HAMPTON: A CENTURY OF TOWN AND BEACH, 1888-1988
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Chapter 15 -- Part 4
Hampton's fishing business might be broken down into several categories: commercial fin fishing, lobstering, party boat fishing, and clamming. A sideline of fishermen, and a sport for many Hampton residents, was gunning, the shooting of marsh and sea fowl.
Fishing, like farming, is an undocumented business, and little factual information is known about the fishermen and their trade except for short newspaper items and the testimony given by old-timers during the fish-house case of the 1950s. The Reverend Roland D. Sawyer, in his Hampton Union column ["Views & Reviews of Old Rockingham"], maintained a nostalgic interest in the fish houses and wrote about the business and the area many times. A 1955 column recounted the memories of 82-year-old fisherman Oliver Page. Sawyer apparently got his information from a News-Letter article written by E. P. Young in 1899. Page was born in 1818 and began commercial fishing at the age of 14, when he went on a three-month fishing trip down the coast of Maine with Captain David Perkins on the schooner Eclipse. Page said he was the first man in Hampton to use a trawl, a long line of baited hooks that a fisherman would set in a favorite fishing spot and leave overnight, returning the next day to pull in his catch. In 1840 there were "over thirty fish houses off North Beach and over 100 men and boys followed fishing." The fishermen went five to ten miles offshore to a favorite fishing spot. They steered by marks along the shore, sighting by church steeples and even tall pine trees on Breakfast Hill in Rye and in Kensington. Two men went out in a dory, one man rowing to keep the boat in place while the other hauled in the catch. They changed places occasionally during the workday, which began about 5 A.M. and ended about noon, when they came ashore. Larger boats, the socalled Hampton whaleboat, which had a mast and keel, carried four men. According to Sawyer, the dories could haul 1,200 pounds of fish, the whaleboats up to a ton of fish.
The summer catch, Page said, was haddock, pollock, and mackerel; in the winter it was cod. When the men came ashore, peddlers would be waiting to buy the catch. They journeyed around Hampton and the surrounding towns selling whole fish for two cents to ten cents each. Fish not sold to peddlers was carried to the fish houses, cleaned, then salted and placed on fish flakes (racks) where it was left to dry. The salted dried fish was a staple food in the winter and was probably the type of fish sold to inland fishmongers, who came to North Beach by wagons and sleighs from as far as Vermont. The local fishermen made crude cod-liver oil and also made fish oil for use in their lamps. After cleaning the fish, the remains were dumped through a hole in the floor to so-called fish privies, there to rot into fertilizer and apparently sold to farmers or used in the fishermen's home gardens.
By the turn of the century, Sawyer wrote, there were still as many as 50 dories hauled out on the beach before the fish houses. By this time the prices had increased, but a six pound or larger fish was only 35 cents. Sawyer, who grew up in Kensington, said the peddlers would reach his family's farm, "... just in time for supper and those cod, reddish in color from the cold deep water, had a flesh as hard as a piece of halibut. I have never tasted anything in the fish line that equalled those fresh rock cod from off Hampton shore, eaten with baked potatoes from the garden."
The News-Letter also recorded the industry's fluctuations. An 1873 article reported, "The fishermen from our beach are doing remarkably well, better than for several seasons past. John C. Palmer and others have this week caught as many as 2,500 lbs. a day to a boat. Most of these fish are bought by Messrs. Norton and DeLancey for a firm in Boston. Moses Blake and sons supply Mr. Oliver Lane of Exeter, while quite a large quantity goes to Portsmouth. Some of the fishermen have preferred to split their fish [for drying] rather than sell at present prices, which have ranged from fifty cents to eighty-seven cents per hundred lbs. One or two days during the winter fish have sold as low as twenty-five cents per hundred." Although the 1873 tax rate was only 98 cents per $100 and few fishermen would have had property worth $1,000, for which the taxes would have been $9.80, it must have been difficult for the fishermen to raise cash.
Twenty years later, Blakes and Palmers were still catching fish, as an 1892 article explained, "The off shore fishing was last week exceptionally good. In two days Levi Blake and George Palmer took 50 hundred weight of cod, which ranged in weight from 20 to 60 pounds." Mackerel were also plentiful about this time: "... every man who ever cast a line has been trying his luck with these lively fish, and generally with good success. Some of our fishermen have caught as many as twenty barrels. There is a ready sale for them." In February 1892, fisherman Harry T. Palmer shipped to Boston 2,890 pounds of dried, salted fish, principally hake. This was his second shipment of the season and George Palmer had made two shipments of nearly the same amount. Usually the fishermen sold fresh fish and only the surplus was salted and dried. Other active fishermen of the day were Oren M. Lamprey and Horace 0. Mace.
By January 1894, the fishermen were having hard times: "Hampton fishermen have hardly taken 3,000 pounds of cod this season, an unusually poor showing. Mr. George Palmer, however, had a run of luck one day last week when a single haul of his trawls yielded him 700 pounds." A month later, the status of the industry at the time was described: "The winter fishing business has been a total failure at our sea coast. Fortunately there is little personal loss, as only a few men are now interested. There has been a great change at our fish houses in a generation. Formerly scores of boats were often on the fishing ground and some days tons of fish were boxed and sent to market. Now the nomadic fish carts often come empty away, because few of the finny tribe are brought to shore. The hardy old race of fishermen sleep beside their fathers, and the fish houses, once the scene of activity and bustle, are vacant or long since in process of decay. We are sorry to hear reports that some of the few trawls set are robbed by crafty fishers from shore or jiggers."
Economic conditions apparently changed by the winter of 1898, because the newspaper said, "The fisheries at North beach are fairly remunerative. Messrs. George and Henry Palmer and Levi Blake, the principal operators, took each about 200 pounds of cod yester day, and their winter's shipments to Boston will range from 6,000 to 8,000 pounds each."
By 1907, the town census listed 12 fishermen: George Batchelder, Joseph Blake, Levi Blake and his son Charlie, Randolph P. DeLancey, Charles Lamprey, Lewis Mace, Joseph Nudd, brothers George and Harry Palmer, and their cousin Henry and his son Charles. There were three fish dealers: John Page, William Redman, and Nathaniel Spinney. The 12 fishermen were the last to use the fishhouses and several of them testified in the fish house case in November 1955. Lewis Mace, who was then 72, testified, "All my living has always come from those fish houses, all my life. I wasn't more than 15 years old when I struck in down there (about 1898)." He began to fish from a 20-foot sailboat and later had powerboats, all of which had to be small enough to be hauled up and down the beach. Mace said the fishing business declined rapidly when the clam population dropped, because the clams were used for bait, but "now the clams are worth more than the fish are." Mace later ran a fish market from a separate building next to the fish houses. Eventually he sold his fish house to his son Harold, who used it as part of his lobstering business.
Henry Hobbs, who testified about collecting seaweed at the fish houses, first remembered going to the fish houses as a boy of seven in 1888. Hobbs later worked for J. A. Lane and Company, driving a delivery wagon, bringing groceries to local residents, and sometimes hauling salt and gear down to the fishermen, because "...very few of them had horses."
Charles Palmer stopped fishing in 1923 when he and his wife Ruth opened a restaurant across the street from the fish houses. His son Philip did use the fish house for a while as part of a lobstering business, and later he ran a fish market in another building next to the fish houses. Only Arthur Doggett and Harold Mace were actively lobstering and using the fish houses to store bait and equipment at the time of the fish-house trial in the 1950s. Doggett continues to use his fish house today. The Mace fish house has since been acquired by the town and is being restored. As an active fishing center, though, the day of the old fish houses was over soon after the turn of the century, especially when powerboats began to be used.
There was little commercial fishing from Hampton River for decades because lobstering was more lucrative, but in the last 20 or 50 years, a number of boats have been fitted out for gill netting, trawling, and dragging. Some of the first to do this were party boat operators, who wanted to keep fishing in the winter, and lobstermen, who traditionally stopped lobstering about the end of the year for about three or four months. Fishing has become sophisticated, with large fiberglass boats equipped with extensive electronic gear for finding fish and for navigation. With the establishment of the 200-mile limit in 1976, local fishermen now range far offshore, staying several days at a time to harvest their catch. Currently six to nine fin fishermen are based in Hampton. In 1987, nine New Hampshire and nine out-of-state boats unloaded a total catch of 1,042,872 pounds at Hampton River wharves.
Cod, once so abundant and highly prized, is now rare, but the fishermen bring in haddock and flounder. Tuna fishing has also become popular, first as a sport, but also as a commercial catch because the fresh tuna meat brings high prices when sold for the Japanese export market. In 1938, a Plum Island boater caught what the Portsmouth Herald said was the first tuna to be taken off Hampton Beach, and the Chamber of Commerce was planning to award a special silver trophy to the first person to harpoon a tuna in the near offshore waters.