By Doreen Leggett
Alex Brown stepped out of his house in Provincetown’s West End, passed by homemade long rakes, tongs and shellfish culling boards to settle into a chair kitty corner to a rocker made of lobster pots, which he also makes.
He held the book “Men’s Lives: The Surfmen and Baymen of the South Fork,” which details the disappearing way of life of Long Island fishermen.
“This is my life,” he said, flipping through the book he also filled with newspaper clippings of fishing stories, obituaries of fishermen, the old days.
Brown, 67, is from Long Island, and met some of the men written about by Peter Matthiessen. He even participated, as a member of the crew, in one of those bygone fisheries, haul seining. He still remembers and admires those men who took him lobstering and bullraking years ago.
“They taught me the ropes,” Brown said.
Brown identifies with the loss of fisheries and tradition where he grew up. He has even talked about leaving Provincetown as it seems to step away from its commercial fishing roots. But he bridles at the thought that Provincetown would go the way of the Hamptons.
The worry is not unfounded, Brown has gotten hassled for working in his yard – Brown not only builds fishing gear but does outboard motor repair. So he built a lobster pot fence between his yard and his neighbors.
Brown readily admits it was done as a middle finger. The neighbors have since moved.
Surrounded by former cottages that have now ballooned to McMansions, some newer neighbors consider him an eyesore too.
“I’m surrounded by people who don’t want me here,” he said.
Brown has replaced the lobster pot fence with wood, though he kept a net and some pink flamingos. And he takes his profession seriously.
“Fishing is not a lifestyle,” he said, quoting the book: “‘It’s not fish you are buying, it’s men’s lives.’”
When Brown moved to town in 1988 it was the second time he had been in Provincetown, but he knew its fishing history.
He was born in Port Washington and although his paternal grandfather, who was from Norway, had been a fisherman he had changed careers before Brown knew him.
His father was a mechanic, then a salesman and court officer. His mom, Anne, who recently passed away, was an avid sailor and also worked on boats. Brown considers her the main reason his work has always had a connection to the sea.
“She never discouraged me from a life on the water,” he said. “I always knew I loved motors and I was infatuated with the water.”
When young Alex asked his mom for a motorboat she said first things first.
“She bought me a plywood Blue Jay and I had to learn to sail before I got a powerboat,” he remembered.
He appreciates her judgement because he learned how to read the winds and tides.
By 14 he had his own skiff with a motor and had also begun helping baymen as they harvested shellfish.
“I started going out with these older fishermen and they were making more money than my dad was,” Brown said.
He pointed that out and said he wanted to follow in their footsteps. His dad, who thought his son had a future as an engineer, perhaps a lawyer, said No.
After a fair amount of arguing, his dad relented. The young Brown could do what he liked as long as he had another career to fall back on.
With his love of motors, surrounded by four marinas, he spent after-school hours at the boatyard or on the water, depending on the season.
After he graduated he did much the same, married early, but when the marriage ended he needed a change of scenery. In 1980, he was invited to stay in Falmouth with some friends, one of whom had gotten a job at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.
He ended up at a local boatyard, Pier 37, which he says was the perfect place to meet captains and find out about the industry. Pier 37 was owned by Leo Cohen at the time, the father of Alan Cohen who now runs Ryder’s Cove Boatyard in Chatham.
Brown did some fishing in Falmouth but decided to join the Air Force and become a mechanic.
A serious injury sidelined him and his new girlfriend, now wife Joady, picked him up at the airport and drove to her house in Provincetown.
Joady, whose maiden name is Valentine, is related to a host of fishing families with deep roots – the Silvas, Rodericks, Dutras, the list goes on.
F/V New England was owned by her family, many of whom fished. (The boat Valenti, was named for their Portuguese surname.) Brown’s father-in-law’s father was on a boat that was rammed in 1940 coming out of Boston. All hands drowned.
“A lot of Provincetown guys fished out of Boston,” Brown said.
His father-in-law was also a fisherman on the Liberty Belle, which was cut in half by a steel hull dragger, F/V Cape May. The crew lived. The boat was sold and rebuilt only to blow up later in the harbor. Brown has a piece of the Liberty Belle in his yard.
Brown had a groundfish permit, which allowed him to go hook fishing, and he also talked about buying a dragger, the Shirley and Roland. But just about 30 years ago, when Brown was busy at Flyer’s Boatyard as Hurricane Bob approached, a new opportunity arose. The Browns needed a bigger place to raise their daughter, Tina, and a house they were going to rent went up for sale.
Brown still wanted to buy the dragger, but his wife wanted him to buy the house that had suddenly gone on the market. He made the right decision listening to her, he said.
Being in Provincetown, Brown was still connected to the draggermen, Arthur Duarte in particular, who first introduced him to mending and making nets. He also took a course on the subject at Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
“It’s a lost art,” he said, adding he has taught it to younger fishermen in Cortez, Florida when he has gone down there over the years. (Brown almost became a teacher, graduating UMASS Boston with a Certified Marine Mechanics Instructors Certificate.)
During his early years on the Cape, Brown had also gone back to school to get a degree from Cape Cod Community College, feeling lucky to learn business from professors who had taught at Babson as well as history and information that helped him in his fishing business.
Brown passes on information to others, much like older fishermen did for him.
“Alex is a wealth of knowledge about New England’s fishing heritage. I’ve enjoyed learning from him, and hearing his fishing stories from years past. He recently donated a treasure trove of fishing history books to the Chatham office of the Fishing Partnership Support Service,” said Shannon Eldredge, a fisherman and navigator for Fishermen’s Partnership.
Brown did some longlining with hooks, selling fluke in the 90s, but mostly used the permit to catch skate for bait because he entered the lobster business.
A few years earlier, in 1989, he went back to shellfishing and got a grant. He worked it while fishing and doing outboard motor repair. But in 1996 QPX, a mysterious quahog parasite, struck the Provincetown growers; close to 40 farmers on 40 acres growing hard-shelled clams were basically wiped out.
Most people never came back, and all the fisheries were changing. When Brown first got to town there were about 40 draggers and less than 10 lobstermen.
“In the 1990s people were leaving, gentrification,” Brown said. “Apparently I didn’t get the memo.”
Brown stuck with his grant. He had a buddy in Long Island who advised him to try oysters, so he did. He talked to as many people as he could about getting them to grow well.
He has been successful and gives a lot of credit to Bill Walton, who was the shellfish constable in Wellfleet and worked at the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension before getting a job at a university down south.
Brown had been at his grant earlier that morning and brought out a few of the shellfish.
“They are popular in town,” he said, showing off the eye-catching white shell.
Now other grant holders are growing oysters, but he was the first in town. A shop on Commercial Street sells a t-shirt with a picture of Brown working on his grant, proclaiming the originality of Brown’s business – Victory Fisheries.
Although shellfishing is his first love, he was passionate about lobstering as well.
Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, said Brown was on the executive committee for years and always willing to help out.
He proactively and successfully experimented with gear to make it safer for marine mammals, but “I didn’t like the narrative. It’s never enough,” Brown said.
When Cabral’s Wharf, where he was storing gear, was sold to a new owner who wanted him out, he had to move his more than 400 homemade traps back to his yard. He worked out of there for another few years before selling his lobster permit in 2018. He had been using a Carolina skiff he had gotten, and fixed up, from Alan Cohen. Brown had sold his boat, the Sea-Star, close to a decade before to fight a land court battle with his neighbors that he ultimately lost.
He lost six feet off the property line, but the land hasn’t lost the Browns’ personality or the 1850 house that has a transplanted kitchen that was once a salt works and had a personal still for earlier owners.
“If this house could talk, I’d want to hear it,” he said.
Brown paused for a minute.
“It hurt when I sold the lobster business because you are losing an identity when you sell,” he said.
Still, he considers himself lucky.
“I had hoped that some day I was going to be working full time on my shellfish grant, that was the ultimate goal,” Brown said. “If you like what you do you never work a day in your life. I love what I do.”