Out of Our Past

The Sea Pier Property, Part I

Wed, 07/10/2019 - 7:00am

In the mid to late 1800s, the east side shore of Boothbay Harbor below High Street and nearly to Road's End was given over to fishing businesses. That is not to say there were none at the head of the harbor or on the west side, or in other parts of town (then Boothbay), but the east side was preeminent.


The fishing businesses were initially codfishing and mackereling outfits, with schooners traveling to the fishing banks in the Gulf of Maine for cod, then seasonally following the mackerel up the coast from Virginia to Canada. There was some inshore fishing as well. Those firms had very little in the way of a plant, mostly sheds or small buildings to keep fish line, seines, salt, and other essential commodities. The principal fishing months for cod were March to July, then July to November or December for mackerel, according to one 1866 Boothbay diary. The older panoramic shots of the east side show fishflakes (wooden "tables" upon which split fish dried) blanketing the ground. One late 1800s business even put fishflakes on their flat roof. The canning of fish and shellfish also was introduced into the area by the late 1870s, so there was a mixture of activities at the busy fish processing businesses.

Late 1800s

Dotting the east side from south to north in 1885 were the following fishing firms: McClintock, Nickerson, unidentified, Maddocks, Nickerson again, and Pierce. As they moved from drying or salting fish to canning, the plants became greatly more expensive with the need for coal-fueled steam power. The requirements of capital to run the businesses meant constant turnover in ownership and names over the next few decades. I thought I could put all the puzzle pieces together, but decades later it remains a dizzying problem. Some names that came and went as firms were sold, sometimes yearly, were Baldwin, Pickert, Capen, Trident, Neptune, Phinney, Sawyer, and Littlefield. But, the question mark in the 1885 list above is who was on the site of Sea Pier. Situated between Nickerson and Maddocks but unnamed, perhaps it was associated with Maddocks, being closer to it.

Sardining and Smokehouses

Canning greatly expanded when sardining came to town. Local fishermen knew that herring was a big business down east and figured they could make a go of it too. Dave and Mabry Greenlaw were induced to come from Eastport in 1894 to trap herring for bait and smokehouses, and they placed their business on the site of Sea Pier. The Greenlaw smokehouse had the characteristic elevated ridgepole, lifted to allow ventilation and the smoke to escape. The Greenlaws went back to Eastport and persuaded C. E. Capen to come and start a sardine factory in town in 1895. As would be expected, local mover and shaker Luther Maddocks jumped at the sardine opportunity too, as did many others. It was unusual that innovations came from downeast rather than from below, such as Massachusetts or another state.

By August 1897, sardine factories were so prevalent on the east side that a complaint about the constant blowing of their whistles was filed with the Harbor selectmen by 22 residents, mostly west side Harbor storeowners. Conversely, I imagine the east side fishermen heard the sweet sound of money in the whistles. Aside from the factories whistling the work schedule, boats signaled the size of their catch as they drew near the factories. There were also complaints about the smell. But by 1900 the sardine business was the greatest single industry in the Harbor, even though the work was not year-round. Men and women walked many miles from all over town to work at the canneries. It stayed a big thing right into the 1930s.

1900s and Allen Art School

The Greenlaw property did not become a sardine factory, but continued with smokehouses; in 1910 there were three, as well as four buildings for other related uses on their wharf. In 1921 the Allen Art School, which called itself Boothbay Studios and advertised as a "Summer School of Industrial, Normal, and Fine Art," started occupying space closest to the street on the wharf. Boothbay Studios had a central dining room, the Tar Pot, and three houses that were used as dormitories. The principals were Frank Allen and Henry Snell who employed about 10 instructors and had as many as 160 students, many of them art teachers. The attendees would have boarded in houses in the area or in art school houses and dorms. Local man Chester Brown, born 1912, cooked there for some years. At its height, Boothbay Studios had an average of 160 students and ten faculty members who taught not only studio art but methods classes for industrial arts, middle and high school teachers, and curriculum building. Boothbay Studios continued until it closed in 1942. Next time: the Sea Pier property from the 1940s to the 1990s.