Industrial Arts

Eva Murray: Fish Factory

(--a Rockland reminiscence, while we're all here enjoying the culture--)
Mon, 09/09/2013 - 3:00pm

Rockland didn't always look like this.

Purists and old timers are inclined to bemoan gentrification and, to be sure, there are towns in Maine (like Cape Elizabeth) and neighborhoods within cities (like now-so-trendy parts of hardscrabble Brooklyn) that have long forgotten the days when working-class residents stored cabbages away for winter or saved up pocket change all week for an ice cream cone on Saturday. But laying a few ornamental bricks into Main Street, opening up more restaurants and undermining the authority of a few motorcycle gangs does not necessarily tip the scales all the way to "gentrification." We need not sugarcoat our memories of rougher days, although those of us who worked in Rockland when ethnic cuisine was, as a friend liked to remark, "La Choy Chinese noodles in a can," may have earned the right to chuckle over the luxury of the present.

Rockland has changed a great deal in 30-some-odd years, and no, I would resist calling it gentrified, even if the ratio of art galleries to work-boot emporia is a bit off. There is still grapenut ice cream, except on Sunday, you can still get in a bar fight in the south end and there is more working waterfront territory in this town than in many. Only now, we can load a great many barrels of bait aboard the smack Bajupa headed for Matinicus at the municipal fish pier, and then go and enjoy a fresh-ground coffee, two scoops of maple walnut or an organic IPA on tap—or given enough free time, all three.

It was not always so.

In the late summer/early fall of 1981 I hitchhiked from South Thomaston every weekday morning with a pair of sharp scissors and a tuna fish sandwich to work two shifts in the sardine factory. My rides were other working folks coming up Route 73 from Spruce Head, among them women going to sew in the garment factory they called Van Baalen's (remember that?). I saved up until I had $500 and with that I bought a car.

A lot of folks around this bay get all romantic and nostalgic about the sardine days. It may be a sort of half-joking badge of authenticity, some lowbrow evidence that we have been around here for a while. I spent a good part of last year's Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors Boat Show listening to recollections about a Jacob Pike filled with herring, and everyone from columnist Brian Robbins to my neighbors on Matinicus were there when sardines were big business. I rode with pilot Art Smith to go "fish spotting," the job of looking for schools of herring from a small airplane. We'd fly in circles banked over at a steep angle, and Art liked to smoke a lot of Kools, but I managed to keep my dinner down. Up and down the coast guys tell stories of making big money, filling entire coves with fish and harvesting them all, Lehtinen's million, Ames's fortune. All gone now.

But in 1981 there were plenty of herring. At 7 a.m. we'd put on our hairnets and plastic aprons, wrap our left (or non-scissor- wielding) hands in yards of white first aid tape, and stand at our appointed tables. The factory floor at Port Clyde Foods, at the bottom of Winter Street, had two parallel sets of conveyor belts with stainless steel work tables arrayed perpendicular to the belts on both sides every few feet. At table height was the belt carrying the fresh fish, just off the boat and pumped directly into the cannery. Below that the "gurry" belt carried off heads and tails for lobster bait, and at a rather deafening ear-level, the can belt, rattling constantly with the sound of thousands of empty sardine cans. We'd grab a handful of cans from the top belt, shove an armload of herring onto our table as the fish moved along, and with very sharp shears, quickly remove heads and tails one at a time before slapping each fish into cans in alternating directions. Yes, it was easy to cut one's hand; thus, all that first aid tape in advance, as a second skin for the most vulnerable spots. Yes, it was boring, and yes, the bones stayed in the fish; they'd soon be pressure-cooked to an unrecognizable softness. Yes, we'd get a deal on dented cans of sardines, all we wanted.

Rockland in those days offered few enough places to eat after dark, and almost none at 10 pm, when the second shift in the cannery ended. A pizza and sandwich place called The Rockland Chipyard stayed open late and I was a regular there, and was very grateful for their valiant effort, but economics forced their hand and before long it was their last day.

After Labor Day in this area the assumption was that everybody lived around here and ought to just go home for supper. The coffee in Rockland wasn't great, the air was occasionally rank and the general mood was...worried. Just the same, I still sometimes think of the "real" Rockland as a city of fish plants, and this pleasant incarnation, with great food and a palpable sense of optimism, as something a bit inexplicable.

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Eva Murray Eva Murray lives on Matinicus.