An early advertisement for Old Harbor Fish Company, dated 1956. Courtesy of Chatham Historical Society.
By Doreen Leggett
There once was a man named Stanley Bishop who worked for an outfit called Railway Express, similar to FedEx, and his route included Chatham.
The year was 1936 or so, and Bishop knew a lot of fishermen, including Captain George Bloomer, who told him that the best, freshest fish was being unloaded in Chatham. Bishop’s route also included Fulton Fish Market in New York and he didn’t need much convincing to launch a new business: Old Harbor Fish Company.
“Bishop was an entrepreneur and some of the fishermen indicated to him that his services were exactly what was needed. So they decided to give this a try. That’s when fireworks went off at Fulton. They just hadn’t seen fish as fresh as this,” said Jim O’Connell, who would own Old Harbor 50 years later.
O’Connell, now retired, credits much of his knowledge about Old Harbor Fish Company to Mildred Nickerson. She ran the office for Bishop and then for O’Connell.
“Millie was the Bible,” O’Connell said.
Old Harbor predated the fish pier by several years. According to records at the Chatham Historical Society the town got permission from the legislature in 1942 to build a “wharf, bulkhead and fish packing house” with a price not to exceed $10,000.
Old Harbor was likely named for the harbor, now called Aunt Lydia’s Cove. O’Connell said he had been told the spot was known as Old Ship Harbor for years because people believed there was a sunken ship there. As time went on the “ship” dropped off the name.
Old Harbor moved into the right side of the new pier and took advantage of long-standing relationships.
Ron Meservey, in his 80s now, remembers his dad Roy drove a truck, mostly running sea clams from Orleans, for Bishop.
Bishop used to come into the family gas station where Ron worked as a young kid. He would arrive “in a big Oldsmobile, on the way to the track. I would wash his windows and he would give me 50 cents.”
Meservey went off-Cape to school and when he came back in the 1960s, Bishop had passed away. Meservey began working for Stone Horse Fish Company, which held the lease for the other fish packing plant at the pier.
Stone Horse was run by Bob Frasier and Meservey went into business with him and ran Tuttle’s express, a trucking company that moved the vast majority of the seafood from Chatham and Provincetown.
“We went to New York almost every night, and Philadelphia. I can remember on a Memorial Day weekend (we moved) seven trailer loads of fish,” Meservey said, adding that individual boats were bringing in 200 boxes of haddock per trip.
Bishop was considered a marketing genius and haddock was the bread and butter of the Cape fleet for years before cod.
“Fulton considered it cocktail fish. Fish markets in New York used it in their windows and there were 1000s of them,” said Meservey. “It was a good display fish.”
Tuttle’s Express shut down in 1969, but the fish companies were still going.
After Bishop had passed away, Old Harbor was sold to Frank Parsons of Provincetown and New Bedford. Parsons was a fisherman, but he wasn’t on Cape much so locals didn’t warm up to him.
According to archives at the Chatham Historical Society, Parsons brought in his son, Richard, who left after a year,. Parsons then brought in his son-in-law, Peter Rubbicco. Rubbicco,41, died suddenly, so Richard came back to tie up loose ends. Later on, John Ventola, who knew both Parsons and Rubbicco, became involved in the company.
By this point, the Chatham Fishermen’s Cooperative had been launched. Parsons offered the co-op a deal and offered to sell them Old Harbor Fish Company.
But Bob Frasier, who worked at Old Harbor for 14 years before starting Stone Horse Fish, offered a better deal. Frasier was still leasing the other side of the fish pier and said he would sell his company and sign on as general manager.
The co-op took that deal, partially because Old Harbor owned other property, including space on Route 28. Both the co-op and Old Harbor had fish markets.
The co-op got started in 1966 and did well for awhile. According to an article in The Cape Codder, within five months half a million dollars had been entered in the ledger and the co-op was doing 85 percent of the business at the pier.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, O’Connell was unaware of happenings on the fish pier. He was working various jobs and when his daughter entered third grade he and his wife, Joyce, decided to re-evaluate.
“I was a workaholic,” he said. “We had moved seven times in six years.”
The two had met at Bryant University in Rhode Island and Joyce was from Dartmouth, he from Springfield, so they were looking around Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
One day he was reading the paper and “I saw an ad in the Wall Street Journal for a fish company.”
The Magnuson Stevens Act had just passed and was pushing international boats out past the 200-mile limit. So there was opportunity in the industry.
“It is not coincidental that I bought Old Harbor in 1976,” O’Connell said. “I didn’t know a cod from a haddock, but when you work with your own money and fishermen you tend to learn fast.”
The company included a lease at the pier, an office and cutting facility on Route 28, two freezers, trucks, an ice machine and a list of wholesale and retail customers.
O’Connell also was able to employ Millie Nickerson, and he credits her as the main reason the company grew from unloading four boats to working with more than half the fleet.
“She spelled it all out,” O’Connell remembered. “Fish buyers have poor reputations,” but Millie “brought back stability and fishermen slowly came back.
“Our glory days were the 1980s. We were sending trucks to New York, Canada, New Bedford. There were tons of fish every day.”
Old Harbor became busy really quickly. The fishing industry in Chatham greatly expanded during those years: the fleet nearly doubled from 35 boats to 66 from 1973 to 1974. Landings took off as well with 65, 445 boxes of fish landed in 1978 and 70,835 in 1980, which translated into 7.8 million pounds of fish in 1987 to 8.1 million in 1980, according to wharfinger reports highlighted in the Cape Cod Chronicle.
In the late 1970s, O’Connell and the co-op were leasing the pier at $2500 a side plus paying 15 cents a box of fish to the town. Town meeting agreed to redo the pier in 1980 and Old Harbor and the co-op funded some of the work to the tune of $75,000 each.
“There wasn’t a single nay in the house,” O’Connell said of the town meeting vote.
Things began to change in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There was less fish landed, new regulations and cuts fishermen had to contend with.
O’Connell and Old Harbor left the pier in the early 1990s, but still operated out of the big building on Route 28. Former employees Bob Paine and Scott Kelly, owners of Chatham’s Finest, took over the lease. The co-op’s space had been taken by the co-op’s former manager, David Carnes, who ran it as Chatham Fish and Lobster beginning in 1981.
Catches were dropping, but O’Connell made a decision to take only hook-caught fish. He had to leave the pier because his lease required him to take all fish.
“I loved the pier. It was a great place to be,” he said.
Old Harbor remained busy. “We’d have a lineup of 20 boats at any given time,” O’Connell said, buying shellfish as well as finfish. “We had no problem getting quality fish.”
But the landings for groundfish, such as cod, continued to decrease. In 1999, O’Connell sold the company to Mark Bulman of South Cape Seafood.
“He needed a fish plant and I had one,” O’Connell said. “The idea was to keep it going for the fishermen.”
That plan did not work out and the property is now condominiums.
O’Connell ended up going into business with a scientist, Ben Morgan, and opened up Llennoco (O’Connell spelled backwards – an idea O’Connell got from Peter Cole on the Snicktaw, Watkins backwards, and another boat Diputsmi, I’m Stupid backwards.).
Their projects included raising larval fish such as flounder, and helping the Pilgrim nuclear power plant meet conditions of its permit.
At Stage Harbor they also spent a lot of time ascertaining the optimum temperature for groundfish to spawn. They discovered that the waters around Chatham had become too warm.
“We were trying to study what was happening to the cod. What we found was that the larvae didn’t survive at a higher water temperature,” he said. “I became satisfied that I couldn’t have done anything to prevent the dearth of codfish coming into Chatham.”
This story was edited to include Peter Rubbicco.