking, earning a penny for each completed stick. The sticks would then be suspended in the herring house for curing. The length of curing varied, though generally five days was the rule for those fish intended to be preserved for a long period of time. Fish were smoked until they turned an even bronze color.
In 1807, Maria Eliza Rundell, in her A New System of Domestic Cookery, an early American cookbook, outlined the method for smoking herring.
Clean, and lay them in salt and a little saltpeter one night, then hang them on a stick, through the eyes, in a row. Have ready an old cask, on which put some sawdust, and in the midst of it a heater red-hot; fix the stick over the smoke, and let them remain 24 hours.
Alternatively, the fish could be salted, a process that consumed enormous quantities of salt. During 1857, the large fishery on Martha’s Vineyard utilized so much of the article processing herring for the southern market that “about all the salt on the Vineyard is used up”. In 1883, the Town of Middleborough paid grocer Matthew H. Cushing the then large sum of $44.10 for salt with which to preserve its catch that year (over three cents per hundred fish).
The Muttock herring house where herring were preserved was located on the right bank of the river where the parking lot for Oliver Mill Park is now located, and rent was paid annually to the Sproat family which owned the property wheron the house stood. Three dollars was the sum set by the Sproat family, an amount paid for a number of years by the town as “rent of land for fish house.” In 1889, the Town of Middleborough paid Henry H. Sproat $6.00 for two years’ rental but following her husband’s death, Katharine A. Sproat seems to have raised the rental price considerably. By 1897, the town was paying Mrs. Sproat $10 annually for the privilege of using her land. Additionally, the town was responsible for the upkeep of the herring house, and in 1876 it made repairs to the building.
There is little history of the final demise of the Muttock herring house. It was stated to have been destroyed by fire, and the fact that no rental payments were made by the town to the Sproat heirs following 1901 indicates that the building was likely destroyed about this time, a period when the entire Muttock site was falling into general disuse as a fishing pool.
Image: Nemasket River at Muttock showing the herring house where fish were processed on the right. Remains of the dam which are still extant today can be seen at the left.