Photos from Clamtown

By Coco McCabe

I live on the Ipswich River, a thoroughfare for clammers making their way out to the mudflats. I can hear the whine of the engines on their small boats before they chug into view, one or two clammers per vessel, hunched against the cold. Often, they pass by at dawn, and just as often at dusk: Their lives depend on the ebb and flow of the tides.

Low tide is when they work—digging hard in the sticky black mud regardless of sleet, snow, wind, bugs, or brutal heat. Clamming is not for softies, of body or mind. It requires physical endurance and psychological self-discipline.

Here, in Ipswich, Mass., clamming is one of the oldest economic enterprises, bestowing the community with its well-earned nickname, Clamtown. Its bivalves are famous across the country.

At a time when so many jobs are becoming automated, shipped to other countries, or swallowed by monopolies, clamming remains one of the few types of work individuals with drive and an independent spirit can still find: There are no degrees required and no bosses to report to.

This collection of photos is a celebration of Ipswich clammers, a mostly unseen corps of workers whose grit I deeply admire.

Clammer before dawn
To catch as much of the low tide as possible, clammers often gear up before dawn so they can reach the flats at daylight and dig until the water returns a few hours later.
Road to the clamflats
As a storm breaks, light washes the road clammers take out to the mudflats, and the marsh, in its wildness, seems to beckon. As hard as clamming is, the beauty and quietness of the landscape is a salve for many.
Ice in the clam flats
A thin layer of ice crackles across the marsh leading to the clam flats.
Clammer's sled
Some clammers pull plastic sleds behind them as they trudge across the frozen marsh to reach these flats. They use the sleds to haul their harvests home.
Clammer's boots
A clammer makes his way across a mudflat puddled with water left by the receding tide.
Ipswich clammer Brenda Turne
Clammer Brenda Turner fights the wind and snow on a typical winter day. No matter the weather, clammers have to endure all of it to make their livings. Some clammers say what’s even harder to take than the wet cold are the voracious midgies on a hot summer day. Nothing keeps the swarms from attacking.
Clammer's dog
Clamming can be a solitary pursuit, and plenty of clammers like it that way. But help from a best friend is always welcome.
Clammer Ed Ojiba
Hip boots, like the ones Ed Ogiba is wearing, are essential for wading across waterlogged flats and into deep, sticky mud.
Clammer Jason Moon
Keeping a sharp eye for signs of razor clams, Jason Moon moves swiftly along the banks of a muddy channel, racing the tide to dig as many as he can.
Clammer Jeffrey Thomas
Though clammers wear rubber gloves and work up a sweat under their layers when they dig in the winter, extremities still get cold. After hours of digging, Jeffrey Thomas rubs his hands to warm them.
Steve Hemeon, clammer
Each time he fills the basket, Steve Hemeon empties the clams into mesh sacks that he soaks in the water to wash the mud away.
Steve Hemeon
With the incoming tide having covered the flats and set his boat afloat, Steve Hemeon heads for home with his harvest.
Clammer George Taylor
Clammer George Taylor wraps up a wet and snowy day of digging.
Clammer Brad McGowan
Brad McGowan sloshes through the frigid Ipswich River, lugging his day’s harvest from his boat to his truck.
Chris Brown clammer
At the town wharf in Ipswich, clammers gather to sell their harvests to Red’s Best, a Boston-based seafood buyer that sends a truck as the tide turns. Chris Brown waits to get his clams weighed.
Richard Hazen, clammer
Some Ipswich clammers deliver their harvests to Carl W. Savage Seafoods, Inc. in Rowley, Mass., where teams of shuckers, like Ipswich resident Richard Hazen, remove the meat from the shells.
Shucked clams
Shucked and ready for sale, a tub of clams doesn’t look particularly appetizing. But dipped in batter and fried, the clams become a delicacy savored by hordes of tourists—and locals.
The Clambox in Ipswich
A favorite seafood destination, Ipswich’s Clambox, with its signature architecture, lures fried-clam lovers from around the country.

10 thoughts on “Photos from Clamtown”

  1. Hi Coco,

    What a great series of close- up, black ‘n white photos of Ipswich clammers. No wonder these delicacies are pricey on local menus. Good observation: “clamming remains one of the few types of work individuals with drive and an independent spirit can still find: There are no degrees required and no bosses to report to.”

    I still haven’t made it to the CLAMBOX yet – the lines are so long!

    Thanks for sharing …

  2. Love this these photos are awesome and should be displayed at town hall. I know most of the clammers in town they not only work full time jobs but bust thier butts to make sure local and distant restaurants have the best clams in the world. Ipswich Ma the best clams ever dug by the best diggers around!!

  3. Many say that the lines are too long at the “Ipswich Clam Box” This tells me that this must be the best place to eat “Ipswich Clams!”

  4. These are absolutely beautiful and evocative photographs! Please , let’s have them shown in some public space- Town Hall perhaps? And the clammers are a pretty terrific and dedicated bunch. Maybe some quotes from them too.??! I’ve spent many a morning sitting down at Town Landing watching them come in with their haul and selling them to the guy in the Red’s Best truck. Thanks for displaying these wonderful photos of one of Ipswich’s most treasured and important industries.

  5. Fabulous series of photos, Coco. You are RIGHT THERE and you have a great talent to convey the feeling of the scene. I would love to have this series as a book and I bet many others would too!
    Dorothy Monnelly

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