Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Oyster Boats & Lobstermen from the Past

A woman named Linda Wedmore Caballero wrote to me last week to say that she had come across a mention in Sphere of a boat in Norwalk called the Catherine M. Wedmore. In passing I had written almost a year ago that while my son and I were killing some time in Norwalk, we went to Veterans Park, where he looked for artifacts in the tide wrack and I looked for birds. Scanning the harbor through binoculars, I noticed a handful of oyster boats, including the Catherine M. Wedmore.

Here’s what Linda Wedmore Caballero wrote:

The Catherine M. Wedmore originally belonged to my great-grandfather, Charles Wedmore, who operated an oyster business in the New Haven area, and was named for one of his daughters. (Kate lived to be 101.) According to my father, now in his 70s, and who remembers her well, the Catherine was sold when the oyster business, then operated by his father, George (Dewey) Wedmore, was dissolved in the early 1950s; he has some old photographs of her but had no idea that she is still afloat. I know my sister, also a Catherine Wedmore, would be thrilled to see her as well.

She asked if I knew who owned the boat. The best I could tell her was that it was docked near the Norm Bloom & Son shellfish company’s headquarters in East Norwalk, that Bloom used to own Tallmadge Brothers oyster company, that Tallmadge Brothers had an operation in Port Norris, New Jersey, as well as in Norwalk, and that the Catherine M. Wedmore had the words “Port Norris, N.J.” on its hull, and so I figured Norm Bloom and Sons owned it. I suggested she give them a call. Here’s how she responded:

You could not have been more right. … Norm Bloom operates the Catherine. She continues to be a working oyster boat, goes out six days a week, and was coming into dock as I was speaking with one of the guys in the office. That was just an amazing moment. Thank you so much. I am very much looking forward to sharing this information with my father, and with making a trip up to Connecticut (from Baltimore) to see the Catherine with him.

And later she wrote again:

This is almost like discovering a long lost relative. The guys at Norm Bloom's were great, as well. They were going to try to fill in some gaps on the Catherine's more recent history. My dad gave me some further details …. The Catherine was captained by his uncle, Chauncey (Chan) Wedmore (1880-1968) who was Kate's (1885-1987) brother. My dad has great memories of helping out on the boat as a young boy and later as a teenager. I'm sure those with a greater understanding of all things nautical could probably date the boat, but my dad (b. 1929) ... remembers it being around from as early as he can recall. He is going to make some copies of the old pictures he has of the Catherine, and I would be happy to share those with you as well. I am working on getting him to make the trip from Canton, Connecticut, where he now lives, to East Norwalk sometime soon; it may have to wait until spring, though, I am told.

I told her I might be able to get to East Norwalk and, if the boat happened to be docked, take some photos. I haven’t managed to do so yet, but I did find this photo on another website.

On another recent morning there was a message waiting for me, on one of those pink sheets of paper labeled “Important Message,” that a woman named Alice Salvatore had called and wanted me to call her back (I knew this because there were check marks in the boxes next to “telephoned” and “please call”). A few minutes later, when I was on the phone talking to someone else, another Important Message was dropped in front of me, identical except for the words “John Fernandez” written on the lines reserved for “Message.”

Alice Salvatore, I learned when I called her back, lives very close to where I work. She had been visiting a cousin one recent day and the cousin handed her a copy of a book she’d never heard of (she and a few million others) – namely, This Fine Piece of Water. The cousin flipped to page 130 and showed Alice a picture of a lobsterman named John Fernandes, posing back in 1987 in front of a stack of lobster pots in Port Chester.

Alice Salvatore was thrilled to see this because John Fernandes was her father. She remembered that he occasionally would mention that a reporter had been interviewing him, but that was almost 20 years ago and she hadn’t given it a second thought since. She certainly hadn’t known about the book or that it talked in more-than-passing fashion of her father. She said she read it and loved it, and that as far as she could tell the parts about lobstering in the Sound were dead-on right.

To say the least, this made me feel OK. I had heard back in 1999, I think, that John Fernandes had cancer, and since she talked about him in the past tense, I asked if he had died. She said he had, four years ago, of colon cancer. She said she was planning to buy six or so copies of the book and to give them to others in her family for Christmas.


Blogger Sam said...

My dad put himself through the early days at Yale by working on an osyterboat like the one you mention. Yes, he had some scholarships but the money never went very far, so he hauled oyster dredges out of New Haven and Milford. Oystering in the 50's wasn't bad, although as a deck man you had to deal with nasty spider crabs and sea robins and muck.

I will ask my dad what boats he worked and if he knew of the Catherine. It would be cool if he did. /Sam

11:44 PM  
Blogger Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

Okay, second comment in something over two years ...

Actually, the boat was named for Catherine MacNeill Wedmore, Charles' wife, not daughter. That Catherine was from New Glasgow, Nova Scotia and lived ffrom 1859 to 1930.

The Catherine M. was built in 1924, financed by decades of success in the family oyster business. They would raise the little guys in the Quinnipiac River, just east of New Haven, then grade them and take those large enough across Long Island Sound to the family's beds, where they were seeded to grow out for several years.

While not quite as sweet and nutty as a Nantucket oyster, they surpassed the Blue Points in both size and flavor, thus finding a ready market.

My mother has footage of one such trip to seed oysters, in 1940. If we can, we plan to surprise her next summer with another excursion on that boat -- for her 90th birthday. She wants to equal her aunt Kate, and might just get there.

6:03 PM  
Blogger Angelo said...

I work as a draw bridge operator for The City Of New Haven and I had the pleasure of opening the bridge for
the Catherine M. Wedmore when she went up to Norman's
Dock on the Quinnipiac river and also thru the Mill river
I live across the steet from where Chan Wedmore lived knew him as a little kid he always gave me a penny for
luck also knew his I think adopted daughters Linda Wedmore and Catherine Schenk nice family miss them

10:02 PM  
Blogger christopher schaefer said...

Readers can learn more about the Catherine Wedmore, the neighborhood where she was moored, & its local history by visiting www.citypointnewhavenconnecticut.net

7:39 AM  
Blogger Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

The 1940 video is at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nO6h7Bqvaso

Charles Wedmore, who ran the business until his death in 1946 first appears at about 0:45. His son, Dewey, who took over the business until selling the Catherine to Bloom & Sons in about 1960, first appears at 0:30.

It was a great excursion for my mother's 90th. The Blooms are simply fantastic people.

2:21 PM  
Blogger Jessie said...

my name is wiggy doore, i live in coeur d' alene,id. i worked as a deckhand for bloom bros. oyster co. sept.1968 to april 1969, oct.1969 to april 1970. i worked the deck of both the catherine m. wedmore and the eban a. thatcher,also the cultivator with dave hoppe on occassion.we culled oysters in the winter when the company was based next to the radel oyster building, i believe no longer standing. i have great and fond memories of those time. i also used to pump gas at the keene airport,keene,nh. and remember meeting a catherine wedmore.

9:56 PM  
Anonymous Dan said...

I worked on the Catherine from 1981 to 1985, as well as many other boats that the Blooms had. Many great memories when Bob Bloom was running that boat.

2:36 PM  
Anonymous Jan Lowery said...

My great grandparents were Charles & Catherine Wedmore. I ran across a picture of the "Cultivator" I thought it was the Catherine Wedmore. Interesting.

10:12 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

How nice to read all these comments. My dad, Capt. William Mills followed in his father's and grandfathers boots working for Radel Oyster Co. Now the Bloom Bros. own the shop on Water St. I spent 100s of days playing in the very top of the "shop". My sister and I would hide in the back of the truck at 4 a.m. and spring up when dad got to work. It was too late to bring us home, so if he was on the water, we got to go and if he was in the shop we got to stay. One day one of the Bloom Bros. boats was stuck on a sand bar and dad threw them a line and pulled them off. I went to see the shop in the 90s and met one of the Blooms. He let me re-visit some of my hide-outs. Guess the Louis R and the Star are gone now but have fond memories of them.

Kathleen Mills Kendall

12:47 PM  
Blogger ajemian said...

Was thrilled to read these comments about the Catherine Wedmore. Norman Bloom was my Dad and Norm Bloom & Sons my brother owns her now. The Catherine and the Grace were the 1st oyster boats I went out on as a kid and I have fond memories. An oil painting of the Catberine hangs with pride and warm memories in my home. I hope her Dad can get there, I know Norm would be thrilled to show her to him.

3:35 PM  

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