Olin Kelly’s last laugh

May 29, 2024 | Charting the Past

Mark Simonitsch shellfishing in Chatham

By Mark Simonitsch

Around 1970 I was catching, buying and selling lots of mussels. I had an Interstate Permit to buy and ship shellfish. The market was primarily in NYC. I lived in Chatham. Trucks with Chatham fish departed for NYC every night but Friday and Saturday. I would ship my bags of mussels on the fish trucks to my NYC customers.

Frederick Christianson was catching many bags of mussels per day with his boat “Leona” out of Woods Hole. I was buying his mussels and selling them with mine into NYC’s ancient Fulton Fish Market. Fred’s brother, Johann, was a cod hook fisherman in Chatham. His boat was “Tern.” Johann was a neighbor.

On the way back and forth on Rt 28 to Woods Hole to pick up Fred’s mussels I would pass through what were villages in those days.   Waquoit was halfway between Woods Hole and the Mid Cape highway in West Barnstable. A well-known shellfish buyer, Olin Kelly, was located on the estuary Waquoit River. His house was located river side. He had beds of shellfish in the saltwater river filled with product he bought and placed on his permitted shellfish water grants. The entire area was visible from his workshop and home. When he had orders he would dig shellfish up from his grants, weigh, bag and then ship to markets.

On occasion I would receive a telephone call from ‘Kelly’ asking if I would stop and pick up a small order he had for Fulton Market.  I would deliver them to the Chatham Fish Pier for trucking to the ‘City.’  Normally he would drive to New Bedford with larger orders, but for a half dozen bags he might catch up with me and ask me to stop by.  I recall I would receive 50 cents a bag. In those days that amount would pay for my gas to Woods Hole and back from Chatham.

You think I might be mistaken on the cost of gas fifty years ago?  I can tell you that the first Burger King on Cape Cod was in North Falmouth in those days.  On my return to Chatham, I often would stop for an evening meal of a BK Whopper, French Fries and a soda for one dollar!  Gas was also priced low.

In addition to earning money for fuel it was always enjoyable to visit and talk with ‘Kelly.’ He was a balding Irishman with traces of sprouting red hair.  His complexion was freckle-fair and his crystal blue eyes sparkled as he laughed and gestured.  He was like a full-sized Irish leprechaun.  His wit was sharp.

One Sunday I received a call from ‘Kelly’ to see if I was going by his shop late that afternoon and headed for the Chatham fish truck.  Since I was picking up mussels from Fred’s ‘Leona’ in Woods Hole I readily agreed to stop to pick up a few bags of his shellfish on my return to Chatham.

When I arrived and backed up to the loading dock ‘Kelly’ gave me the Bill of Lading.  It had Al Levy, Fulton Fish Market, NYC receiving six bags of cherrystone quahogs.  Al was also one of my customers. I loaded the bags in the usual manner by grasping the neck of the bag with one hand and a lower corner of the bag where I could get a firm grip with the other hand on a few shellfish in the bag’s corner.

As I was loading I noticed I could fill my one hand with one large clam lodged in the corner of the bag.  These clams had to be chowder sized quahogs which are the largest size and, in those days, the least expensive clam size.  They were worth significantly less per pound than a bag of cherrystones.  So what the hay, I commented to ‘Kelly’ about the large size of the clams in the bag tagged ‘cherrystone.’  Olin laughed with his impish heh, heh, heh and replied something like, “Well, Al owes me a lot of money…”

We both smiled and understood a standard fish industry rule was being invoked for people who owe considerable money to a wholesaler: The in-debt customer could not be choosy about the quality, if the wholesaler continued to sell to him.

Later that week ‘Kelly’ called me on Thursday afternoon and asked if I would stop by again for a few bags of shellfish to put on the NY truck leaving Chatham that evening.  When I pulled in and was loading his shellfish onto my truck, he asked if I remembered the cherrystones I commented on that he sold to Al Levy the previous Sunday.

At this point an explanation of the opportunity of a shellfish dealer with wet storage in natural salt water is needed.

Sometimes a person like Olin Kelly would be approached to buy shellfish at attractively low prices when circumstances were forcing the NYC dealer to get rid of inventory Friday morning when it was obvious on Thursday afternoon that the amount of shellfish in his cooler would not sell out by the end of the market on Friday morning.  The shellfish were still alive on Friday, but the original legal tag with the date of sale would prohibit any chance to sell old shellfish on Monday morning — even if they were still alive.  It was a good arrangement and both parties benefited.

“Of course, I remember,” I told Kelly.  He continued to tell me that on this Thursday afternoon Al had called and wanted Kelly to buy back the same bags of cherrystones sent to him last Sunday evening.  Levy had not been able to sell them (for cherrystone price).  Levy would put them on the empty truck Friday morning as it was preparing to return to Cape Cod after it finished unloading fish Friday morning in the market.

There was a silent pause, so I asked, “What did you say?”

Laughing and snorting Kelly replied,  “I told him, ‘Al, I may sell shit, but I never buy it!’  And then I hung up.”

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