By Edward L. Hawes
Drawn from the collections of the Maine Historical Society, Lubec Historical Society, Lubec Landmarks and private individuals.
View of Lubec from Campobello, ca. 1950
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For as long as Lubec had been Lubec, and even before, smoking herring for markets away had been a leading industry with many ups and downs. It was a traditional process carried out in traditional buildings with traditional tools and implements. There was little change over time, until the last years. This exhibit in two parts explores each of these traditional aspects focusing on the last herring smokehouse in the eastern United States and its collections. Known locally as McCurdy’s, it survived until 1990. Other smokehouses went out of business years before and the buildings were taken down. Today, McCurdy’s Herring Smokehouse is an historic site, sharing with the community and the larger public the heritage of this now-lost traditional fishery industry. This makes Lubec the last place in Maine with preserved elements of the one of the most significant and long-lasting waterfront industries in Downeast Maine.
In the early Fifties, visitors could buy a postcard with a view looking over to downtown Lubec from the island of Campobello on the Canadian side. The waterfront landscape was densely crowded with smokehouses, sardine canneries, lumber and coal businesses out on the wharves. Among them, close to where School Street came down to meet Water Street a bit left of the center of the photograph, was the smokehouse operated at the time by Garnett L. Green. The smoke rising from the buildings meant herring were being processed. In 1959 Arthur McCurdy, acquired the “stand,” as people termed the complexes of buildings needed for producing smoked herring. It is his family name that became firmly associated with it, right until today. Here, as was the case in other smokehouses in the area, this food preservation process was carried out in traditional fashion. Arthur’s son, John, continued to carry out this process, even after the others closed, right up to 1990 when his “stand,” too, ceased operation.
The first section in Part I considers implications of the word “traditional”. There is continuity of forms of architecture, work space, tool and process. Transmission of knowledge and understanding takes place by seeing, hearing and doing. An important part of this story is the folk or vernacular architecture that defined traditional space for carrying out the process.
In the second section in Part I six steps involved in this food preservation process are shown. A long-time seasonal resident of Lubec, Frank Van Riper, made a number of photographs of people and their work at McCurdy’s the last year of operation. A few of these will serve to introduce what was done to the fish to transform them for the market.
Part II is a Web-based “museum” of the tools and implements used in this process. Some of the tools and implements are in Lubec Landmarks collections. However, two, for interesting reasons, are not. Most are “traditional” with deep roots in the history of the industry not only in Lubec, but anywhere where herring were caught and smoked. There is another aspect that is caught in the phrase, “tradition accommodates innovation.” At least two labor saving improvements were adopted in the early 1970s that need looking at.