In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Lubec, Maine

A Border Town Shaped by the Sea

McCurdy Herring Smokehouse

By Edward L. Hawes


Drawn from the collections of the Maine Historical Society, Lubec Historical Society, Lubec Landmarks and private individuals.

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.

Looking into McCurdy’s in 1986.
Looking into McCurdy’s in 1986.Jacob B. Pike, photo

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.

“Handing up” in the smokehouse
“Handing up” in the smokehouseFrank Van Riper, photo

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.

Part I: How They Smoked Herring in Lubec

Section 1: A Traditional Process in Traditional Buildings

Preparing smoked herring was a traditional process, that is, one that changed little in its essentials through the years. It was almost entirely handwork, with hardly any mechanical assist. This was not a process people went to school to learn about or read a book on how to do. Rather, they learned from their fathers, mothers, aunts and uncles, all the people who had worked in the smokehouses. They worked right along with them. It was no different for the owners who were generally their own managers. They too, as John McCurdy, learned from family members how to manage the manifold aspects of the business with skill and understanding. In short, a traditional transmission of culture was vital to the continuance of this industry.

Fortunately, a few people took it upon themselves toward the end of the industry to record in word and photograph how the herring were turned into tasty ready-to-eat smoked fish. There was Rosemary Ranck, who at some point in 1975, walked into McCurdy’s. There she photographed two workers in the Brining Room who have been identified as Leeman Wilcox and Richard Munson. They look up from the work of pickling the herring. The two were working in traditional space that could have been in a daguerreotype made in a building of the 1850s, if ever an early photographer had made to Lubec. Compare this with a photograph of the Brining Room in Part II made by Frank Van Riper in 1990. Except for the electric light bulbs and plastic baskets, the Brining Room was basically the same traditional space.

McCurdy’s Smokehouse from the south in 1990
McCurdy’s Smokehouse from the south in 1990Frank Van Riper, photo. All rights reserved.

The buildings in a “stand” were traditional. Some call them examples of vernacular or folk architecture. It is all the same thing. The most important of these was the smokehouse itself. A keen observer, Ansley Hall, in the 1890s in Lubec recorded in words the traditional features. A folk vocabulary of the industry emerges. The building was divided up into “houses,” generally three of them, and further, into “bays” with “rails” in them. Above the ground level, the smokehouse had a series of “windows.” (P. 455). Today, the unknowledgeable might call them “doors,” since there are no casements in them. The place described might have been in Lubec or Eastport. Hall did not differentiate in his account. However, a colleague at the Smithsonian Institution, T. W. Smillie, had taken a photograph in 1886 that probably was the smokehouse Hall described.

Continuity of form and function is in evidence one hundred years later. Van Riper’s photograph shows the South Smokehouse with the row of “windows” painted the bright red that John McCurdy favored. On the roof peak there was a fixed ventilator. Inside was the gravel floor of the sort Hall had seen “for the area has to be used for the fires.” (P. 455). McCurdy, himself, has spoken of the “houses” within the smokehouses proper. The South Smokehouse in the photograph may be similar to the larger smokehouses of the sort Hall saw, for even in the 1890s, there were a few of this size.

Looking into McCurdy’s in 1986
Looking into McCurdy’s in 1986Jacob B. Pike, photo

A Pickling or Brining Shed was another building traditionally needed in a herring “stand,” beside the smokehouse proper. McCurdy’s was at the usual functional location, out at the end of the wharf on long pilings, on the right in Van Riper’s photograph. This was so that herring could be unloaded even at lower tides. It was here that what are interpreted in Part II as the first three steps in the process took place.

In Jacob B. Pike’s photograph the viewer looks into the center of the “stand” with the Pickling Shed in the distance at the end of the wharf. The North Smokehouse that was destroyed in a storm in 1995 has wood for the fires stacked up against it. In the left foreground is the Skinning/Packing Shed where the activities involved in the last step went on.

Section 2: Six Steps in Producing Smoked Herring: 1990 and 1896

Sluicing the herring into wooden tanks.
Sluicing the herring into wooden tanks.Frank Van Riper, photo

The words of a careful investigator, Ansley Hall, tell much about the process, even then, already practiced in Lubec for possibly one hundred years. The description in his article, published in the 1896 Report of the U. S. Commission of Fisheries, anticipates what was printed yet almost one hundred years later. Words and photographs of Hugh French and his students in the early Eighties, and of Frank Van Riper in the early Nineties showed how traditional the process was without intending to do so.

Step One: Sluicing into the tanks
Hall observed that the fish “are immediately put into the pickling tanks, which have first been partially filled with a weak pickle.” (P. 457). In his time, fish were hauled up in baskets from the boats, and dumped into the tanks. Later came winches, buckets and sluices. In the early Seventies, John McCurdy installed a major innovation, illustrated at the end of Part II.

Working in the brining room
Working in the brining roomFrank Van Riper, photo.

Step two: Brining
As were herring were put in the tanks, more salt and water was added, and the mixture was tended for several days, according to Hall. A “spudger” was used to “break up” the herring and salt on the top, and to mix bottom with top. Neither Hall nor Van Riper could communicate the vital importance of an element of the folk culture of smoking herring. This was the understanding, accumulated through generations, of how long to allow the brining to go on, how much salt to add and when, given the condition of the fish and the temperature.

Stringing the herring
Stringing the herringFrank Van Riper, photo

Step three: “Stringing”
The work of putting herring on the traditional sticks was still the same in Van Riper’s time. However, in Hall’s time, and for many years after, the herring sticks were placed on a “horse.” At the end of the smokehouse era but well before the time Van Riper took his pictures, an easier-to-use implement replaced the horse.

Step four: Draining and drying
Hall’s words published in 1898 could describe what happened was going on in the Van Riper photograph taken in 1990. The herring are “carried out into the open air, where they are allowed to remain until the water drains off of them and they have become sufficiently dry to hang in the smokehouse.” (Hall, p. 460). Here, just as in the brining step, there was an accumulated understanding important to carry out the process, an understanding of how long to leave the herring outside, given temperature, weather, and fish condition.

Draining and drying the herring on carts
Draining and drying the herring on cartsFrank Van Riper, photo

Step five: Inside the smokehouse
The actual smoking operations were complex, and required, even more than brining and drying, a broad understanding based on transmitted experience. Several pages could be presented on just the sub-steps. Hall has two dense pages, and they do not adequately describe what was done and why. (Pp. 460-61). Some of his words anticipate the Van Riper photograph.

“Handing up” in the smokehouse
“Handing up” in the smokehouseFrank Van Riper, photo

The work in the smokehouse was demanding and required much of that accumulated understanding. Sticks of herring needed to be hung for a time on the lower level for the fish to dry so the gills would harden, preventing herring from falling off the sticks. Fires needed to be lit, allowed to die, sticks moved up, fires lit again, “windows” set for the right draft and air circulation. There was “putting the herring in the house by degrees,” the “handing up” and the ‘handing down,” all at the right times. There were the jobs of the “fireman:” selecting the right kinds of firewood, governing the level of the fires, and damping them with sawdust. All this was important in managing the “cure,” the ultimate job of the owner/manager. Finally, there was judging when the herring were ready for skinning and packing. Here was vital more of the accumulated understanding passed from generation to generation.

Skinning and packing
Skinning and packingFrank Van Riper, photo

Step Six: Skinning and packing operations
Hall had nothing to say about this step, at least in the sense of what was done. One of the reasons for his report was to encourage the development of this and other fishery industries. Thus, box sizes and grades of quality and fish size interested him

Toward the last years of his operation, McCurdy packed only one grade, in one size box, fish packed lengthwise. Van Riper’s photographs of the operations in the Skinning/Packing Sheds, the artifacts left there, and memories of workers help in understanding the work. Natalie Havens, who used to work at McCurdy’s, made an important point in 2001: Each person working in the Shed did everything: skinning, gutting, boxing and weighing, from start to finish. As usual in a traditional industry, there was no assembly line.

Part II: A Little Museum of Smokehouse Tools and Implements

When McCurdy’s closed, traditional tools and implements were left behind. Now they are helping visitors to Historic McCurdy’s understand the process and the hard work involved. Also left behind was example of an “improved” item, a wheeled cart. For although the process remained traditional, and so did key tools and implements, some innovations were introduced. This second part of the exhibit, then, is a little “museum” of some items important in the smoking process. It is also provides a demonstration of how tradition can accept innovation.

Dip nets:
Three examples were left at the site when McCurdy’s closed. Hall talked about them when describing “stringing,” calling them “ordinary dip nets” and noting they were also called “wash nets in this locality.” (P. 459). He observed dip nets used to take the fish out of the brine, so they could be taken to the benches where “stringers” were working.

“Spudger” in the Brining Room in 1990
“Spudger” in the Brining Room in 1990Frank Van Riper, photo

A very important type of artifact not in the collection of Lubec Landmarks. Hall saw them in use to “break up” the salt and fish in the brining tanks. Van Riper’s photograph of the Brining Room shows one ready to use. Sharley Fitzsimmons had laid the “spudger” down for a moment.

Herring sticks:
Hall’s first words about these are “the only equipment used exclusively in a smokehouse.” The next sentence was an understatement: “A large number of these are necessary in the larger houses.” Left in the Skinning/Packing Shed were literally thousands of them, dark and oily from the millions of herring that had been strung and smoked on them.

Herring horse:
Another important artifact not in the collection of Lubec Landmarks, for good reason. When Landmarks acquired McCurdy’s, the horses had long since been replaced. No doubt the old ones at that time were worn out from hard use and being outdoors in all sorts of weather. Hall described one as “an oblong wooden frame having four legs, the sides extending far enough beyond the end to serve as handles.” (P. 456).

Hall was not correct when he said herring sticks were the “ only equipment used exclusively in a smokehouse”. The herring horses come under this category, as well. Old photographs of smokehouses in Lubec and elsewhere commonly include herring horses, indicating how important they were. The photograph of the Miller Smokehouse ca. 1910 with owner and workers posed is one example.

Herring boxes:
The photograph shows several items important for the sixth step of the process in an exhibit at McCurdy’s. All were important in a world where wooden boxes were used instead of cardboard. This was Hall’s world. At the back of the bench are some of the many same-sized boxes left in 1990. To the left are “shooks,” the pre-cut bottoms, ends, sides and lids for boxes, as they came from a local “box mill.” On the bench is a jig with box ends and sides shown in assembly with nails and hammer. The size of the box is different than the several Hall recorded, but there is nothing here that would have been unfamiliar. (P. 456).

Wheeled herring cart:
Left under cover when McCurdy’s closed was this cart, now on exhibit in the Skinning/Packing Shed. The two wheels allowed one person to move the herring easily, in the manner of a wheel barrow. It was an innovative replacement for the traditional herring horse that required two men to lift. Jacob Pike’s photograph of many of them outdoors on the wharf on a rainy day is helpful to give idea of how many carts were needed.

McCurdy's Pumphouse
McCurdy's PumphouseJacob B. Pike, photo

Herring pump house:
On the end of the Pickling Shed housing for another innovation was constructed. Pike’s photograph shows the housing for the pump, the flexible hose that extended down into the hold of the sardine carrier, and the exterior part of the sluiceway.