Oral histories, real voices from the past

Aug 26, 2020 | Charting the Past

The Chatham Historical Society has a wealth of historic gems, including this document from the commercial boat the Two Brothers.

By Doreen Leggett

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There was a time when Chatham fishermen got three cents a pound for cod and since there was no fish pier they unloaded right on the beach. And when the price was too low they sold them salted.

Hearing stories from that time, from those who experienced it first-hand, is a rare thing. But with oral histories collected by the Chatham Historical Society and more recently by the Fishermen’s Alliance, it’s possible to return to fishing in Chatham generations ago.

“Oral histories capture the tone and language of the times, providing an important view into the past. The spontaneous dialog of those being interviewed wanders in and out like the tide, as our locals talk about what was important at the time,” said Danielle Jeanloz, executive director of the Atwood House, home of the Chatham Historical Society. “By hearing the voices, you are transported back in time.”

One of those histories features Ralph Hunter, taped in 1958, who tells interviewer Sally Erath about his early days fishing and lobstering with his older brother Alexander.

Like many young boys on the Cape, he got his start with his dad, who was crew (for close to 30 years) for George Bearse.

Hunter said that when he wasn’t in school he would go mackerel seining with them, sometimes down the Maine Coast to Booth Bay. They would make a quite a few trips and come back to Chatham (which he pronounced Chat- HAM) every once in a while for a few days. When he got older he got a share, which amounted to about $300 for a long season.

“In them days if you were making $300 you were making a lot of money,” he said.

He remembers stopping at Boston on the way home to get provisions for the winter – salted beef, apples and butter.

“Most of them had to buy potatoes because if you were fishing all summer you didn’t have much time to tend to a garden,” he said.

Hunter said it was hard for Bearse to get a good crew.

“He could pick up a crew of old fogies, but he wanted a younger crew,” Hunter remembered.

In the winter they stayed closer to home.

“I think they got somewhere near a dollar a barrel for clams,” he said.

Alexander (who was called Allie) was born in 1873, Ralph in 1880. They spent some time off-Cape, but decided to come back and buy their first boat together, a 25-foot power boat called the Two Brothers.

The year was 1914 and at the same time, Ralph enlisted the help of Walter “Wicked” Eldredge to build a camp on the beach at Monomoy – what we call North Beach. From there he and his brother (who ended up living until a 101) went lobstering.

They would get up early on the tide and would be back in about three hours.

“And then the rest of the day, why you would sit around on the beach and swap yarns, it was pretty interesting I tell you,” Hunter said.

Hunter couldn’t remember how many people lived on Monomoy at the time, but when they all square danced at the Lifesaving Station there could be two sets.

Lobster prices were pretty good, they were getting almost 20 cents a pound. Typically they put five pots on a trawl (or string) and had about eight or nine strings. The lobsters weighed anywhere from three to six or seven pounds.

Hunter said his older brother always got seasick in a dory, but not on the bigger boat, because was the motion was different.

In order to haul up the traps from the dory quicker, he rigged up a machine that used the motor to move rollers, Hunter recalled.

“Five pots on a trawl, that was about all you wanted because there was a lot of tide down there and if you got too many on, they would break the anchors out,” he said.

Lobsters were gaining in popularity and Hunter said he and the others asked their buyer if he would consider giving them a bit more money. They used to bring the lobsters two days a week – usually Tuesday and a Friday or Saturday – to George Crowell.

“Everyone asked him if he wouldn’t raise the price another cent, but he didn’t seem to want to,” Hunter said.

So Hunter started selling direct to stores in Chatham, then Dennisport, Harwichport and Yarmouthport. When direct sales got to be too much, around 1936, his father started doing it for him.

While Hunter was out lobstering his wife Grace was busy. Also up early she and a friend collected winkles – they had to get them before the gulls did – which they sold.

Boats were “drift fishing out of Boston and of course a winkle on a hook was much better than a clam,” said Hunter, explaining that the winkle held together better.

By September the lobsters had moved farther offshore and the Hunters had gone back to the mainland on Mill Pond.

The brothers fished all year (along with anchor dragging and salvaging), and even when the war came and they couldn’t go out of Chatham Harbor for fear of enemy ships, there were other spots.

Before the war they were able to put rubber bands on the lobsters’ claws, but those got scarce so they had to go back to pegs. The bands were easier, not foolproof but better.

“You have to have your eye on the job,” he said with a laugh.

When the lobsters were gone they would trawl for yellowtail flounder and get eight or nine barrels, nowhere near as much as the big beam trawlers that would come down from Boston.

If you had life to live over again would you do the same thing? the interviewer asked.

“Just the same,” he said.

He added that living life over he would have more knowledge going in. Then again, “I don’t know if it would do any good if you did know more,” he said, chuckling.


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