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Scarborough: They Called It Owascoag

Catch of the Day: Clamming and Lobstering

Text by Bruce Thurlow
Images from Scarborough Historical Society, Bruce Thurlow, Bill Bayley and Don Googins

Scarborough’s coastline, with its marsh, fresh water streams, saltwater rivers, beaches and rocky ledges, has been a site for fisheries, clam digging, lobster fishing and recreational activities for centuries. The Scarborough anchorage at Pine Point never has been home port to any large fishing vessels, but it’s likely that some Scarborough men fished off shore on commercial vessels at the Banks or in recent years, aboard draggers, trawlers or gill-netting vessels, most likely out of Portland. Scarborough men have engaged primarily in coastal fishing, particularly clams and lobsters. As a second job, some lobstermen operated fishing party boats summer afternoons, taking groups to catch mackerel, pollack, flounder, cod and haddock along the coast. During winter months these same men often outfitted their boats for dragging hen (sea) clams, scallops or shrimp. Stream and river fishing was recreational, as well as a source of family food.

Clam Harvesting

Although the tools are simple (a metal rake, metal bucket and onion bags), clam digging is hard, backbreaking work with hours dependent on tides and light. The metal rake or “clam hoe” has a short 12”-18” handle, so the digger must bend at the waist often in mud to the knees to dig through the tidal mud flats for clams. There is no quick way to harvest clams; only hand tools or hands are allowed by the state. The process of harvesting clams hasn’t changed over the years, only the tools. Pails or wire baskets have replaced wooden hods or wicker baskets; onion bags have replaced wooden bushel baskets; and outboard motor boats have replaced the rowboats once used to reach the flats across the river. Unchanged are the seasonal weather conditions, mosquitoes, green-headed flies and midges that bother diggers on the flats.

Early settlers used clams for bait, selling their excess to vessels in the Grand Banks fleet and other fishing areas. Clams were shucked (meat cut from the shell), salted, and barreled in fish houses on the flats of Blue Point. Burnham & Morrill was the first company in the United States to commercialize clamming. Its first factory began operations at the end of Seavey’s Landing Road in Blue Point before 1869, using the same canning process as that used for farm produce, such as corn. After 1873 Burnham & Morrill moved to Jones Creek at Pine Point. Clams were shipped to the factory from all over the east coast. In 1883 Burnham & Morrill and other companies canned and shipped 3,000 to 8,000 bushels of clams. Burnham & Morrill moved its clam packing business to Portland in 1897, but continued to employ Pine Point diggers because the firm’s reputation had been based partly on the Scarborough clam. Burnham & Morrill used clams soaked in water because they were lighter in color. Other canneries used “unsoaked” clams, as “soaked” clams lost not only color, but flavor. Pine Point clam diggers sold many bushels of clams to Burnham & Morrill and other dealers as well as to other diggers, but they also kept some for their families.

Leavitt Brothers was the second largest cannery and in 1892 was located near the Pine Point Depot. Leavitt Brothers supplied Burnham & Morrill and the Soldiers’ Home in Togus. A December 1893 newspaper article stated that Leavitt Brothers shipped 100 gallons of clams to the Soldiers’ Home each week. During the canning process, tops were individually hand-soldered onto filled cans, and it’s believed that this process may have been the cause of serious fires at both Leavitt’s and Burnham & Morrill.

By 1880 conflict arose between Scarborough marsh diking company owners and clam diggers, boaters and fishermen who claimed that dikes shut out the overflowing tides of the marshes, resulting in streams becoming shallower. Farmers supported diking, because it resulted in increased acreage and thus increased salt hay yield. Clam diggers believed they were losing flats and that clams were worth thousands of dollars more than hay. Clam diggers and fishermen petitioned the Maine State Legislature to abrogate an earlier act, which allowed the Southgate Diking Corporation to exist. The abrogating petition was never acted upon by the legislature; it was simply referred to the Commission of Interior Waters. The petition merely showed that a rift existed and that diking caused a negative impact on the marshland.

In the 1920s Fred Snow, a clam digger, found a better, more efficient way to can clams and founded Snow’s Canning Company. Snow started his canning operation by buying equipment from a defunct corn cannery. The original brand name was Ossipee, but Snow soon began using his family name. Because of the limited availability of soft shell clams, another source of clams was needed for clam chowder. The sea, or hen, clam was trucked in from Wildwood, New Jersey. The hen clam became central to the factory’s operation, necessitating a need for more structures, trucks, a machine repair shop, employees and clam draggers. The factory was successful and ultimately employed thousands of people. By 1959 Snow’s had become part of the Borden Corporation. Snow’s Pine Point factory canned its last batch of chopped clams in 1990 after 68 years in business.

Although the process of canning clams had become more automated, the manner of handling clams remained the same. The largest clam dealer of several in the 1900s was Thurston & Bayley on Pine Point Road, almost across the street from Snow’s. Thurston & Bayley not only bought clams from diggers, but they developed a cottage industry. Residents were hired to cut clams and paid by the gallon of meat produced. Clams were delivered in the morning to local homes, and at the end of the day the meat would be picked up. One could work at home rather than going to cutting rooms at various locations. It was common to see a clam tray leaning against every fisherman’s house. The clam tray was used while cutting clams and usually held half a bushel at a time. The original building of Thurston and Bayley is now Bayley’s Seafood Company. The present owner, Stanley Bayley, is a nephew of Paul Bayley, founder of the original company.

As regulations became more stringent, the amount of clams was more limited. In 1973 Thurlow’s Shellfish Company, owned by David Thurlow, bought another processor, Googins Lobster Pound. Googins had the first depurification system that allowed clam diggers to dig in once-polluted areas. When clams were held for two days in purified water, they cleansed themselves and could be used for food. The combination of this system and clams from open areas generated a larger supply. When Thurlow Shellfish Company closed, Pine Point Seafood Distributors, Inc., which operated wholesale and retail divisions, absorbed the business. The Clambake and Dunstan School Restaurants were the wholesale division’s largest clients.

Donald A. Thurlow opened the Pine Point Seafood Market and sold fish, lobsters, clams and other seafood. By 1971 the market moved to a larger building on the Clambake Restaurant property and was managed by Donald H. Thurlow. The market employed a number of people in its cutting room and supplied the Clambake Restaurant. In 1987 still on the Clambake property, the business moved to a new store, now the Nestling Duck Gift Shop, and was operated by Donald H. Thurlow’s grandsons, Michael and John Thurlow.

To maintain healthy stocks and assure consumer food safety, clamming is highly regulated. Clams are an important resource not only for human consumption, but also for other creatures in the marshes, rivers and the ocean’s edge. The number of commercial licenses is limited and they are difficult to get. More licenses are available for recreational clammers who want to dig just enough for their families. A serious issue facing clammers is red tide, a naturally occurring toxic algae. Toxins accumulate in mussels and clams during a red tide and can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning in consumers. When red tide occurs, clam flats are closed and clam harvesters are out of work for days or months until the threat has passed.

Lobster Fishing

The first recorded lobster catch was in 1605 when crew from the Archangel, captained by George Waymouth, set a small fishing net near Monhegan Island and hauled up a net filled with various fish and “thirty very good and great lobsters.” In the 1600s and 1700s lobsters were easily harvested from tidal pools along the shoreline. So plentiful were lobsters that Native-Americans used them for crop fertilizer and fish bait, as well as food for themselves; early settlers considered lobsters food for servants and paupers. Some indentured servants in Massachusetts had written in their contracts that they should not be served lobster more than three times a week

Lobster fishing is still done in much the same way as when the fishery began, with some modern technology to make it easier. Lobsters are fished with baited traps or pots and the traps are dropped from a boat or “set.” Traps are attached by rope to a floating buoy to mark their location. To identify his traps, each lobsterman has his own buoy colors and markings. Sometimes traps are strung together and marked by a single buoy; this is called a trawl or a string. As weather permits, traps are hauled up one to five days later. Originally, hauling was done by hand using a gaff (a stick with a hooked end) to hook the buoy and pull up its rope. Now the rope is typically placed over a roller powered by a hydraulic hauler that pulls a trap up from the ocean floor. A lobsterman is able to pull many more traps in a day using the latter method. Once on deck, the trap is emptied. Hopefully, the trap contains lobsters, but there may also be other sea creatures and seaweed as well. Legal lobsters are transferred to a holding tank on the boat, and those lobsters above or below the designated legal size or those carrying eggs or a V-notch (indicating females capable of bearing eggs) are returned to the water. The trap is re-baited and reset until the next haul.

Lobster fishing was essentially a local industry until the introduction of the lobster “smack” in the early 1800s. A smack was a small sailing vessel with an open holding well with holes drilled into it to allow circulation of seawater. Smacks could transport live lobsters over longer distances to markets in Boston and New York. In response to a demand for lobster that exceeded the range of smack boats, companies such as Burnham & Morrill began canning lobster meat.

The first tidal lobster pound was introduced in Vinalhaven in 1875 and others quickly followed. Lobster pounds were much like smack boats; lobsters were held in tanks with circulating seawater. A lobster pound allowed a dealer to hold lobsters for future sale or a newly molted lobster time to harden its shell.

Various types of boats have been used by lobstermen through the years—sloops, smacks, dories, and skiffs. The peapod was a large double-ended skiff later adapted for use with an outboard motor. By 1910 engines began replacing sails and oars in lobster boats. Eventually lobster boats of about 26 feet in length were designed with inboard engines. Use of gasoline or diesel engines enabled lobstermen to fish further along the coast or offshore or finish hauling early enough to undertake a second fishing-related job such as fishing for shrimp or dragging for hen clams.

Toward the end of the 1800s the lobster stock seemed to be in decline, spurring the enactment of laws to protect and conserve the lobster population. In 1872 a law was passed banning the taking of egg-bearing females, a conservation measure already practiced by many Maine lobstermen, and in 1874 the first laws regulating the minimum size of lobsters were enacted. The minimum size deemed legal has changed over time and there is now a maximum size allowable. Lobstermen use a special gauge to determine which lobsters may be legally kept. Licenses are required and the number must appear on traps and buoys. There is also a law making it illegal for anyone to touch a labeled trap or buoy other than its owner.

I Remember Lobster Fishing in Scarborough

Most clam and lobster fisheries in Scarborough have been associated with Pine Point, and many Pine Point residents have been lobstermen, clam diggers or both. The Scarborough anchorage at Pine Point is where the Scarborough, Nonesuch and Libby Rivers converge and the departure point for many fishermen. As one of four boys whose father, grandfathers, several uncles and cousins were all lobstermen, I recall lobster fishing during the period 1949 to 1966.

Anchorage at Pine Point
Anchorage at Pine Point

In the mid-1900s, Scarborough lobster fishermen set strings of traps that were checked, as weather permitted, on a daily basis. Occasionally, when winter fishing or fishing in very deep water, one line had two traps (doubles); but most of the time only single traps were on a rope and buoy (singletons). Men would set a string of singletons, anywhere from 4 to 8 or 20 to 40, depending on the bottom to be fished. Each trap was connected to a buoy by a rope about 15 fathoms in length. About 5 fathoms up from the trap, a bobber was attached to the rope. This was intended to prevent the rope from getting caught on ledges, kelp, or anything else at low tide.

Around 1952, some fishermen began using fathometers to check the water depth and ocean floor. Before fathometers, lobstermen used greased window weights attached to twine to do this. Fishermen also used visual signs to note where to put a string of traps. For example, it was quite common to hear “dump the string” when the stern came between those two large trees on Stratton Island.

It was understood that two territories existed off Pine Point. A lobster fisherman would either go to Stratton and Bluff Islands or along Prouts Neck to Richmond Island. Fishermen who went toward Richmond Island stopped at a place called Deep Ledge and those from the Spurwink River would fish along that part of the Cape Elizabeth coast as far as and including Richmond Island. Those who went to Stratton and Bluff Islands would often go toward Old Orchard Pier. However, they would not fish any of the islands found at the Saco River entrance, for these were the grounds of Saco (Camp Ellis) fishermen.

These historic community boundaries are still respected, and many young fishermen might fish where family before him fished, but today anyone goes anywhere. Yet, many places along Maine’s coast still have definite territories. Recently, the press has had stories related to a shooting and boats being sunk over territorial disputes! A reason for the local decline in observing territories, I speculate, is that many fishermen are going offshore. Larger fiberglass boats; more powerful diesel engines; and modern equipment, such as hydraulic pot haulers, GPS, radar, etc., enable the lobster fisherman to reach offshore fishing areas faster and more safely.

Today, many lobster fishermen do go to offshore grounds. However, most lobsters are caught in late summer and fall when they migrate closer to shore areas to molt. This is when a lobster sheds its exoskeleton and grows a new shell. During this period lobsters are very soft, don’t move around much for several days and are vulnerable to almost everything, including fish and seals. Once lobsters become more active, they are very hungry and are caught in higher numbers.

Bayley’s Lobster Pound was the dealer for most Pine Point and Ferry Beach lobster fishermen. Bayley’s shipped lobsters to the Fulton Fish Market in New York City and provided lobster meat to many Old Orchard Beach, Saco and Scarborough restaurants and area take-out establishments. Other Pine Point lobster pound dealers have been Googin’s Lobster Pound, Fogg’s Lobster Pound, Thurlow’s Shellfish (formerly Googin’s Lobster Pound), Pine Point Seafood Distributors and the Fishermen’s Co-Operative. Today some lobster fishermen are selling lobsters from their homes. An ability to have a saltwater tank away from the source of the water has enabled these men to have a home business. In 2010 the only Pine Point-based lobster dealers are Bayley’s Lobster Pound and the Fishermen’s Co-Operative.

Managing the Catch

Since all lobsters look alike whether caught near shore or offshore, it’s imperative that state, interstate and federal regulations complement one another. The Maine Department of Marine Resources manages lobster fishing within a three-mile boundary of the coast, working closely with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a compact of fifteen eastern seaboard states. Federal regulations are covered under the auspices of the National Marine Fisheries Service and are concerned with lobster harvesting between three and 200 miles offshore. All states and the federal government share a minimum legal size, 3 ¼ inches carapace-length measured from the eye socket to the beginning of the tail. Maine has a maximum legal size of 5 inches carapace-length, to keep the largest breeders in the lobster population. All egg-bearing females and those with a V-notch cut in a tail flipper must be released. Cutting a V-notch is meant to keep the females in the breeding pool and is voluntary on the part of conservation-minded lobstermen.

Sources

Gold, Susan Dudley, ed. Scarborough at 350: Linking the Past to the Present. Scarborough, ME: Friends of Scarborough 350th, 2007.

Libbey, Dorothy Shaw. Scarborough Becomes a Town. Freeport, ME: The Bond Wheelwright Co., 1955.

Martin, Kenneth R. and Nathan R. Lipfert. Lobstering and the Maine Coast . Bath, ME: Maine Maritime Museum, 1985.

Milliken, John, et al. petitioned the 59th Legislature of Maine to abrogate previous legislative act allowing existence of the Southgate Diking Company.

Scarborough Historical Society Collection: Clamming

Thurlow, Bruce. Presentation to the Scarborough Historical Society. Lobster Fishing at Pine Point from 1940-1970.

Thurlow, Bruce. Recollections About Lobster Fishing. Unpublished. Written for his sons, 2008.