The Old Smokehouse Lives On!
For many years, beginning in the 1930's or 40's, a smokehouse sat on the north side of the South Bristol Gut close to the swing bridge. It can be seen by the water's edge at the far left in this 1930's photo. The smokehouse was used in the early years by Irving Clifford and Henry Jones to smoke fish in the wood smoke from a cast iron stove. Several other South Bristol residents carried on the tradition over later years.
When the State required that the smokehouse be removed from its location at the Gut, bridge tender Craig Plummer moved it to his property on the S Road and the tradition was continued by Craig and others.
After Craig's death, his property was put up for sale and the smokehouse needed to be torn down or moved. The South Bristol Historical Society was very pleased to accept from Brandon Plummer, Craig's son, the gift of this building of which so many residents have fond memories. With the approval of the Selectmen, and the assistance of Mike Nyboe, Kenneth Lincoln and Todd Lincoln, the smokehouse, with the old wood stove still inside, was moved to its new home on the S Road School property.
On the night of October 21, 2011, after being fed with green alder, the old wood stove started right up and billows of smoke rose up to the herring strung on wood dowels and laid across the beams above. Herring season was about to end, but David Osier had come up with four bushels full just in time! Ken Lincoln, Todd Lincoln, Toby Plummer and Dennis Farrin first soaked the fish in brine. Then, with help from Erick Sykes and Todd's grandson, Lincoln Ball, the fish were strung on wooden dowels provided by Tony McFarland. The crew kept the smoke rising day and night, and the fish were declared ready to eat by the following Friday.
Gladden Schrock, who participated in the smoking of fish many times in the 1960's tells the following story about it:
"The smokehouse was already long in place and much used when I first landed in town in the early Sixties. It sat east of the bridge-house, was owned (and ministered to) by Henry Jones, with whom I fished for several decades, and who talked often of fish being similarly smoked on Damariscove, where he lived as a child. The Tunney family of course rented the upstairs of Henry's 'net shed'; and the old fish market, which was gone by the time I arrived, had been in the northern section of the first floor of the net shed.
The smoke-house got moved a few times, which we did because the shore to the east behind it had somewhat eroded away; and once again (early Seventies) when we built a launching slip between Henry's net shed and the bridge house, which allowed dories and seine boats to be launched into the East Gut.
During the Sixties and Seventies, the wharf behind Henry's net shed was something of a local gathering place, with old tossed-out arm chairs stashed there overlooking the Gut, and where we all often sat and mulled together of an evening, waiting for the late-evening search for herring to begin. "Mulling the Pleiades", we called it.
Smoking fish: Primarily it was done with Alewives (spring run), and then with sardines (stop-seined herring) in Sept, if/as/when we caught them. The fish would be soaked in heavy brine overnight in large plastic tubs, then strung on 3/8 inch dowels of about 30- inch lengths, the dowels being carved to a point at one end so that they could easily be run first through the gills and then out the mouth of each fish, with as many as several dozen fish strung on each dowel. There were upwards of a hundred dowels in use by my estimate/memory. I wonder where they all vanished to? (ed. note: Tony McFarland has donated the dowels to SBHS for use in the smokehouse). When fully strung with fish, each dowel would then be hung aloft in the smoke-house, resting upon and between those 2X3's that can still be seen.
Henry preferred green alder for burning in the small unvented cast iron wood stove that was placed in the center of the smokehouse. He'd keep the stove severely 'choked' to maximize smoke, and to also make sure the temperature was held down inside the smoke-house, because otherwise the fish might 'cook' and go bad. I remember taking Henry up to Junior Farrin's to gather 3-to-5-inch diameter alder wood for the stove, which we'd then cut into usable lengths and stack behind the smoke-house. Henry primarily was the one to tend the fire, splitting the alder for stoking (a hatchet and chopping block stayed in the open behind the smoke-house), but Roy Vose also sometimes tended the stove. Roy, a half-blooded American Indian, was our spotter pilot for herring. Roy for years lived aboard his boat moored at Henry's float just East of the net shed. Dennis Farrin also sometimes had a hand in over-seeing the smoking fire, as I recall.
The stringing of fish in prep of smoking them often became a 'community venture', with half a dozen volunteers sitting around the brine vats, stringing six or seven bushels of fish. Henry preferred six-inch herring (for the fall 'smoking'); and for the spring Alewive run, would string whatever Alewives were available, often caught by gill nets set especially for them. When the smoking was done, once again the smoke-house became a celebratory community-gathering place, people coming freely to eat the fish, and to even sometimes take some home. Everyone in town was aware and alert when the smoking process got underway, the prime signal being the smudged smoke of the fire which escaped through upper smoke-house cracks, and which scented the air throughout the village.
When the smoke-house was fully 'loaded' with fish, its entire upper area was filled with dozens of rows of loaded-up dowels, from which neatly and carefully-spaced strung fish (primarily herring) were artfully hung. A remarkable sight."