Chapter 15 -- Part 7

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Digging clams is one of the oldest activities to be conducted in Hampton. Indians came to the area, probably for centuries, during the summer to fish in the river and dig clams from the mud flats. Piles of clamshells have been uncovered adjacent to marsh creeks in Hampton, Seabrook, and Hampton Falls. Clams must have been a staple for the first settlers as well. The soft-shelled clam, Mya arenaria, was abundant and found everywhere in the Hampton River estuary, although most commonly in the flats adjacent to the harbor. Hampton River clams are the same species as those from Maryland and Maine, which are now served locally fried or steamed, but the local clams have a nice white shell and a sweeter taste, natives say. The popularity of clams, combined with mysterious fluctuations in the population, have made clam digging a controversial issue for many years.

The early clam markets were the hotels and restaurants of Hampton Beach, and while some Hampton people dug clams commercially, the industry has traditionally been based in Seabrook, which has the largest clam flats and where men dug the clams and women shucked the meat from the shells in clam houses, a few of which remain although the clams are imported from other shellfish regions. Originally each town owned and controlled the clam flats and for many years digging was unregulated. Clams were once so numerous that a good digger could fill several bushel baskets with clams on a tide. The clam population could not withstand the assault of the diggers, however, and, as early as 1902, the Hampton Union reported, "The scarcity of clams in Hampton River has become quite a serious thing and those who fully realize the condition see the importance of a three months' law to protect them, either in the spring or autumn, as clams do not grow much in the winter season and in the summer they are needed for food. The continual raid that is brought to bear upon the clam bank year after year for food would soon bring this most relishable bivalve to become extinct if a remedy was not occasionally applied by law,"

The 1907 session of the State Legislature passed a clam law authorizing the towns to establish their own ordinances controlling the commercial digging of clams and prohibiting the sale of New Hampshire clams out of state. Residents of towns were permitted to dig freely for the use of their own families. Exempted from the law were hotel owners digging for the use of their customers and fishermen using clams for bait. In response to this law, the 1908 Hampton town meeting passed three resolutions concerning clams: (1) making it legal to take clams only by the use of a hand clam digger; (2) permitting a nonresident to "dig, take or carry away [no] more than one bushel of clams on any one calendar day"; and (3) empowering the selectmen to enforce the regulations.

Apparently at the instigation of the Seabrook legislator whose constituents could dig more clams than could be sold locally or in state, the state law was amended in 1909 to permit the out-of-state sales of the clams. As a result, it was charged by Merrill H. Browne that "The Hampton clam flats were subsequently invaded by nonresidents; [and] hundreds of barrels of clams were dug and shipped to Boston to be sold as 'Providence Rivers [clams]."' Hampton responded to the changed state law by limiting the nonresidents to one peck of clams per day, prohibiting the sale of Hampton clams out of state, and ordering the selectmen to establish the boundary between this town and Hampton Falls as it pertained to the clam fiats. Browne, a gadfly who had been harassing the Hampton Beach Improvement Company and town officials for what he termed to be an unfair lease arrangement, wrote in a January 1911 letter to the Union editor that he "... would impose on your good nature by writing a few words upon such a prosaic, commonplace subject as the clam." Browne followed with a lengthy tirade against Hampton legislator Howard G. Lane, who Browne believed had failed to protect properly Hampton clams by not fighting against the 1909 amendment that allowed out-of-state clam sales. Lane said he had argued unsuccessfully against the change, but legislators believed that the flats "were several thousand acres in extent and that the more often dug over, the greater the supply."

Amused by Browne's latest tirade, the Union responded, "The Hampton clam has found a new champion, and its rights will be presented by an eloquent and able young attorney who has given up the project of building a new town hall for the present so that he may devote his time to the downtrodden and oppressed bivalve."

In 1911, regular and special town meetings acted again on the clam situation. Nonresident fishermen were required to buy a 25 cent permit to dig bait clams and voters approved an article reading, "That no person, not a bonafide resident of Hampton shall dig, except for the consumption of himself or family, clams from the flats, shores, creeks or rivers situated within the boundaries of the said town of Hampton and subject to the state jurisdiction." Later that summer, concern again was expressed over the shortage of clams. Local hotels were said to have been forced to get clams from other areas because not enough clams were available locally. It required two hours to fill a good-sized basket, and many people believed that the clams had been dug to excess.

The 1915 town meeting changed the local clam laws again, limiting nonresidents to one-half bushel per day but permitting residents to sell any quantity of clams to nonresidents. The latter probably were dealers who purchased local clams for sale elsewhere. Violations of the law were subject to a $10 fine or 30 days in jail. The problems continued, however, and by June, the Hampton clam diggers were planning to conduct a crusade" against outside people digging clams in Hampton River. The clammers claimed nonresidents were taking large quantities of clams to which they had no legal right.

Horace L. Bragg, who started a clam business about 1890 near the site of Mile Bridge, was pleased one year when he sold 32 quarts of clams during the Fourth of July holidays. On the weekend of the 1926 Fourth, he sold 500 gallons, and for the year, he sold 15,000 bushels of clams. Others selling fresh clams were Fred Lorenz, the J. Ryan store, and the Page store.

The clam situation apparently continued unchanged until the 1928 town meeting adopted a motion prohibiting the shipment of clams in the shell, prohibiting the shipment of clams in any form out of state, and requiring diggers to have a no-cost permit from the town clerk. Voters also supported a resolution prohibiting the taking of clams less than two inches in length; ten clams of this length in a peck would result in a fine of $10 or 30 days in jail. In 1932, an adjourned town meeting voted $500 to seed certain areas of the clam flats in hopes of increasing clam populations. The seeded areas were closed for one year and an earlier-named three-man committee appointed to oversee the project was expanded to nine members: Edward S. Batchelder, Charles D. Palmer, George P. Perkins, Charles H. Palmer, Fred H. Thompson, Ralph A. Mace, Armas Guyon, Charles H. Moody, and Horace L. Bragg. In 1935, the clam limit was reduced to one peck per day.

In 1940, the Seabrook clamming industry was said to have been worth up to $200,000, but in 1941 hardly a legal-size clam could be found. To combat the problem, a regional effort was started. Even in areas that had been closed, the clam population had declined and researchers thought perhaps there was a chemical in the water affecting the clams. The 1941 Legislature enacted a state clam law that prohibited non-New Hampshire residents from digging, permitted residents under age 16 to dig without a license, charged older people 15 cents for a license, and limited the daily take to one-half bushel.

A special town meeting in June 1943 again addressed the clam issue, as the bivalve was apparently making a comeback. Selectmen were given the authority to open or close specific areas of the flats, clams were required to be at least two inches long, $5 licenses were available to any New Hampshire resident to dig up to three bushels per day, and New Hampshire residents or owners of Hampton property could have a noncommercial license at no charge for one-half bushel per day. This ordinance was amended at the 1946 town meeting. So-called clam worms, which were dug and sold for bait, were added to the regulations. Nonresidents paid $1 for a one-pint-per-day permit, and residents were allowed to take unlimited amounts of clam worms for private use.

In 1948 and 1949, there were again fears that the clam flats would soon be depleted and Hampton River conditions were to be studied as part of a federal survey. Union sports editor Irving "Soup" Campbell, in a 1950 column, wrote, "The Hampton clam flats are in a deplorable condition," and he urged the selectmen to divide the clam flats into two sections, closing one part for two years, the rest for three years to allow the clams to repopulate the flats. The federal survey reported that mussel beds were expanding in Hampton River but that the clam population, while low, would recuperate with proper management. In response to this survey and the continuing clam problem, the 1951 Legislature gave the State control of all clam flats, closing most of the beds for two years and permitting only one peck per day for personal use. Clams had to be over two-and-a-half inches in length. Commercial digging ended; only digging for personal consumption has been allowed since that year.

Meanwhile, Hampton lobsterman Irving Jones was given permission by Hampton Falls voters to conduct clam-farming experiments in Eastman's Slough, just across the harbor from Hampton. Jones placed plastic sheeting over a portion of his flats, believing the sheeting would retain and protect the clam seed. In another area, chicken wire was placed over the clam beds to protect the clams from predation by horseshoe and green crabs. Vertical screening was also used, and it appeared to work, as the crabs were kept from the sample area and the clam populations increased. The 1954 town meeting voted to spend $500 to fence off an acre of Hampton clam flats to see if that plan would help the clam population, but storms destroyed the fences. The flats, closed for several years, were open to digging again, one peck for personal use, in had not yet increased substantially, but the harbor was going to be dredged and the clams would be lost anyway, state officials explained.

Since the 1960s, the clam flats have been open and closed many times. The enforcement of illegal digging has increased, but digging restrictions have decreased the legal take of clams. Recurrences of "red tide," a name given to a buildup of toxins in clams that make them harmful and possibly fatal to human consumption, have also caused the flats to be closed many times in recent years.

Blue mussels grow abundantly in Hampton River and while the bivalve has long been considered a delicacy in Europe, some local clammers believe that the mussel beds are a pest that destroys the clam flats and that ought to be eliminated from the river. Overdigging and periodic natural fluctuations in the clam populations appear to have the most impact on the clams, however. Some local restaurants are now serving commercially grown blue mussels and as local people begin to acquire a taste for mussels, a few individuals are now beginning to harvest Hampton River mussels for their own consumption. For the present, the Hampton River clam remains the local delicacy and a meal of steamed local clams provides twentieth-century residents with a taste and a tradition that has been enjoyed here for centuries. Freshly shucked Hampton River clams with the addition of milk, salt pork, onions, and potatoes makes a chowder that is as authentic a New England seacoast dish as one can eat. As a local clammer once said, "The only thing better than a bowl of clam chowder is plenty 'ob' it!"

(In the spring of 1989, the clam flats and mussel beds of Hampton River were closed due to high coliform bacteria counts, an indication that human wastes were flowing into the river. The source of the pollution was not determined as this book was being completed, but officials feared the river might have to be closed for years.)

New Hampshire Clam Licenses Sold Since 1952*

Year Number of
Licenses Sold
1952    189
1956 1,800
1963 2,900
1965 8,400
1977 2,700
1980 4,100
1984 7,056
1985 6,600
*Figures provided by the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department indicate the number of licenses sold for digging in all estuaries of the state, but most of the clamming is done in Hampton River.
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