ROCKPORT, MA – No matter what harbor you might visit you likely will find someone that can tell you everything about that harbor. I am always looking for that person, but always get the stories from others as they may add to the harbor’s history and the people who made it what it is. When I did the article on the launching of MARY B. for of Rockport, MA I asked about how he got into lobstering and how had given him start. One person he mentioned that really knew the history of Rockport was Robert Morris. After a call to Pete Haskell I had an invitation to come down and interview him and boy was it worth it.
Bob, who was born in 1957, has lived his entire life in Rockport. His great grandfather was Austin Abrams Doane from St. John, New Brunswick, who came to fish out of Gloucester on the schooners, one of which was the ARETHUSA [Tarr & James, Essex, 1907, wrecked Sambro Ledge, Halifax, Nova Scotia 8 November 1929]. Bob added, “My grandmother lived to 96 and I still remember her stories of my grandfather’s trips to the Grand Banks and the time he washed overboard. One of my favorite stories that my grandmother told me in her dying days, she said, ‘I want to tell you something about when I was a little girl,’ she said my father, Austin was ashore from the Banks trips and the HENRY FORD had finally gotten rigged out in Gloucester. Fishing families, wives and children, would go down to the Gorton Pew docks and see the new schooner once she got her sails and masts in place. My grandmother went down there and she said she was so frightened of the horses, but her father dragged her aboard the schooner and they took the shake-down cruise. They left Gorton Pew dock and sailed down towards Marblehead and back into Gloucester on the HENRY FORD [Arthur D. Story, Essex, MA, 1922; lost Newfoundland, 1928].
When asked about his great grandfather going overboard, Bob explained, “He had been washed overboard and recovered when he was a dory mate on the ARETHUSA.”
Bob wondered why his great grandfather had left New Brunswick, thinking how bad it must have been there. It may not have been bad there, but maybe there was more opportunity in the Gloucester fisheries.
Bob asked to tell another story. “Austin, in his travels, I am sure he was in and out of Nova Scotian and Newfoundland ports during his travels. My grandmother gave my mother a carved maple leaf, it’s actually from a piece of the hull of the S. S. BAMBORO, a ship coming from Palermo, Italy for Boston which was shipwrecked in the late 1800s up off of Nova Scotia and was called the Orange Wreck. I believe it was in April she went ashore in the fog and all crew was saved. They called it the Orange Wreck, because her cargo of oranges was scattered all over the shore. I believe that my great grandfather Austin gave the maple leaf to my grandmother and my grandmother passed that on to my mother and my mother gave it to me. A friend of mine fishes out of the cove, but he lives near Boston. In getting to know him, he brought one of his friends down from Winchester, Massachusetts. There would be no way possible I would have ever met this person unless through my friend. So, in conversion about 10 years ago he asked me what I was going to do and I said, ‘Well, I think I might head up to Nova Scotia and get another boat or something.’ He says to me, ‘Well, if you are ever there, my family has a home in Shag Harbor.’ Never gave it another thought. A couple of years passed and we got to talking again and Nova Scotia came up. We got talking about Shag Harbor and I said ‘Your family has got a home in Shag Harbor?’ He said, ‘Yep.’ I said, ‘I was there with my father in ’73 and I have got a maple leaf from a fella from Shag Harbor. He looked ghost white, he says, ‘You do?’ ‘Yeah, it’s been in my family for 100 years or so. He says, ‘What is it?’ I told him it is a carved maple leaf of a shipwreck and it has a picture of a gentleman on the front with handwritten ink on the back explaining the shipwreck. He said, ‘That’s my great grandfather.’ So Joe Costello from Winchester, Mass. and me, his great grandfather and my great grandfather 100 years ago were friends, 100 years later I meet Joe Costello by chance and he offers me the home that the person on my maple leaf built in Nova Scotia. These maple leaves were given out by Gilbert Nickerson who now was known as the shipwrecked furniture maker and there is a museum in Shag Harbor, Nova Scotia, Chapel Hill Museum with quite a score of these maple leaves. Gilbert lost his wife and got remarried. His next wife’s name was Doane so I am wondering if we may in fact have even been related somehow.
Bob’s father grew up in South Carver, MA. His father’s brother lost his hearing at 7 years old from Scarlett Fever and something happened to his father and he went deaf in one ear and 20 percent in the other, so both of them went to Beverly School for the Deaf. “My dad ended up on the North Shore,” said, Bob, “and worked down to railway in the blacksmith shop. He eventually ended up at Lipman Marine, the old dehydration plant down on the state fish pier. He was pretty much there from the day it opened until the day it closed, 40-something years later.”
“He wasn’t a fisherman,” continued Bob. “He had a tough life with his disability. Then he was buried in fish at the fish pier one time. He was told to go down in the fish hopper and a load of fish came and dumped on him. He ended up busting his back up pretty good. I remember those days my father was laid up and he was so pissed off that we were on unemployment or welfare at the time. He just wanted to get out of there and go back to work. I always respected him for doing the best he could.”
Bob said that in his youth they lived on Finn Alley, which was called that due to all the Finish quarry workers living there at the time. Finn Alley is not far from the water, but more importantly his next door neighbor was ‘Windy’ Wallace. At the time Bob had a paper route and he said, “One day I was walking home and ‘Windy’ hollered out the window, ‘Hey Mo,’ my father was nicknamed Mo and I was little Mo, he says, ‘You want to go fishing?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Well be here at 5:00 in the morning and we will go.” So, I quit delivering papers and I went fishing with ‘Windy’ Wallace, that was back in the 60s.”
Bob fished with him all that summer and when it was time to go back to school he fished on weekends. What was obvious was his love for fishing so then he started playing a lot of hooky and ‘Windy’ kind of took him under his wing. His boat was named for his daughters, LAURA & LISA and was a Novi with a Palmer gasoline engine. Bob added, “I thought we were hot shits because we were one of the first boats in Rockport Harbor to have a hydro-slave, hydraulic hauler. It was Osco back then. On the dashboard of that boat he had an old wool hat that was his grandfather Flanders and he had two Flintstone toys, that washed up in a trap that he thought were good luck.
“‘Windy,’ continued Bob, “never drove a car. I don’t believe he could read or write. He had other older people that mentored him when he was younger, he was a wharf rat. He was one of the most well-respected lobstermen in this town. I had tremendous admiration of him. On my street everybody was lobstering and when somebody wasn’t fishing, they knitting heads or repairing traps
Bob fished with ‘Windy for four years, 1966-1970, and because the Pigeon Covers were paying better than the Rockporters, so Bob decided to go fishing with Joseph ‘Slim’ Vanderpool. “He was like an eel,” said Bob. “He was an eel that stood on end. He and I went lobstering and hooking until Christmas. Around New Year’s we would change the boat over for tub trawling. We never got rich doing that. I was in my early teens, and I learned to drive a pickup truck, but I didn’t have a license. I would come in here from fishing, put a couple thousand pounds of fish in the back and I would drive the old Dodge Powerwagon up to Gloucester.”
Well, finally questions were raised about the few days Bob would show up for school. “I got called into the guidance department one day, said Bob, “and they said, ‘What is going on?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Well you are not here much,’ and I said ‘Well, I don’t really want to be here. I love to go fishing and that is what I do.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Bob, I think the best thing you could probably do is get out of here!’ I said, ‘Well, I am all good with that.’ He said, ‘The problem is, you are too young you can’t legally do it.’ He said, ‘Here’s what we are going to do,’ at that time they just started the senior work study, but I was only in the 8th grade or something, ‘We are going to use you as an experiment. ‘You are going to be on work study, but if it is blowing and you are not fishing, can you just make an appearance once in a while?’ I said, ‘Fair enough, and that is how I finished out my schooling years.
Bob set up a trap shop in his basement and any time it was blowing or just a nasty winter’s day he would be in the basement either repairing or building new traps. “That was a regular operation,” said Bob. “I worked every day. I think the key word is passion. I was passionate. The old fellas taught me how to knit heads and build traps and when I had a good grip on that I got a lot of ideas of my own. I have quite a few of what I think of as firsts on different things, but I have had a hundred times more failures.
Looking back over the early years, Bob reflected on some of the older fishermen he got to know. “The list is huge,” he explained. “There is no way I could forget Ralph Nelson. I think he’s the son-in-law of the famed Gloucester captain Clayton Morrissey. Ralph was a local fisherman over Rockport and he built, I believe, 44 boats. He was like a grandfather to me. When I was young and I started hanging around the wharf, once in a while Ralph would come pick me up. He was known as very grumpy and I loved him for it. He was building the VIKING at the time, over on Old Garden Road. He would be building away and I would be down in the bilge cleaning out apples. I never picked up any good skills, but when I looked back they are fond memories. Ralph built Clayton Morrissey a boat called the NIMBUS. Clayton had retired from fishing on the schooners and Ralph built him a boat that he went hooking.”
Ralph’s boat was FAIR SUSAN, named for his daughter. “The FAIR SUSAN I would call it a piss cutter or something like a Jonesporter, narrow,” said Bob. When he got into the VIKING, he expanded his talents. She was much beamier it had a raised foredeck like you might see on a Novi.”
“Slippery Wheatman, he ran the charters,” continued Bob. “He was famous for his high-test home brew. Remember Paul Hopkins? He had the GINNY H. He was a gentleman who wore one of them golf caps, and got one of the first hard-chine boats in Rockport harbor. It had a hydraulic hauler and that new hull design that we had never seen. Buster Ouellette, big strong guy he had an old Novi boat the BLACK STINK with a nigger head. Windy and him were teamed up so we used to lower bait together in the morning, I can remember going out with him to get the last haul in before Hurricane Doria. I said, “This is all back in the wooden pot days, when there was no concept of shifting. Today, with $100 a pot, you get a whim of weather or something everybody runs for the hills. I remember it was getting shitty already and I said, ‘What are we going to do about Hurricane Doria [September 1967 and Bob was 10]? ‘Well,’ he said. ‘We’re going to get the last haul out of the traps.’ That was the mindset back then. Buster was definitely Rockport’s high line fisherman back at that time. He caught more lobsters than anybody.”
During Hurricane Doria ‘Windy’ and Bob went into the basement and cut buckets of oak laths and put the nails in them. Bob said they were fishing four trap trawls and they were repairing traps for a month. The rope they used came from Rockport Rope & Twine.
Bob then remembered the Carters, saying, “The Carters ran the mackerel trap over here. They were nice people but they were different. There was a whole group of fishermen that lived down on the end of the wharf all summer. There was a lot of drinking going on and there’s all kind of stories about poker games. If you were a kid hanging around the wharf at some point you are going to end up in the harbor. The gang that inhabited the end of the Cove here, the Carters, Harry Gray, Jimmy Cornelius, they would just a fun-loving gang. They didn’t have much, but they were free and they lived their way.”
Pigeon Cove has a very interesting history sitting on the northern side of Rockport Harbor. In the 1830s, they joined three outcroppings of rock to form a protected harbor called the Rockport Wharf Co. This would allow them to bring vessels in and load the granite, then being quarried there, in safety. For years this was a major industry for Rockport. On the west side of Pigeon Cove was the blacksmith shop of the quarry, but when the granite industry died, the blacksmith shop became a tool manufacturing plant that continued to grow. The only reason they needed access to the shore was so they could have a fuel barge brought in and unload Bunker C for their boilers. On the east side of the cove was the pier used by the fishermen, where they could tie up their boats and have a few fishing shacks to work out of. The tool company owned the fish pier and gave the town jurisdiction over the harbor. Bob added that if you want to build a new fish shack you had to get permission from the tool company. He said, “This entire harbor and all the land surrounding it was clearly private. In 1986, a key year, because the harbor in Rockport didn’t not meet the requirements in footage for commercial fishing. A Congressman somehow linked the commercial footage of Pigeon Cove with Rockport and came up with the number needed so that both harbors could now be eligible for federal funding for dredging, dynamite blasting and repairs, breakwaters and so forth. One has to assume that the Tool Company owners had no objection. The Army Corp. of Engineers came in and blasted out the ledges on the western part of the harbor and on the southern ledge they cut it off so they could make access to the takeout wall and they also dredged. That became by an Act of Congress, Federal Project 69.2, the Peoples Harbor at Pigeon Cove. In ’87, the tool factory closed and there was a lot of questions about what was going to happen to the wharf. We were in purgatory for a few years until 1993 when a once fisherman decided to work with the developers, who approached us with leases. We had them examined by state representatives, politicians and lawyers and the answer came back to us that those were death sentences, we would be signing away any power, any type of hope for a future in Pigeon Cove Harbor. Then the war began, called the Battle for Pigeon Cove Harbor not the Battle for Pigeon Cove Wharf. The wharf wasn’t ours to battle for, the harbor was clearly ours and if any private developer wanted to argue that, they would not be dealing with us the fishermen, they would be dealing with United States Congress to try to get Federal Project 69.2 unauthorized. Through sheer determination and a lot of luck, a lot of public support, we were able to secure the wharf and harbor at Pigeon Cove and now both are under the control of the Town of Rockport. It is not to say that the harbor isn’t under threat, it always is and those that hold it dearly must always be vigilant and ready to go back to war if necessary. I do worry about that today with the current generations, I don’t know if they have the fight that we had. I hope they do, but that is kind of where it sits now.”
Bob then remembered one of his crew, saying, “We called him Joe ‘Raw Hide’ Roderick, who passed away about 15 months ago. He fished with me off and on for 21 years. I fired him I believe four times. There is a big difference between calling somebody a dear friend and having a business relationship. I made this very clear with Joe, you are always going to be my friend, but you have got to draw a big black line when it comes to business, He was a great guy in many ways, but he was really a struggling person in other ways. He was his own worst enemy. We ended up friends through it all.”
In 1975 Bob began fishing on his own out of a Lowell skiff from Amesbury, MA. She was constructed using Philippine mahogany and he had them add an extra plank for more freeboard and it cost just $800.
On 8 May 1977, the fishermen on the North Shore got hit with an enormous easterly. The devastation was so bad the Governor of Massachusetts declared the coast a disaster area. There were low interest loans offered, but Bob was brought up with the philosophy that if you do not have the money you did not buy it. He added, “I started looking at other things to do and I went offshore hooking that summer with Ricky Beal. Then I got the whim of maybe I would like to go in the Merchant Marines. They will let you go around the world and they will pay you to do it. I was a high school dropout with no money. I called steamship companies, as I had been fishing for 12 years. To which they said, ‘That’s great, but no.’ I went to Texas, but I just can’t get hired. They said, ‘You need Merchant Marine documents,’ so I said, ‘How do you get them?’ ‘You go to the Marine Safety Office in Boston.’ They said, ‘We will get you one as soon as you have a letter of commitment from a steamship company.’ I called the steamship company asking if they could give me a letter of commitment so I can get my Merchant Marine papers? ‘No, we won’t give you that.’ It was a big runaround. State Representative Dick Silva came to Rockport to answer any questions citizens might have. So, I went down and explained the situation. He said, ‘Let me see what I can do.’ A few days later I got this big package from J. J. M Steamship Company, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket. Upon issuance of Merchant Marine Documents, Mr. Morris will be hired by J. J. M. Steamship Company. He got me a letter of commitment and I ended up with my seaman’s papers. I worked in the Kennebec Herring plants saving money so I could go to Texas. That is where I met my wife Linda. I hated that job, fish cutter for four years. I also went fishing all the time even when I worked there. Then I saw an advertisement for the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship and my mother called saying ‘You better get home. You’ve been accepted to the Lundeberg School of Seamanship.’ I came home, packed some stuff and got on a Greyhound bus for Piney Point, Maryland. I loved it. I had a really great time. I hadn’t been in school since 7th or 8th grade and I am actually going to make it this time. Then they sent me to the commandant because I didn’t have their high school diploma so they forced you to go through a GED program, which I didn’t want to do. They sent me to the review board and the Commandant Kenneth Conklin said, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ ‘I would like to be a quarter-master.’ Really? You have no mathematic skills you know nothing.’ They got it through my head your aspirations aren’t going to happen until you improve your academic skills. I said, ‘I get it.’
Bob did sail on several voyages, but ships were hard to get on board as there were too many sailors for the few positions available. During his time shipping out the rules changed on lobster licenses. Fortunately he was able to get his license back a year later in 1985. He added, “I can remember having babies at home and no money. I had been to Nova Scotia and I talked to a fellow about his 34 foot Novi boat. He wanted $5,000 for it and said, ‘See me in the spring.’ In the spring I called about the boat and his mother said it is not good, we have lost our son and Randy is in a bad way. He won’t be able to sell you the boat.’ What am I going to do now? So, LUCKY STRIKE was for sale at $20,000. I was going to have to go to a bank. Luckily, back in them days there were people on the Board of Director’s down here. They called me down and said your loan has been approved. When I got the check, it was for $16,000. Then I remembered the $5,000 I was going to pay Randy Nickerson for his boat in Nova Scotia. I paid for the boat, which was set up for tub trawling, I had to haul it out at Beacon Marine and set her up for lobstering. When all was said and done I had $100 and 300 traps.”
LUCKY STRIKE was built by Arno Day of Brooklin. She was a 32-footer powered with a six-cylinder Perkins built in 1972 or 74 named MARY E. Bob named her SPIRIT OF DARKNESS, but later changed it to just SPIRIT as some thought he might be a devil worshipper.
Bob is now fishing out of a Bruno 35, which he purchased off a local fisherman in 1994.
Bob has sold his fish house at Pigeon Cove to his son, who is also a lobster fisherman. He added, “I am older now. I am still active. I still have to fish as I don’t have tons of money. I am dead without it…I am not me without being on the water. I got my share of health things going on but I just rebuilt the boat, new engine, new transmission and I am ready to go when spring comes.