McNeil Oyster Co--History & Reminiscences

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McNeil Oyster Co—History & Reminiscences by Robert McNeil 2012

My paternal grandfather, John Paul McNeil’s family settled in City Point from Nova Scotia. He had 2 brothers, Dan and Will and a sister Ada. Of Scottish heritage, he became an oyster dealer and grower and had his oyster opening shop and boats at City Point in New Haven. It was a family business and in the beginning he sailed a sloop with hand dredges to catch oysters. I never knew my grandfather McNeil, but from stories I was told he was a good sailor as he would sail his sloop down Long Island Sound, without power, through “Hell Gate” to New York. He owned several boats and later acquired a powered dredge boat, “Sylph”. He was a man very involved in establishing the governing rules and laws of oystering in Connecticut. My grandfather and my grandmother Christina lived across the street from his business on South Water Street. Our home was also near the harbor on Sea Street, one block away. Captain McNeil kept two horses in the barn on South Water Street and they were used to take the barrels of fresh oysters up to the railroad station for shipment to Fulton Market in New York. In time the business centered on marketing oysters in the shell and the process of opening oysters was discontinued. Oysters were then sold by the bushel and shipped loose or in burlap bags loaded on trucks. My father became co-owner of the McNeil Oyster Co. when my grandfather died and his two sons continued the business. At that time the boat “Sylph” was replaced with the newer “Mollie M.” She was a 50 foot dredge boat built on Long Island. Uncle Jack was captain and my dad became a deck hand.

Dad and Uncle Jack had a truck that was used to transport and transplant oysters from New Haven to Clinton Connecticut where they bought an oyster business from Smith, a local oysterman. The oysters growing in Clinton were a fatter oyster and good in color and flavor. This made them good for the market and after a period of growth they were caught up and loaded into long squareenders. They had 2 of these approximately 18’ flat bottomed barges that also used the scull oar for propulsion. One night they left the truck out in front of the Oyster shop and someone stole all 4 tires off of it as tires were scarce because of the war. Uncle Jack, like my grandfather was a heavy man and had a heart attack while working at Clinton and died. This left my father the owner of the business and captain of the “Mollie M”.

On Sep 21st, 1938 a hurricane hit our area and it was a devastating storm. Many trees were down and power was out for at least a week. The rising tide flooded South Water

Street and came half way up Sea Street and we had water in our basement. Our neighborhood was a mess and the docks and boats took a beating. Our oyster shop on South Water Street collapsed completely and was a total loss. The shop at Clinton was washed away and when we looked for it we couldn’t find it among the many cottages that came floating over from Cedar Island that were also washed away. It was amazing that some of these cottages were hardly damaged; they just floated across Clinton Harbor. One cottage had a lamp sitting on the table but most of them were not so lucky and were destroyed. The damage was tremendous as most yachts at Clinton ended up on docks or land. The “Mollie M.” was saved or we would have been ruined. When there was a storm warning extra lines were run out and the Mollie’s birth at the time was between two piers for protection so she was fairly safe unless the water level lifted her over the dock. The shops were eventually rebuilt on a smaller scale by Uncle Bill, my mother’s brother in law from Long Island. Some of the lumber from the collapsed shop was used. Every time a hurricane was threatened it was panic time to save the boat and rebuild the docks after the damage and there was usually always damage. The shop at Clinton in the following years had been damaged quite a few times and moved back from the water’s edge by different hurricanes. Eventually Dad had the building raised on blocks four feet higher so in the next hurricane the waves washed under the building. The dock was repaired three or four times as the high tides would raise it up or tear off the planking.

I grew up on the water’s edge at my father’s shop and dock. After school I waited for signs of his boat and his return to help catch a line and help tie-up or unload the catch. He told me he did the same thing as a boy and looked forward to leftovers in his father’s lunch pail. He said one day he put the empty pail over his head and ran up the dock saying “I’ve got a piece of pie” and fell overboard in the mud. He acquired the nickname “ucky” and had that name with his friends for many years. I don’t know at what age I was allowed on the boat but it must have been as a passenger being restricted to the upper bunk in the pilot house. I remember the day we ran into a sudden squall and the water and shells came sweeping into the pilot house but it ended as quickly as it started. After school and Saturdays I worked picking oysters in the shop or going out on the sound to dredge oysters or drag for starfish. They made me a special shovel by cutting one down to size. These oyster shovels were like coal shovels being large and wide. One of the rubber companies provided us with hip boots to test. I was in my glory wearing my boots and felt like a real sea dog. Our crew all chewed tobacco and it was a good idea to always stand upwind of Sal Jones, Bud Perkins, and Humpty Durkins. Bud was a very large happy black man and his hands were so big he had to split the fingers on his work gloves to get his hands in them. We sometimes would go to Dixwell Avenue, the black neighborhood, to look for crew and Bud would spot a black man and help recruit him for a day. Humpty was a jack of all trades and could fix most problems. Sal was in his seventies and walked every day from West Haven to work in his hip boots. He was my

mentor and taught me many ship board needs such as how to file my shovel and tie knots. Sal would spit on his hands and felt tobacco juice could fix almost everything. After World War II started the Coast Guard was patrolling the harbor with Pickett boats and every boat entering or leaving the harbor had to fly three international code flags and the code was changed each week. If we didn’t go and get the new code at the downtown office we would get stopped and sent back to port. We didn’t appreciate this as it would ruin a day if we were delayed. There was a time when a crew was so hard to find some oyster companies used men from the local jail. A sheriff would bring them down and the oysterman had to supply the men with pay, lunch and cigarettes. Some problems occurred and I remember one man worked on deck bare chested in the winter. Some of them were a little different but we didn’t have to use jailbirds on our boat as Dad had his two sons. We had two jugs of drinking water on board the boat, one for the chewers and one for the non–chewers. You could spot the chewer’s jug with the bits of tobacco floating in it. Mom would pack the lunch which consisted of at least two “bologna steak” sandwiches and cookies and apples. I was usually ready for my lunch about ten-o’clock .One of the crew loved “Pepsi” and shared it with me and a whole bottle of soda was new to me. I remember my dad going out at night to Clinton as someone was reported to be stealing oysters. I don’t know if anyone was caught but it seemed like some of the locals thought that midnight oystering was profitable.

Once I found a gun under the mattress in the pilot house and never mentioned this to Dad but I guess it may have been needed but I doubt he would try to shoot it. During the summer we were planting empty shells hoping for a set that summer. The mature oysters that were in the water released a milky spawn around the middle of August so the shells had to be overboard in July. We would load the “Mollie M�. with up to a thousand bushels of shells from the dock and plant them on our shoal beds to attract the spawn which floated around with the tides and then sank and attached to the empty shells to grow new oysters. The shells had been piled on the dock during the year and were as high as a mountain. There was probably around 100,000 bushels to be forked into wheelbarrows and loaded on the boat. A wooden plank was stretched across the boat supported by a wire that was held up by stanchions about 8feet over the deck.

The first few wheelbarrow loads caused the plank to bend as if to break but as the boat filled it was less bouncy. We were sure to put as much on board as we could and had to stop when the water got up to the guards and deck. That was the time to go to our setting oyster bed. When we got there we pulled the boards to unload and then we would get on top of the load of shells to push the load off. When we lowered the load from the top it was then time to shovel the rest of the load overboard. When we unloaded a load of shells my brother George and I would shovel on the same side of the boat and work fast to try to make the boat take on a list. Poor old Sal didn’t like that and tried to slow us down with his stories of his lifelong oystering career. On our way back to the dock we would wash the boat down by dipping a large 5 gal pail with a rope over the side for water and with a stiff broom scrub the pilot house and deck. You always had to be sure to have a good grip on one of the stanchions so when you threw the pail over the side or the sudden pull would take you overboard. We would also buy shells from other growers and this would be delivered in large schooners that could carry as much as five thousand bushels. They usually came from Greenport which was a big oystering town on Long Island. Some days we would plant two boatloads and this was all completed with a shovel and a strong back. Most of this was done in the summer heat so we would start at 4:00 oclock in the morning to beat the heat and be finished early. The problem was the gnats in the shell heap that were so thick they got in your mouth and eyes.

Many oyster companies from all over Connecticut and Long Island found New Haven ideal for raising new crops and had setting grounds here. Other than shelling we spent time moving 2 or 3 year old oysters from our inshore beds to offshore beds outside the breakwaters so they would grow and could be marketed. Oysters inside the harbor could not go to retail markets until they spent time in cleaner waters. Sometimes we would sell set or young oysters to another dealer. We would tie up next to the buyer boat and slide the oysters in baskets across a wet plank as someone kept tally. The dredge was made of iron in the form of an A with the neck connected to a chain which ran through a large pulley on the hoisting post in the middle of the foredeck and down through the deck to the hoister. It had a bar across the bottom with teeth about 3 inches pointed down to scoop the oysters. It had a bag with chain link on the bottom and rope net on the top. It had a wooden bar that when pulled inward dumped the catch on the deck. The bag was shaken out and the dredge was thrown overboard. When the dredge came in we never knew what we caught especially on the inner harbor. We might get boots, bottles, wood, and something dead like horseshoe crabs. We caught a dead cat and seemed to catch it just before lunch time to ruin our meal. On nice days we would anchor on a dredge and drop our hand lines overboard. We usually had bait in the way of winkles or clams. If we caught clams they would end in chowder or we would plant them in a corner of the oyster ground and hope to find them in the future. Winkles or whatever else they are known as had no value to us. You could cook them forever and they were tough.

Our Italian friends from uptown would meet the boat and wanted them so we would make a couple of dollars. They used them in the sauces they enjoyed. During drifts when the dredges were on the bottom we would sit on the rail waiting to dump the catch. Crew man Billy Jacques would sit in a basket so my brother and I slipped some crabs in the basket just to wake him up, which it did.

The “Mollie M” was yellow pine planked with oak frame timbers. She was built on Long Island around Sayville by a man named Bishop. There was a brass plate over the engine with the builders name on it. The shipyard builders thought she was well built and marveled that her bottom planking ran the whole length with hardly any “butts” where the planks where joined. This left fewer areas that might leak. She was 50 feet long and had only 3 ½ feet draft which made her ideal for working the shoal grounds. She was rated as 13 tons and powered by a 3 cylinder “Wolverine” gasoline engine made in Bridgeport. The engine was a slow turning work engine that had 42 hp. with a huge flywheel that had to be spun to get it started. To start

the engine a small amount of gas was poured through a prime cup in the top of each cylinder. A large bar was inserted in the holes in the flywheel and when the cylinder reached top dead center a mighty pull was made to spin the wheel. Being a gasoline engine it was temperamental and unreliable. If it backfired you either let go of the bar or went over the wheel on your head. We had to gas-up by carrying the gas down the dock in cans to fill the tanks, which were up forward. All boatmen know how dangerous it is gassing-up as fumes get in the enclosed hull and a spark will blow up the boat so we were careful. One day a crew member’ “Moses” was looking for rope in the hold and came up with a lit match in his hand. My dad could have died. On the boat I was the oilier as every couple of hours the engine had to be oiled and grease cups had to be turned. This required being very close to the huge spinning flywheel under the pilot house deck. The oil was a heavy grade and could be thinned by setting the oil near the warm exhaust pipe. Not a good idea on a rough day. We kept high octane gas in the barn for priming the engine. On Saturdays we only worked half day and had to get going on time. Dad sent me to the barn to get the special gasoline and I picked up a can of kerosene in an unmarked can. The engine wouldn’t start and everyone took a turn at the big flywheel but Bud being the strongest had to admit it wouldn’t start. By the time the mistake was discovered it was too late to go out on the water and the day was lost. Poor Bud was covered in sweat and I was to blame.

My father had a fear of fire and was always afraid of something catching fire. At home we had a coal furnace in the basement; a range fire in the kitchen; he tended the furnace in my grandmother’s house and the boat had a coal stove in the engine room. Before we could leave the dock and go home he went through a checking ritual that seemed ridiculous. He would have a check count from the bottom of the stove up the pipe and do it continuously until he was satisfied that everything was set correctly. Then we would lock the cabin door and he would peek through the window at the stove and count. Sometimes he would unlock the door and go back in and do the checking again. Of course the boat was his main source of a living and the boat had no insurance of any kind. It must have been either unavailable or too expensive. When we came in to the dock at the end of a trip it was a major chore getting a line on the dock attached to a piling. At low tide with the wind blowing offshore someone had to jump up onto the dock if no one was there to catch a line. That was my job. Then by use of a stern spring line in which Sal would lasso a pile, the boat would back into the boat slip. Boats of today with their twin powerful engines would make easy work of it but the “Mollie M.” was like a duck on the water. She had a huge solid bronze rudder controlled with a chain to prevent it from going too far. To make the boat go to starboard the wheel was turned left. This is just the opposite of current pleasure boats. I don’t know if this system was used on other oyster boats but I assume it made it simpler to set up. I know a person could get confused trying to back up. To bring in a dredge Dad pushed a brass handled lever that engaged the engine to the hoisters. The hoisters were directly in front of the engine. He then pulled a rope that

engaged the hoisters with the chain to bring in the dredge. After the dredge was dumped onboard, the dredge was thrown overboard and a different set of ropes applied the brakes to stop the dredge at the correct water depth. A rope toggle was tied to the chain at the desired depth and this would change depending what oyster bed we were working. Our bed outside of the breakwater at Southwest Ledge was the deepest and it seemed to take forever to pull a dredge. This bed was the one with the most starfish and they could move in overnight and clean out the oysters. Much time and money was spent fighting the dreaded starfish and drills. We had cotton mops about 5 feet long that were attached to an iron frame and attached to the hoister with chain. About 12 mops to a frame were towed along the bottom and the starfish with their rough bodies got tangled in the mops. Then the mops were brought aboard and hung along the sides of the boat and the stars were picked off one by one. Dad said he would pay me 10 cents a mop to pick the starfish off the mops and the crew gave me the skinny mops, which didn’t have as many stars on them. Seems like .10 cents was the going rate for everything, but we never got an allowance and knew enough not to expect one. At the end of the day he asked me how many mops I picked and I said “I thought you were counting.� Rule is, never work for your relatives. We had no defense for drills and they could wipe out a bed of oysters in a week. Drills were a small snail like creature that had the ability to drill a tiny hole in the shell of the oyster and I suppose eat it. After drills got into a bed there was nothing left but a shell with a hole in it. The starfish was brought in at the end of the day and thrown on the dock to dry out and die. If any part of the

orange eye survived they would grow back any of the five legs they had lost. They made great smelly fertilizer but could be too strong and burn the plant if planted too close to the root. Some oystermen had troughs with hot water onboard their boats to dip the stars or some used lye to kill them. Dad installed a mast and boom on the boat which made it possible to haul our oysters off the boat by bucket and dump the oysters through a hatch in the roof of the shop directly onto the picking bench. This was a great help as we didn’t have to shovel the oysters up through the shop door. Picking was the process of separating the oysters from the empty shells. The oysters were bagged and the empty shells were wheeled out the front door and up the plank to the shell heap. These shells would dry out and planted next summer, with hopes of a new crop. The bagged oysters would be loaded on a truck and off to market as at this time we were wholesaling and not opening oysters. I realize now how dangerous a fisherman’s life is as we always wore hip boots so a fall overboard in the winter would be impossible to recover from—especially with a boat that was so hard to maneuver. Also the handling of heavy iron dredges was dangerous as when they were literally thrown overboard it was possible to get caught and follow it in. At young ages we thought we were indestructible. Oystering was declining due to natural causes in the 1950’s. Most dealers thought it was the change in the water quality caused by the increased manufacturing in the city as well as poor management by the oystermen who over worked the oyster beds. My father was a tenuous person, many days he didn’t want to go out on the oyster

beds if the weather was bad and the sea rough. The decision to build a dock and buy another boat was at my brother’s insistence. Dad tried to deepen the water next to the dock by kicking the “Mollie” back and forth and some progress was made but not enough to float the boats at low tide. The neighbor to the west complained as some of the mud washed onto his property. This was a bad move as the boat, “Rhoda Crane,” needed repairs and another shipyard bill was the result. I had attended trade school after high school in hopes of being a help with the boats. I don’t know if the “Rhoda” ever caught any oysters as I was working as a mechanic for Chevrolet and was soon drafted and went to Korea. The need for deep water to dock the boats eventually brought in the New England Dock and Dredge Company, our next door neighbor at City Point. They offered to dig a few loads of mud so the dock could be used to dock the “Mollie” so without a contract my father agreed and thought it was a neighborly thing. Then the bill was presented in the thousands of dollars our neighbor soon owned the property. The dock company agreed to move the building to Clinton as the thought was it could be made into a home for my parents but as it sat on the marsh in Clinton without a foundation it eventually sagged and no funds were available to set it up. My parents were able to retain the property at Clinton with the original shop built right after the “38” Hurricane and made it into a small summer 2 room residence. It had a round iron stove and a sliding glass door looking out at the harbor and the parade of boats coming and going. Dad

would judge every passing boat by its lines and condemn any that didn’t set well in the water. The property at Clinton was originally purchased around 1934 from a local oysterman and the oyster beds being fed from the Hammonasset River were used to fatten the oysters that were transplanted from New Haven. The oysters harvested from Clinton being fat and good color were labeled “Cedar Island Oysters”, after the tiny island off Clinton. My dad after moving to Clinton and retirement still had a small patch of oysters on the flats just to the east of the converted oyster building that they lived in. At low tide he could just put on his boots and with a basket pick up a half bushel. Oystering in the early days was quite unscientific as compared to the industry today. The State of Connecticut provided a shellfish commission with a laboratory in Milford to assist fishermen. They had research boats that made surveys and tested the water but oystering was a guessing game at best as most companies disappeared in the 1950’s. These thoughts on City Point and oystering and the McNeil family business are my memories, some 70 years after the fact. They are the adventures of an 8 to 16 year old boy who loved being on the water—and the pleasures and glory of being part of the crew of the Mollie M.

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