Memories of Barnstable Harbor
By Lisa Cavanaugh
On any given summer’s day, Barnstable Harbor is bustling. Visitors are piling aboard the Whale Watcher to head off to Stellwagen Bank in search of humpbacks. Charter captains are welcoming anglers. Recreational boaters pull out of their slips enroute to cozy sandbars for a day of sun and swimming while lunch crowds at Mattakeese Wharf or Osterville Fish, Too watch the action.
All harbors have echoes, and in Barnstable those reverberations include the sounds of packet ships carrying goods and passengers to and from Boston, a busy trade in ice, fuel and fish at Freezer Point, commercial fishermen harvesting bluefin tuna from weirs a few miles offshore or gathering sea scallops in the Bay. Even the nineteenth century shore whalers, whose loads of blubber were rendered into oil at the try-works located on Sandy Neck, have a place in the harbor’s past.
Today, commercial fishermen are few and far between, with only a handful maintaining slips or moorings in this sheltered cove that is the first major harbor east of the Cape Cod Canal. One of them is Bill Lister, a lobsterman.
“I’ve been fishing my whole life in Barnstable, and my dad fished before me,” says Lister, who got his first commercial license in 1969 at age 14. “You could get one if your father was also on the water at the same time. Didn’t have to be on the same vessel, he just had to be out there with you.”
Lister lobsters in Cape Cod Bay from May through November, and also shellfishes and goes conching on Nantucket Sound. For many years he harvested bay scallops before that fishery died out in the early to mid-1980s, a decline Lister attributes to the dredging of Hyannis harbor.
He recalls sea scallop fishing in the Bay with his family as a young child.
“My father had a sea scallop boat from 1958 through 1962 and our whole family would go out with him,” he says. “The year I was two, we spent the summer living on dad’s scallop boat. My mother shucked the scallops, which only got 25 cents a pound in those days. Of course, fuel was only 10 cents gallon.”
The large, now-demolished facility that sold fuel and ice and bought fish was located at what is called Freezer Point, on the western tip of the entrance to the harbor. Lister, whose family’s scallop boat was often moored in Provincetown, remembers that they would wait on the tide to enter Barnstable Harbor: “It was less far to ship the fish to Boston from there, so they paid a bit more.”
Jim Ellis, a local historian and blacksmith, recounts how, in addition to the ice house, Freezer Point once held a fish cannery and a rat poison factory.
“A man named Captain Gerald ran the freezer. Then in 1942 they built the Cannery to supply good food – fish – for the troops. There was a two-story place known as the ‘Fish Hook Club’ where the seasonal workers lived, many of them down from Cape Breton and Nova Scotia. The women of the village would go over and cook for them,” says Ellis, whose family goes back 11 generations in Barnstable Village.
Ellis knows it will be hard for readers to believe, but just south of the ice house was the facility that manufactured rat poison, using leftover fish heads and guts to mix in with the toxics. “It got shipped all over the country,” he says.
He worked across the harbor at the Goulart and Rupkus Fish Company, a weir manufacturing business and warehouse and processing plant. “I started in the late 1940s when I was just a kid. At nine years old I worked at the fish house, then the next year I started going out on the boats.”
Ellis worked in commercial fishing through high school, then served in the Marine Corp reserve and the Air Force before settling back in Barnstable. After a number of years working locally as a mechanic he joined his father in the village blacksmith business, a skill he still enjoys.
His working blacksmith shop is open to the public and is located behind the Coast Guard museum on Route 6a, which is housed in what was originally the customs house for the harbor. “It was built in 1856,” says Ellis, “and it is positioned where they could see ships coming in. The officials would then get into their horse and buggy and head over to the harbor to collect the taxes.”
Another local mariner whose family’s history is entwined with Barnstable Harbor is Steve Karras, whose father was one of the fabled weir tuna fishermen of the late 1940s and early ‘50s.
“Three to five miles off Sandy Neck was a perfect spot for the fish traps,” he remembers. “Sometimes they could catch 500 tuna in one day.”
Karras acknowledges that now many people wonder why previous generations of fishermen didn’t realize how limited a resource wild fish could be, but he doesn’t see maliciousness in his father’s fishing.
“It was his livelihood. My father’s family home was in the village, in what is now the Dolphin restaurant. There were eight boys and two girls and all the brothers served in the military during war time, and when they came home they all made their livings on the water.”
His father eventually went into different work, but stayed connected to the harbor. “When I was really little my dad’s buddies would call and let us know they were coming in with fish. We would all run down to the harbor to see them. It was so exciting.”
Karras now runs a charter fishing business, the Squeegee Monkey, out of Sesuit Harbor, and until his father’s recent death would listen to tales of how to catch tuna. “Dad would tell me this is the date or the kind of moon when you are gonna want to go chase them off Sandy Neck. I loved talking to him about it.”
Even though commercial fishing in Barnstable has declined, there are still new generations getting involved. Lister, the lobsterman, has his son Caleb, 25, working with him.
“Most everyone is gone now and we are about the only ones lobstering out of the harbor,” says Lister. Even so he just bought a boat, F/V Cuda from Chatham fisherman John Tuttle, and retrofitted it for lobstering.
“Cuda is a great boat, I’m very happy with it,” says Lister. “I’m naming it The Mussel Point because of my mooring in the harbor, which is where the weirs used to be.”