This article by Beverly Perna appeared in the Ipswich Chronicle in 2010, republished with permission . Photos of Tom Pappas are by Terry Unger for the People and Place project. Featured image by Gary Gibson.
It had to be a tough decision to hang up the clamming fork after a lifetime of use. Tom Pappas, who will be 90 in December, did that finally last year. “I physically couldn’t do it anymore,” he said. However, despite his claims that his knees and feet gave out, he is spry and looks many years younger than 89. He exudes a zest for life and a passion for clamming.
Pappas remembers when Ipswich was dirt roads and woods, especially around the neighborhood where he grew up on Broadway Avenue. He said his brother took him clamming when he was 6 or 7 then he began to clam regularly at the age of 8 after school and on weekends. He dropped out of high school in his sophomore year and began clamming full time. He clammed every year except for the four war years, one year that he worked for his brother’s shellfish business, and 12 years at the local Sylvania plant.
Pappas said he had seen a lot of changes in the clamming industry. “We didn’t have limits back then, you could dig as many as you wanted to,” he said. Clams were selling for $4 a barrel, a barrel being 3 bushels. “Clammers today can take only 180 pounds of clams a day, we could get 300.” he said. They did have a 2” limit to the size of the clam they could take, but they paid nothing for a permit to take them. A permit today costs $450. Even the clam fork has changed. Pappas said he started with a four prong fork, and now they have five or six prongs.
Getting to the flats was a lot harder in those days. They rowed out in dories, sometimes with as many as 8 clammers in them, no motored boats back then. He said he liked to go out of Essex to Conomo Point where there was a large flat shared by Essex, Ipswich, and Gloucester, but he also went out of Eagle Hill, too. He shared the flats with 15-20 diggers back then. Now there may be 35-50 on a tide with a limit of 125 clammers.
The early days were long before thermal boots and gloves, so to stay warm, they would put the boat up on its side as a shelter and build a fire. They also had smudge pots for heat, those black, cannonball-like highway lanterns someone had “collected” off the roads—anything to stay warm on the flat. “You would come in exhausted and cold then have to look for a dealer to buy your clams,” Pappas said.
Pappas says the first flat closures began in the late 50’s or early 60’s with the red tide. “We knew something was wrong because the clams had their necks sticking out 4-5 inches,” he recalled. He said he never knew of anyone dying, but he had two friends who got sick from eating clams taken during a red tide.
Pappas said that he would occasionally see women out on the flats in the summertime, but he is especially proud that he partnered with Brenda Turner, a local woman who clams regularly. “She can clam as well as any man and is out there in the dead of winter,” he said admiringly. Turner said their partnership began when she was having problems with her boat out on the flats and he went to her aid. “He just jumped in my boat and never got out,” she laughed. She said they were partners for ten years. “He was tough to beat on the flats until the later years,” she said.
“Any clam digger deserves every penny he makes,” said Pappas, about the physical labor required to scratch out a living on the flats. But when he talks of clamming there is an energy in his words, and you know if he were still physically able, he wouldn’t miss a tide.