Water Closet for February 3, 2017

[pullquote]”What may amaze modern folks the most was the inclusion of his son from an early age in his often dangerous work. At five Henry, Jr. was on the water with Father. “[/pullquote]A remarkable new book entitled Up-River, Down-River, and Out-to-Sea (2016) was received by the old Closeteer as 2017 began. Author Henry H. Woodard, Jr. tells us stories of his upbringing in the Merrimack River estuary and Atlantic waters between the Isles of Shoals and Cape Ann. His father, always Father with a capital F, was a commercial fisherman and perhaps the most admired man in Salisbury by us boys growing up there. Henry, Sr., had boats and a fish market open 24/365 that made money even during the great depression. He provided many men on Rings Island full or part time work. What may amaze modern folks the most was the inclusion of his son from an early age in his often dangerous work. At five Henry, Jr. was on the water with Father. By ten when not in school he was actively involved with the commercial fishing business in the “Fish House” and on boats. His skillful father and helpers taught him the ropes right down to the number of manila strands per line. Woodard well remembered those days ages four to mid-twenties when he learned intimately of tides, currents, waves, bottom topography, eddies, storms, and of a score of fish species and their vulnerabilities from experts educated on local waters. All this schooling occurred in dynamic places in and near the tricky mouth of the mighty Merrimack River where tides twice daily flooded and ebbed, rose and fell and combined fresh currents from as far away as northern New Hampshire with cold clean salt water. These areas of tidal mixings are called estuaries, very rich habitats indeed for all creatures including boys and girls. They are the places of clams, clammers, sea worm diggers, spawning fish in season, fishermen, migrating birds, duck hunters, bird watchers and in Woodard’s and the Closeteer’s boyhood, the last of the salt hay makers.

Henry Woodard, Jr., was over ninety when he finished his book of lively stories from the 1920s through the 1940s. They are as fresh as when he lived them. – Woodard family archives

Woodard like many kids early to mid-20th century, and no doubt before, had almost complete freedom to roam and discover the estuaries and their ever changing conditions. From them he brought back minnows, eels, muskrats, ducks, clams and driftwood for his neighbors’ stoves. The salt marshes were within 12-gauge shot range from the young “gunner’s” house on Rings Island, a 70 acre knoll of riverside ledge surrounded by salt marsh on three sides and to the south the river. On nor’easters at high tides it is truly an island. Spare hours between school and work with his father were spent swimming, hunting, skating, trapping muskrats, hiking, rowing in marsh cricks, ice cake riding, and hunting for treasures in drift debris along the shores. His was a life of high adventure thanks to his parents and the culture at the time. Old timers often go on about this freedom they had as kids. Woodard’s territory was larger than that of his peers because he frequently went up, down, and out to sea in Father’s boats. The rest of us boys who hung around Rings Island watched with envy as Henry and helpers, including young Hank, left the Ferry Slip at all hours depending on tides and the reported locations of fish. Our explorations on the water were limited to old skiffs and dories powered with oars and jury-rigged sprit sails.

The Henry Woodards of Rings Island fishing, clamming, and hunting grounds and waters. On the north side of the river in Salisbury is seen the rocky knoll that is Rings Island just east of the Route 1 Bridge. In this estuary where salt and fresh water mix are marshes, mud flats, barrier beaches and ocean. – USGS map, Newburyport quadrangle

In those days we knew lots of characters with nicknames. Rings Island had its share especially in the clam shucking shacks where words we weren’t supposed to use and gossip were heard. Woodard tells funny little stories about fellow Islanders in non-judgmental ways. Bricky drowned excess cats in weighted burlap bags, a common practice in those days. Talented fisherman Toot chewed tobacco and when at sea left brown spit on gunnels much to young Hank’s discomfort when he discovered clumps with hand or bottom. The author also sprinkles his stories with short one sentence lessons from a wise father.
Most kids even in those days hardly knew what their fathers did for a living except for those on farms and engaged in home businesses. Many went to work in local shoe factories and weren’t seen again until supper. Henry, senior, from junior’s toddlerhood, included his only son in his daily life as a successful fisherman and extraordinary sea food seller, who owned boats, trucks, clam shucking shacks, and a “Fish House”. By his late teens and early 20s young Henry could no doubt have stepped into Father’s shoes. After the Navy in WWII he went off to Dartmouth College. He later became a geologist and professor at Beloit College in Wisconsin. He left the sea’s edges but never forgot his wonderful quarter century there. His mother when his sisters weren’t around taught him how to cook fish. Henry gives us several pages of very practical methods and recipes used over three quarters of century at home in geology field camps. Fish must be fresh! Don’t overcook!

The Woodards and helpers unloading fish at the Ferry Slip, Rings Island, circa 1946. The young man in the bow is author Henry Woodard, Jr. His father is to the far right on the slip. – Woodard family archives

This reviewer considers self lucky to own Woodard’s handsome history of well written stories about a spunky hardworking lad who reveled in his salty apprenticeship. His entertaining accounts are glimpses into mid-last century of an industry which has largely gone over to large draggers at sea for only a few days a year. The stories are of an enviable father-son relationship. His Mother, always with a capital M, was equally important. She raised four daughters in addition to young Henry. She was the very able family doctor. The Closeteer as a lad and his mother knew and much liked her as did most Rings Islanders and other Salisburyites. As a farm boy the Closeteer weekly sold eggs to Angie Woodard and many others on Rings Island. Mrs. Woodard was very kind and had a delightful sense of humor. On very cold winter days she insisted that the young egg seller linger to warm up a bit before lugging his basket of fragile food on. The Woodard house, first on Ferry Road from the north, was his first stop. Two fine paintings of river scenes by her grace her son’s book which also includes many photographs from the “family archives.” While reading Woodard’s pages one can feel the presence of the whole vibrant family of seven. A large power boat built by a friend for the Woodards was christened Sevenovus.
The author describes the characteristics pros and cons of each of the Woodards’ series of power boats and explains well the details of fishing methods and equipment used. Fishermen made much of their own gear as well as maintaining their boats’ engines for propulsion and hoisting. Woodard doesn’t skimp here. He makes sure the reader understands the techniques designed to catch different fish under varying conditions. The stories the old Closeteer, brought-up in the same area, likes best are those illustrating Father’s and experienced helpers’ knowledge of where and when to look for fish. Without having formally studied tides, ecology, and animal behavior they learned what they needed to know through years of trial and error. The book describes those skills well, from catching magnificent blue fin tuna (“horse mackerel”) with harpoons and hand lines to the lowly menhaden (“porgies”) with seines. It was a more complicated business catching fish before modern fish finding gear and radar. They located positions by visual bearings and buoys and by an intimate knowledge of the sand bars, ledges and currents. The Woodard boats fished pretty much all year, often in very cold weather. The many variables encountered were ever changing. At an early age young Henry learned these and now shares them with us. He does so with personal stories about another time in a true neighborhood of about thirty houses where all knew one another. He includes the names of interesting people and specific places. The Closeteer enthusiastically recommends this valuable first hand history of very active lives in the days of prohibition, the great depression, and WWII.


Precipitation Data* for Month of: Oct Nov Dec Jan
30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches 4.40 4.55 4.12 3.40
   2016 Central Watershed Actual 6.81 2.68 4.41 5.4**as of Jan 27

Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):
For Jan 27, 2017  Normal . . . 55CFS     Current Rate . . . 152 CFS
*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru Dec.
** Middleton Stream Team is the source of actual precipitation data for Jan.
Normals data is from the National Climatic Data Center.
THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: www.middletonstreamteam.org or         <MSTMiddletonMA@gmail.com> or (978) 777-4584