Thursday, July 31, 2014

Star Mill Herring Harvest, 1910

The manner in which herring were harvested from the Nemasket River changed radically over the course of the first half of the twentieth century and witnessed the disappearance of the picturesque scene of men using great hand nets to scoop vast numbers of up-running fish into waiting barrels. The image captured above was taken at the Star Mill by George Morse in 1910. Within a generation, seine nets would be employed to gather as many fish as possible with the harvest being deposited into waiting trucks rather than the crates and barrels seen here.

Image: Herring Harvesting at Muttock, George Morse, photographer, 1910.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Muttock Herring House, Late 19th Century

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.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Star Mill Herring Harvest, 1950s

Fishermen gather the seine net from which herring will be transferred into waiting trucks by means of a smaller purse net. The platform on which the man at the left is standing was located on the east bank of the river directly in the rear of the former Star Mill and formed part of the town's municipal seining pool. The site was obliterated during the 1960s when the Nemasket River was relocated to accommodate the expansion of Winthrop-Atkins.

Image: Star Mill Herring Harvest, 1950s. Photo courtesy of the Middleborough Public Library

Monday, July 28, 2014

Colonial Alewife Laws

Beginning in 1735 colonial laws in Massachusetts sought to protect the spawning runs of river herring that appeared in the commonwealth's rivers each spring, ensuring that adequate passage was provided for their upstream run. The Herring River in Sandwich was the first river in Massachusetts whose herring population was specifically protected. The Nemasket was the second. In 1749 the first law specific to the Nemasket River herring was passed and it governored the means and manner in which herring could be taken. The law also established strict penalties that were to be meted out to violators, including the whipping of children and servants, confinement in public stocks or imprisonment. 

ACTS OF 1749-50, CHAPTER 12


WHEREAS there are great quantities of the fish called alewives, that pass up the rivers and brooks in the town of Middleborough to cast their spawn; and notwithstanding the penalties annexed to the many good and wholesome laws of this province already made to prevent the destruction of alewives, yet many ill-minded and disorderly persons are not deterred therefrom, — Be it therefore enacted by the Lieutenant- Governour, Council and House of Representatives, 
    [Sect. 1.] That whoever shall presume to take any of the said fish in the aforesaid rivers or brooks, or any part thereof, by any ways or means whatever, at any other place than at the old Stone Ware, so called, in Namasket River in said town, and at such place in the brook called Assawampset[t] Brook, in said town, as the inhabitants thereof shall vote and order, such person shall forfeit the sum of forty shillings; and the scoop-net or other instruments with which such person may take the said fish, shall be forfeited. And whereas some persons who may disguise themselves, and others who may be unknown, may take or attempt to take the said fish at other places than at the aforesaid Stone Ware and Assawampsett Brook, and may refuse to discover their names, places of abode and occupations, by which means the prosecution of such offenders may be prevented, and the good design of this act be defeated; and there being some passages of said rivers and brooks that are much narrower than others, and by reason thereof the course of the said fish may be more easily stopped by canoes and other obstructions, — Be it therefore further enacted, 
    [Sect. 2.] That if any person or persons, who maybe unknown, shall take or attempt to take any of the aforesaid fish in any other part place of said rivers and brooks than those before mentioned, it shall be in the power of any of his majesty's justices of the peace of the county of Pl[i][y]month, on his own view, to examine such person or persons concerning their names, places of abode and occupations; or in case no justice of the peace may be present, then it shall be lawful for any sheriff or deputy sheriff of said county, or constable of the aforesaid town, or two or more persons who may be present at their so taking or attempting to take the said fish, to convey such offender immediately before any of his majesty's justices of the peace for the said county, to be examined as aforesaid ; and on such offender's refusal to give an account of bis or their names, places of abode and occupations, such justice may commit him or them to his majesty's goal in said county, until [l] they give such account, unless such offenders will forthwith pay the aforesaid penalty' of forty shillings. And whoever shall presume to fasten or keep any canoe or canoes or other obstructions within or nigh any narrow passage, or the middle of said river[s] or brooks, so that it may be reasonably thought that the course of the said fish may be thereby obstructed, such person or persons shall forfeit the sum of ten shillings for every hour such obstruction shall continue ; and in case it doth not appear how it might have been made, then it shall be in the power of any justice of the peace of said county to order it to be removed. And be it further enacted, 
    [Sect. 3.] That no person shall be disqualified as a witness in order to any conviction upon this act, by reason of his or her being an inhabitant of said town. And be it further enacted, 
    [Sect. 4.] That when any children or servants shall offend against this act, or any part thereof, they shall be punished by whipping, not exceeding five stripes, setting in the stocks not exceeding two hours, or imprisonment not exceeding twenty-four hours, at the discretion of the court or justices before whom the conviction may be, unless such offenders, by themselves, their parents or masters, or others on their behalf, shall forthwith pay the forfeiture aforesaid : such parents or masters being notified of such conviction forty-eight hours before said punishment be inflicted. 
    [Sect. 5.] All the penalties and forfeitures in this act mentioned to be disposed of, one moiety to the use of the poor of the said town, and the other moiety to the informer, to be recovered on information or complaint before any justice of the peace of the afores[ai]d county, where the penalty may not exceed forty shillings. And such justice is hereby impow[eired to issue his warrant for apprehending such offender or offenders, and upon conviction, to restrain or commit the offender or offenders to his majesty's goal aforesaid, until [l] the fine imposed for such offence be satisfied, or cause the same to be levied by distress and sale of the offender's goods, returning the overplus, if any there be. And where the penalty may exceed the sum of forty shillings, then it may be recovered by action, bill, plaint or information, in any court proper to try the same. And be it further enacted, 
   [Sect. 6.] That the manner, rules and methods of conviction of offenders against this act, may be the same as are directed and provided in and by an act made in the twelfth year of the reign of his late majesty King George, [e][i]ntitled "An Act in addition to and for rendring more effectual an act made in the tenth year of the reign of King William the Third, [e][i]ntitled ' An Act for preventing of trespasses.'" 
    [Sect. 7.] This act to continue in force for the space of three years from its publication, and no longer. [Passed December 23,* 1749 ; published January 9, 1749-50. 
    [The Acts and Resolves, Public and Private, of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay to Which are Prefixed the Charters of the Province, with Historical and Explanatory Notes, and an Appendix. Volume III (Boston: Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1878), p. 483]. 

 [This act, having been “found useful and beneficial”, was extended by the legislature in 1753 to the end of the next session of the General Court. See Laws of 1752-53, Chapter 17, “An Act for Reviving and Continuing of Sundry Laws that are Expired or Near Expiring.”] [The Acts and Resolves, Public and private, of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay to Which are Prefixed the Charters of the Province, with Historical and Explanatory Notes, and an Appendix. Volume III (Boston: Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1878), p. 647]. It was again extended see Province Laws, 1760-61, Chapter 21.

ACTS OF 1764-65, CHAPTER 10


WHEREAS, in and by the act intituled "An Act to prevent the unnecessary destruction of alewives in the town of Middleborough," made in the twenty-second year of his late majesty King George the Second, all persons are prohibited taking or catching alewives within the town of Middleborough, save at the old Stone Ware, so called, in Namasket River, and at such place in Assawampset Brook as said town should appoint; and whereas the prohibition aud restriction aforesaid has been found inconvenient; therefore, — Be it enacted by the Governor, Council and House of Representatives, 
    [SECT. 1.] That during the season wherein alewives shall pass up said Namasket River, to spawn, in the year one thousand seven hundred and sixty-five, it shall be lawful for the inhabitants of said town of Middleborough to catch alewives at or near the place where the slitting-mill now stands, on the said river, on the Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays of every week; liberty of taking fish there being first obtained from the owner or owners of said mill. Provided, nevertheless,— 
   [SECT. 2.] That it shall be lawful for said town, at a legal meeting of the inhabitants, to dispose of and grant, for that year, the sole priviledge of catching alewives, on the da3's of the week abovementioned, at or near the mill aforesaid, (liberty therefor being first obtained of the owners as aforesaid), to such person or persons as shall ofier most for the same, and give sufficient security, forthwith, for payment of the sum offered, at such time and in such manner as the inhabitants of said town shall assign and order, either by themselves, at a town-meeting, or by such as they shall appoint and authorize for that purpose. And he it further enacted, 
   [SECT. 3.] That no purchaser of the priviledge aforesaid shall receive for any alewives that may be there caught, more than one shilling for each hundred of said fish, and so pro rata, for any less or greater number. And be it further enacted, 
    [SECT. 4.] That any purchaser of the priviledge aforesaid, who shall take or catch any of said fish at or near the mill aforesaid, or shall allow or connive at any other person taking any such fish there, at any other time than that limited for that purpose as aforesaid, and every other person whosoever that shall catch any such fish on any days other than those herein beforementioned, whether the priviledge aforesaid shall have been disposed of to any particular person or persons or not, shall forfeit and pay the sum of five pounds, and costs of suit, to him or them who shall sue therefor in any court proper to try the same. [Passed June 14. 

ACTS OF 1765-66, CHAPTER 24 


WHEREAS an act made in the fourth year of his present majesty's reign, intitled "An Act in addition to the act intitled 'An Act to prevent the unnecessary destruction of alewives in the town of Middleborough,' " has been found useful and beneficial, and is now expired, — Be it therefore enacted by the Governor, Council and House of Representatives, That the said act, in all and every article, clause, matter and thing, be and is hereby revived, and shall be in full force until the twentysixth of October, which will be in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and sixty-seven. [Passed October 31] 


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Harvesting Herring at Muttock

One of the iconic images of nineteenth-century Middleborough is the local herring catcher, scoop net in hand, surrounded by a multitude of barrels and crates. Worth quoting at some length is the following description, carried in 1897 in the New York Times, detailing the manner in which herring were harvested at that time at Muttock:

At the lower junction of the canal [used as a fishway] and river a net is placed across the latter, thus forcing the fish to continue their course up the canal. On the off days, when all dams and obstructions are removed and the net is taken away, the fish, perhaps through fright or attracted by the quiet waters, swim into the space between the junction and the falls and accumulate into the thousands. There are sometimes 30,000 or 40,000 fish preserved here, and when the day for catching them again comes around, the net is pulled down, and the fish remain there—waiting for a rise in the market. About 150 feet above the lower junction a temporary dam is thrown across the canal, the lower part of which is made of pine planks, surmounted by a moveable screen of coarse wire bars, through which the water passes and falls about three feet. Further down the canal a huge coverless wooden box is sunk, extending across the waterway. It is plainly visible, as the water is shallow and clear. The fish coming up the stream swim over the box and on until they reach the dam; there they are thrown back by the force of the water, and many of them jump out upon land in their endeavor to scale the fall. Others resort to deep pools sheltered by rocks. Here they hide and are sometimes successful in making their excape by remaining during the fishing days. When a sufficient number of fish have gathered between the box and the dam, a net is stretched across, below the box, and the fishermen don high rubber boots, and, starting at the dam, walk downstream, driving the fish before them into the sunken box. Here other men are stationed with huge landing nets; they scoop up the fish, throw them upon the platform, from which they are taken and packed into barrels partly filled with ice, and sent away to market. Nine catches are made daily, the average catch being eighty barrels. The present manner of taking the fish has been in vogue almost from the settlement of the town.

Book Launch August 1 & 2

I will be signing copies of my new book Nemasket River Herring: A History next Friday and Saturday August 1 and 2 at Middleborough's Krazy Days street festival. Stop by the Recollecting Nemasket booth to say "hi"

Here's the text of the press release:

A humble fish altered history along the Nemasket

 Every spring, the Nemasket River welcomes thousands of migratory river herring that thrash and leap as they fight their way upstream from Mount Hope Bay. Of all non-domesticated animals, the river herring—or alewife—has arguably had the greatest impact on the towns along the river in southeastern Massachusetts. The area was called Nemasket, or "place of fish," by Native Americans, and its earliest English colonists were dependent on river herring for their very survival. They provided a livelihood for generations of families in Middleboro and Lakeville, shaping their culture and the course of the region's development.

Today, herring fishing is banned, and the community is working toward protecting and preserving the river so the herring have a place to return each year. In a book to be released next week, historian Michael J. Maddigan explores the big story of the small fish that shaped life along the Nemasket River.

Maddigan has been involved in the field of local history and historic preservation for more than 30 years. He has written extensively on the history of Middleboro and Lakeville, and is the author of several books on local history, including South Middleborough: A History, previously published by The History Press. Other works include Elysian Fields: A History of the Rock Cemetery (2007), Images of America: Middleborough (2009), An Illustrated History of the King Philip Tavern (2010), Star Mill: History and Architecture (2012) and Representatives of the Great Cause: Middleborough Servicemen & Their Letters from the First World War (2013).

Maddigan has contributed articles to numerous publications, and his work appears regularly in The Middleboro Gazette as the popular local history column "Recollecting Nemasket." Maddigan owns a small publishing press and website under the Recollecting Nemasket name, both of which are devoted to popularizing local history. He is currently at work on separate histories of the Brockton Fair and the Bridgewater State Farm.
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