*Thanks to Jane Ward for this story, written by William J. Barton in 1972
Eighty years ago herring fishing was quite an industry in the town of Ipswich, dating back to colonial days and, yes, back to the days of the Indians.
Most of the men around the river would all look forward to “herringing” when fall arrived. The foot of Summer Street was the best landing. A long ramp ran from high tide to low, and it was easier to pull a wagon from low-water mark after loading herring. During herring fishing days, men all along the river would be sawing wood (hard Carolina pine) to burn in the torches to attract the herring.
The herring fishing consisted of three men in each boat. I am writing this story about the crew I knew well—Henry A. Cook, who was the proprietor of the hotel at Little Neck, Ipswich, John A. Morehouse, and my father, William E. Barton. These men went to Boston and bought a large quantity of Carolina hard pine lumber, used for the most part in bridge building. Headquarters was at our home, 24 Summer St., to the right of the road leading from the wharf.
The lumber, all two inches (hick, was sawed eight inches long and then cut in small pieces to go in the herring torch. It was then stored in our cellar. You would see the men all along the river, sawing and chewing hard pine splinters (a nice taste). The boats used for the fishing were row boats, 18 or more feet long. A heavy torch built of iron about 14 inches in diameter would be put out over the bow of the boat. The sawed wood was placed in burlap bags in the stern of the boat. This would be burned in the torch to attract the fish.
The man who rowed forward was known as the dipper. He used a pair of oars eight feet long. Where he rowed, he was partitioned off from where he would soon be bailing in fish. The dipper, with a good grip on his pole and net, would throw would throw the net in bottom up over fish. As the boat was rowed along, the net would travel alongside the boat. As the net came opposite the turner (the second man rowing in the boat, left-handed with a long oar) the dipper would elevate the bow of the net to the gunnel) of the boat.
The middle man, or turner, would reach out and turn the fish in the boat. The man who rowed the stern oar on the right had a long sweep car, 10 feet long. The boat was partitioned off midship about nine feet where herring would be stored. The stern would then be reserved to hold bags of Carolina pine to burn in the torch.
Now we are ready to start fishing. All the boys along the shore knew how to do it. It has been a game for boys for years. We leave the landing between 3:30 and 4 p.m. (no daylight saving time). When we arrived further down the river, it soon became dark, and we lit our torches and looked for a school of fish. When we struck one, we would run them into shoal water. Otherwise, they would go to the bottom. Fishing could start in the Ipswich River, and then the Parker River. If they could not be found in either of these places, they would fry the Ipswich Bay. If not successful in this area, they would then row back of Plum Island as far as Newburyport Harbor.
After burning hard pine wood for years, the fishermen found they could roll up small balls of cotton batting and saturate them with kerosene. These were put into a container near the torch, thus saving the large amount of space where the wood had been kept. This was a big improvement. Later it was discovered that they could have a round pipe ring with small holes in it attached to a container, with a can of kerosene running to the ring. This, too, was a big improvement over the heavy torch and hard pine wood.
At the Summer Street landing, the herring were delivered from the hatch to teams by buckets. Fishermen received $1 a bucket. These were large fish called bloaters.
Later years when herring fishermen went in large motor boats, they would land at the wharf. They then had a hoist on the wharf from which they would lower the barrel into the boat and hoist a half-barrel at a time.
In later years, large trucks came from Boston and were backed onto the wharf and a large hose was run out. This hose was 10 or 12 inches in diameter, and like a vacuum cleaner would suck the fish from the boat into the truck. These fish were taken to Boston where the oil was extracted and the remains of the fish were ground into meal. Herring was a very delectable fish and eaten by many families in days past. It was also considered one of the cleanest fish that swims. Herring was prepared in a great many ways—frying, salting, smoked, and sardines packed in cans, etc.
Dipping herring by torching was the early way of catching the fish. As time progressed, they got larger boats, seines and seine boats. With a seine in a boat, they would leave the shore with men holding, or anchoring, the end of the net. Then they would row the seine boat out over a large area of water, circle a school of fish, and then come to the point of starting and “puss” in the seine and see how many fish they had caught. Another way of catching average or large size fish was gill-netting. The fishermen would anchor gill nets with an average mesh net in deep water. As fish swam through the seine, they would get caught in the meshes.
Soon after dark the teamsters with their teams would line up on Green Street by the old County House (the House of Correction). This was the site of what is now the Whipple Junior High School (*the present-day Ipswich Town Hall). They then proceeded down Green Street and along Water Street to the landing, waiting for a load. Wagons would carry six, eight, or 10 barrels of fish. The teams would pull onto the landing and load up with herring. After loading they then went up Summer Street and away to Rocky Neck in Gloucester, Marblehead and Swampscott. My grandfather, John F. Barton, supplied three boys to help haul their loads to these places.
One year there were so many herring caught, they were sold to people with large farms, such as Castle Hill, and 1000 barrels at a time were put on the land for fertilizer. This same year so many herring were caught, and could not be sold, they were dumped in the Parker River. Herring did not return for many years.
—WILLIAM J. BARTON
Categories: Ipswich River