This is the 5th in a series of posts that I’m writing this week as I explore Down East Maine. While I’m here I’m keeping an eye out for historical connections between coastal Maine and coastal North Carolina.
On the other side of Union River Bay, just west of where I am staying on Mount Desert Island, in a village called Blue Hill, the menhaden oil and scrap industry was born, if one can say it was born anywhere.
According to legend (and at least some history), a fisherman’s wife in Blue Hill first invented the process of extracting oil from menhaden, which are also called “pogy” and “porgy” in these parts. They are a small silvery fish that move in great schools of hundreds of thousands and millions.
The name of the fisherman’s wife was Mary Hale Bartlett—the tales always refer to her as “Mrs. John Bartlett.” She apparently first saw the potential for extracting oil from menhaden while boiling the fish to feed to her chickens.
Blue Hill is a little village here in Hancock County, Maine, that I could see earlier today when my wife Laura and I hiked to the top of Norumbega Mountain and looked northwest.
Before the 1850s, many of Maine’s coastal farmers took two or three weeks every spring and caught menhaden in big sweep nets, working from the beach, so that they could fertilize their fields with them. The early colonists had apparently learned the practice from the Wabanaki Confederation’s people.
In addition to the menhaden oil industry originating here, most historians believe the fish scrap industry was born here, too.
According to G. Brown Goode’s American Fisheries: A History of the Menhaden, a 500-page history of the fishery that was published in 1880, Hancock County’s early fish oil factory workers began to apply “fish scrap” to their fields on days that there were no fish caught.
“Fish scrap” was what was left of the menhaden after the oil had been pressed out of them.
They used the fish scrap first on their grazing lands. Then, after composting the fish scrap with marsh mud and other materials, they tried it on their hay and potato fields. The practice was so successful at improving their soils that it quickly spread beyond Hancock County.
The state’s first menhaden factory was built near here in 1864. By 1876, eighteen menhaden factories produced oil and scrap in Maine.
By the next year, more than 60 factories operated along the New England coast. Menhaden oil was widely used as a lubricant, an illuminant and for many other industrial and domestic purposes, while the fish companies sold the scrap for fertilizer.
In the year1874 alone, East Coast menhaden factories produced 3,373,000 gallons of oil, nearly equal to the combined total of whale, seal and cod oil produced in the U.S.
Those were the first steps in the industrialization of the menhaden industry—the second great industrial fishery in the U.S., after whaling.
Other major innovations in that process of industrialization unfolded in other parts of New England in the last decades of the 19th century.
Those innovations included steam processing, key improvements in purse seines, the introduction of hydraulic presses for pressing scrap more efficiently, the adoption of large cooking tanks (instead of kettles) and, in Tiverton, Rhode Island, the construction of the first steam-powered menhaden boats.
The heyday of Maine’s menhaden industry was brief. For reasons that are not totally clear to me, the state’s menhaden fishery went into a steep decline and nearly disappeared after 1879.
Even before that time, though, Maine’s menhaden fishermen had started moving south. As early as 1866 a steam factory in South Bristol, Maine, moved to Fairport, Virginia—it was that state’s first menhaden factory.
Other fishermen followed—the most famous was probably Elijah Reed, a ship captain from Brooklin, Maine, who first established the menhaden industry in Virginia’s Northern Neck. Today the town of Reedsville, named after Capt. Reed, is home to the last menhaden fishing fleet on the East Coast.
The direct ties between Maine’s menhaden fishermen and those on the North Carolina coast are not as clear. As the menhaden industry declined in Maine and eventually in the rest of New England, many of the fish companies moved into the southern states. The companies that opened factories on the North Carolina coast mostly came Long Island Sound.
They helped to make the menhaden oil and scrap industry into North Carolina’s largest and most profitable fishery for much of the 20th century—and into a way of life in coastal towns such as Beaufort, Morehead City and Southport.
“The smell of money,” the old-timers used to call the fragrant aroma of the menhaden scrap drying in the factory yards along Lennoxville Road in Beaufort and down by what’s now the community college in Morehead City, when I was growing up on that part of the coast.
But if comparatively few Maine fishermen or fish oil and scrap companies moved to North Carolina, they still shaped that way of life.
The form the industry took on the North Carolina coast—the kinds of boats, the factories, the nets, the know-how, the very language of the trade—were first shaped here on the Maine coast, as well of course as in the fishing ports of southern New England and Long Island.
They learned the ways of the fish first, and we on the North Carolina coast inherited a great deal of what they discovered, much of that knowledge gained on the sea and through much toil and danger.
One might think that what happened here on the coast of Maine 200 years ago doesn’t mean much way down on the North Carolina coast, where I grew up and where my family worked in the menhaden business.
But that’s not the way I think about it: we all know there are many kinds of brotherhood and to me this is one of them.
I’ve written a few other things on the history of the menhaden fishery in North Carolina in case you’re interested in learning more. They include:
To hear the voices of the men and women interviewed as part of an oral history project that focused on the menhaden fishery in Carteret County, N.C., see “Music all over the Ocean.”
On the local tradition of eating menhaden roe (and a story about my cousin Edsel), see “Breaking Roe.”
For an oral history story featuring one of Southport’s African American menhaden captains, see “Capt. Eugene W. Gore: The Smell of Money.”
And for an oral history story that focuses on the community of Navassa and its history as a fertilizer company town (that used a phenomenal amount of fish scrap from North Carolina’s menhaden fleet), see “Clarence Alston: It was 1919.”
I also highly recommend two other sources: the “Raising the Story of Menhaden Fishing” project, led by Barbara Garrity-Blake with the assistance of Karen Amspacher and the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center, and Steve Goodwin’s wonderful history of the local menhaden industry, Beyond the Crow’s Nest: The Story of the Menhaden Fishery of Carteret County, N.C.