Tales of Old Harbor

Sep 27, 2023 | Charting the Past

Fish shacks at Scattaree in Chatham. Courtesy of Matthew Griffin.

By Doreen Leggett

Matthew Griffin heard a lot of fishing stories growing up, after all his grandfather, dad and several uncles were commercial fishermen.

“Who doesn’t love a story?” he asked. “Even if you have heard it more than once, and you envy those who are hearing it for the first time.”

That love, in Griffin’s case, was fanned by his grandfather Alexander “Allie” Griffin’s gift as a raconteur and his subject — fishing and Chatham, the town that turned toward the sea.

“My grandfather was a fisherman, but his true talent was storytelling,” Griffin said, those stories passed down in the oral tradition.

Griffin has captured some of them in print in his book, “Tales of Old Harbor,” which reveals the personality of the fishing village and provides a window into other moments, like a ride with Joseph Kennedy, the father of President-to-be John F. Kennedy, and watching the Hindenburg float by.

“I have a heritage to upkeep, a provincial duty to my own contemporaries, and to all who enjoy a good story,” Griffin wrote in the book’s introduction.

Take this story from the mid-1930s:

Allie hadn’t been able to fish until March because the harbor had iced in. But he could make up time in the summer and in July he was out on the F/V Virginia with crewman Bill Speight, and because they were fishing for mackerel, two of his young sons joined him.

“They went to task on the chum – which smelled unholy if it sat on the boat for a time and got hot in the sun – but they didn’t mind the smell if they were allowed to fish with their father,” reads the chapter, A Day’s Pay.

The bait was five quarts of fish grind and sea water and if the ocean was rough they would add oatmeal to thicken it. After their dad saw mackerel schooling to the east, “thousands of them,” the boys scooped out the chum and spread it in an oily slick off the bow.

The boys’ handlines were baited and Speight “had a pair of gangens at the end of his line and each lead-head jig he baited with a piece of white fish belly about the size of his fingernail.” Speight – a distant cousin of Allie’s — cast in a wide arc, and once fish were on, they hauled and put the mackerel in barrels lined with block ice and ocean water.

“The mackerel went in fresh out of the ocean: brilliant silver, blue, green and striped with black, 20 inches of perfection they were, and each nearly identical to the next,” Griffin wrote.

But when the second barrel was nearly full, things upended with the appearance of a shark, which caused the mackerel to split.

The fishermen had experience with sharks, back then white sharks came through the area called the Figs, which were 40 miles south-southeast of the harbor.

“They would cut the gear entirely from the bottom: one thousand feet of groundline, with hooks and bait every six feet, gear, fish, everything, lost,” Griffin wrote.

But this time it wasn’t a white shark, this toothy visitor was a Mako and considered good eating.

“A week later Allie got a check from Berman Fish Company of New York for $64, which was a lot of money for one day and one fish,” Griffin wrote.

Thanks to his cousin Steve Nickerson, Griffin was able to add an excerpt from Aunt Eva’s journal, which provides a window into daily life during the 1930s and 40s, to each chapter.

“Every entry includes the temperature and wind direction, sometimes that was all,” Griffin said.

The book also makes clear the dangers of commercial fishing as Griffin’s grandad was there in October, 1950 when the town lost two experienced fishermen, Roy Larkin and Arthur Nickerson, coming over the dangerous, shifting Chatham Bar in dense fog. Those deaths were on the minds of Coast Guardsmen two years later as they went out to try and rescue the crew of the tanker Pendleton, which Allie Griffin and others in town watched from their windows.

As Griffin graduated high school, Chatham class of 1994, he realized that those stories could be lost. Allie had passed away and his sons – Griffin’s dad and uncles – were growing older. Griffin went to the University of Maine for creative writing, tried his hand at teaching, took some time to explore the world and ended up in Scotland for several months. It was there, learning about the heritage of his mother’s family, that he began writing about his father’s.

He got far along, but, as he described with a laugh, life intervened. He wasn’t able to get back to the book until COVID struck. When the pandemic dissipated he returned to his everyday work life but he still wasn’t quite done. His boss, who happens to be the grandson of Captain John Stello, told him to finish. So he did. (Stello shows up in the book and his character has a small role in the Disney movie, “The Finest Hours” about the rescue of the Pendleton’s men.)

Always in the back of Griffin’s mind was that his dad and uncles weren’t going to be around much longer, so he needed to get the stories down. He lost his dad last month at 94 and his oldest uncle is turning 100 this year.

“I just thought there were certain moments in time that my family talked about that are personally significant and historically significant. It was very much a different place,” Griffin said of Chatham. “I would hate to see the fishing industry shrivel away. I know the stories resonate with a lot of the fishing families and I did hope to show people who aren’t from here what life might have been like for a fishing family. You didn’t make a lot of money, but people did it for a love of the water, it’s a calling.”

Griffin says there’s more to come.

“I have about five or six stories half-written,” he said with a laugh.

Find “Tales of Old Harbor” at Yellow Umbrella and on Amazon.


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