From Bullrakes to Clambakes

From Bullrakes to Clambakes

The folklife of the Narragansett Bay quahogging industry.
by Michael E. Bell

Four-year-old Barbara Seymour with bucket of clams, 1944.
Four-year-old Barbara Seymour with her catch at Rome Point, North Kingstown, in 1944.

Rhode Island shellfishermen provide the nation with about twenty-five percent of its supply of littlenecks, cherrystones, and quahogs—greater than three million pounds in 2001, worth more than thirteen million dollars. All three of these mollusks are actually the same species of hard-shell clam (Mercenaria mercenaria), size being the difference. Since 1988, the quahog has been Rhode Island's official State Shell.

A chart of Narragansett Bay reveals an enormous expanse of shoreline, about 350 miles including the numerous smaller salt ponds and estuaries. All of these small ecosystems, in addition to the larger Bay, have provided a working environment since before recorded history. By the time the first European colonists arrived in New England, Native Americans had a well-established, seasonal subsistence pattern that included both fishing and agriculture. The word "quahog" or "quahaug" (usually pronounced "quaw-hawg," "kwah-hog" or "coh-hog") is probably an English corruption of poquauhock, the Algonquian term for this bivalve found along the entire Atlantic coast, from Maine to Florida. Quahogs provided Native Americans with more than food; their shells were used for tools, artwork, and wampum, which became a medium of exchange up and down the East Coast and was even counterfeited in Europe. The current occupational picture of Narragansett Bay, while dynamic, still is closely tied to its natural resources, including a remarkable array of finfish and shellfish.

Tiny quahog, 2006.
Yes, it's cute, but it's too small to keep. (July 1, 2006).

Two or three weeks after quahogs spawn in late spring and early summer, the fertilized eggs (having passed through their larval stages) settle to the bottom as tiny hard-shell clams and burrow into the sediments of the open waters of Narragansett Bay, as well as the warmer sheltered waters of tidal bays, coves, and inlets. Those that survive predators, including crabs, starfish, and finfish, will reach the minimum market size of an inch in about two to three years. These slow-growing mollusks, with a capacity to live forty or fifty years, feed by filtering plankton from the water.

Recreational diggers, Goddard Park, 2007.
Recreational diggers mine the shoreline at Goddard Park, near Sally Rock Point. (October 6, 2007).

Quahogs are harvested from the shoreline or from a small, single-handed boat. Many commercial quahoggers work full time, going out in small skiffs outfitted with a small "doghouse" to block the wind. Although the numbers fluctuate, an estimated 300 full-timers, many of whom learned the work from their fathers, head out early in the morning and return in the afternoon throughout the year, even in the worst winter conditions. A few hundred other shellfishermen are part-timers, using quahogging as a second income. Then there are recreational quahoggers, estimated in the thousands, who wade into the water with a burlap bag tied around the waist or suspended inside the hole of an inner tube, "treading" by using their bare feet, as the Native Americans were said to have done, to locate the buried quahogs. With their hands or a small rake, they bring up their prey and deposit it in the bag. Noncommercial Rhode Island residents are not required to have a license, but they are limited to a half bushel per day. Licensed quahoggers are allowed twelve bushels per day.

When we prepare clam chowder at home, eat a "stuffie" from a fish market, suck down littlenecks at a raw bar, or overindulge at a traditional Rhode Island clambake, most of us probably don't give much thought to the several interrelated folk groups that make it possible. From the raw materials of the Bay to the prepared dishes served in private homes, restaurants, or outdoor feasts, the paths taken from bullrakes to clambakes are both ancient and still evolving.

Although most Rhode Islanders are aware of quahogs and bullraking, and many have relatives or acquaintances who are or have been quahoggers, far fewer seem to have ever actually seen the shellfishing process up close. It doesn't take too many conversations with shellfishermen to appreciate how intimately the process is tied to the dynamic environment, and sometimes unpredictable conditions, of Narragansett Bay, including wind, current, tides, type of bottom, depth of water, and season of the year.

Bullrake basket, 2007.
An example of a bullrake basket. (October 6, 2007).

For the quahogger whose livelihood depends on how much he can harvest, the bullrake manipulated from a flat-bottom skiff has become the standard technology. The process of bullraking is truly within the folk realm, as the techniques are learned and transmitted informally by verbal instruction and by imitation. In its simplest form, the bullrake is a tined basket attached to the end of a long pole with a T-handle. Through a process that may be easier to describe than execute, the rake is dragged along the bottom to scoop up clams. Perhaps surprisingly, technique is more important than brute strength.

A bullrake T-handle, 2007.
An example of a bullrake T-handle. The blue float keeps it from sinking if the rake is accidentally dropped. (October 6, 2007).

The rake now in common use sometimes is referred to as a "suitcase" rake, in reference to both the size and shape of the large basket. The quahogs are scooped into the curved basket by the tines, conventionally twenty teeth. The aluminum poles, or stales, that attach to the rake can be obtained in various lengths and are made to be interchangeable, giving the quahogger flexibility to match a variety of conditions. The standard telescoping stales come in twelve-foot sections that can be joined together. Some rakers prefer lighter weight stales while others use the heavier ones. The light ones break more easily, but the bad parts can be cut off. Screw-on clamps are needed to join the heavier stales while standard hose clamps will suffice for the lightweights.

Quahogger pulling on rake, photo by Roger Mulcahy.
This guy's pulling hard, but he's still smiling. (Photo by Roger Mulcahy, from the documentary Quahoggers).

The bullraker positions his skiff so that it is broadside to the wind or water current (whichever is the strongest) to move the boat through the water. Depending on the strength of the drift, he may choose to tow an anchor. Standing with his knees braced against the gunwale (the upper edge of the boat's side), he lowers the rake into the water. The hollow stales fill with water, helping to keep the eighteen to twenty pound rake on the bottom. As the boat is pushed by the wind or current, the quahogger works the rake's sharp teeth into the mud or sand by pulling on the T-handle in a snapping, jerking motion. The rake is "whipped" by snapping it in an up-and-down motion, described by quahoggers as sort of like snapping a whip or towel. The power of the drift provided by the wind or current pulls the rake through the mud, catching the clams in the teeth and forcing them into the basket.

A crowd of quahoggers, photo by Roger Mulcahy.
Here's a popular spot. (Photo by Roger Mulcahy, from the documentary Quahoggers).

Feel and sound combine to signal a quahogger when he should lift the rake: the basket will get heavy and he will hear the clanging of the quahogs (as distinguished from the clattering of rocks). A raker cautioned that, when you get a rock in the rake, "you got to get it right up because it will crush any littlenecks you have in there."

The quahogger raises the basket and dumps the contents onto the sorter on the deck, then begins the digging process again. The rake can be in the water anywhere from ten to twenty minutes. "And you're drifting all that time… It's all geared to what the conditions are… When you have a decent wind going, you wouldn't have to leave it down as long because you're covering more ground in the same amount of time. But then again, if you're on a spot where they're nice and close together and you're getting a good shot, you just keep pulling up and going over that same spot because it's a nice patch where there's a lot of clams. Then sometimes you'll be going along pretty good and all of a sudden it's like you hit the desert and there's absolutely nothing." If the catch is good, you may lower the rake and continue on the same drift. If the next rake proves disappointing, you might move back upwind for another shot (or rake or haul) on the same drift, or move to another location.

A couple of quahoggers head out from Greenwich Cove, 2007.
A couple of quahoggers head out from Greenwich Cove one October morning in 2007. (October 6, 2007).

Motoring out from Greenwich Cove (from an area on Water Street in East Greenwich that used to be called "Scalloptown") on a weekday in late August, Phil Spadola observed, "It's a wind against tide day."

Is that bad?

"You never know until you put the rake in the water."

Arriving at his selected spot in about twenty feet of water at low tide, Spadola said, "There's enough wind, so I'm going to drag an anchor to slow the boat down a bit." As he began to attach telescoping aluminum poles together with hose clamps, he explained that he preferred to use lightweight stales even though they were more prone to break than the heavier ones.

Spadola began to lower his bullrake, attached to about forty feet of stale, into the water. "It's just a matter of dialing in," he said simply. With a "fresh" wind, a softer bottom is better. The rake will dig in, but the wind will just pull it along, scooping clams as it goes. Had the wind been light, he would have gone to a spot with a harder bottom so that the rake could ride along without getting stuck.

 Two men prepare to rake for quahogs, photo by Roger Mulcahy.
Two men prepare to rake for quahogs. (Photo by Roger Mulcahy, from the docmentary Quahoggers).

After about ten or twelve minutes of raking, Spadola started to bring the rake up and, before it even appeared below the water, concluded, "It's a pretty good haul." As he pulled the long stale in, hand-over-hand, he spun it so that the basket was inverted before it broke the surface. He shook the mud out of the rake before bringing it on board. Spadola explained that you hold the rake with the teeth down when you're working the bottom, but you have to turn it so the quahogs don't fall out as you bring it on board.

Spadola dumped his catch on the "rack," which was set to allow any clams measuring less that one inch at the hinge (the legal size limit) to fall through into a wooden box so that they could be returned to the Bay. He surveyed his take and stated, "That was a pretty good rake. We're going to stay on this drift." Noting that he got "five hauls in roughly an hour," he said, "I'll take one more haul, then go back up further north… I've got a weight on this rake right now. In a fresh wind, it helps keep it on the bottom." Spadola tossed the anchor over to start another rake, then pointed to the custom-made boat belonging to Kris Hermanowski that was gliding downwind with the assistance of two small sails. Spadola said, "Some guys like to work fast. I'm not one of them. I slow myself down." Summarizing his day raking, Spadola said, "I dialed-in kind of early." Which was a good thing. "Only a few times I've been out here I wished I wasn't."

A variety of quahogging baskets, 2007.
Quahoggers may carry a number of baskets of slightly different designs for use in different conditions. (October 6, 2007).

The rake on the basket can be changed to suit environmental conditions, but how do you determine what size teeth to use? Kris Hermanowski explained: "You know when you're digging what kind of bottom you're working. Softer bottom, you go longer teeth." On hard or sandy bottoms, the clams are near the surface and closer together, allowing the use of short-toothed baskets. Longer teeth are also used in winter, when the quahogs apparently burrow deeper into the mud. Howard Drew said, "All the scientists say that the quahogs don't move, they don't go up and down. We claim they do… You have a rake with longer teeth, you catch 'em. With shorter teeth, you don't." This belief is widespread among quahoggers.

What's the hardest part? Is it lifting the rake when it's full?

Hermanowski said no: "I don't mind lifting. You got to know how to catch 'em. That's the hardest part. Lifting is hard, but you've got to know how to get the rake working. You've got to make adjustments. How to set your boat, how fast you're going to move through the water."

Because they are self-employed, and what they earn is based solely on how much they catch, most quahoggers take little time off. Steve DiPetrillo's attitude about work is probably typical among the full-timers: "I go out seven days a week, all year 'round. I schedule Easter and Christmas off. But, other than that, I go with the weather… If you get out early, you can usually do okay. The old guys used to say, 'An hour after dawn is worth three hours after noontime.'"

The fundamental techniques employed by the bullraker have been stable over many decades. Occupational folk groups tend to reject innovation (as long as old techniques work, they are preserved), but they do value new solutions that improve the efficiency, economy, or safety of old systems. Shellfishing in Rhode Island is a time-honored and tradition-bound occupation where change is greeted with a wary eye. Even so, innovations that assist the single-handed quahogger in his daily struggle to scoop clams from the Bay's murky bottom are given fair scrutiny.

Oars gave way to outboard motors, giving the quahogger much more mobility and, therefore, greater access to the resource that provides his income. Fiberglass boats have almost entirely replaced wooden ones, cutting maintenance time and costs.

The satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS) that allows someone to determine his precise longitude, latitude, and altitude anywhere on the planet caught on rapidly. With an electronic map stored in its memory, GPS lets the quahogger trace where he's fished so that he can return to the good spots. Quahoggers in increasing numbers are using depth finders and, especially, GPS as they move about the bay, enhancing both safety and efficiency. Like the wooden skiff, the techniques of compass navigation and dead reckoning may fade into the past.

Art Ganz tonging.
Art Ganz of Rhode Island DEM demonstrates the nearly dead art of tonging. (Photo by Tom and Louise Kane, NOAA Restoration Center).

The evolution of the implements for harvesting quahogs exemplifies how ingenuity and tradition have interacted to preserve an established working system. Before bullrakes, the reigning harvester was tongs, a device consisting of two long wooden poles, hinged together, with a small rake and basket at each end. Worked from a boat in shallow water, tongs are manipulated in a scissor-like motion. As the quahogs are scraped from the bottom, they are held in the basket and then lifted up into the boat. Tongs worked well, especially on hard, rocky bottoms, but as quahogs became scarcer along the shore and in relatively deep water, the tongs' shortcomings became obvious. The length of tong handles is limited by one's ability to manage them using the scissors motion. Twenty-five to thirty feet (extending to perhaps fifteen to twenty feet below the surface of the water) is about their maximum effective length.

Ganz clears muck from tongs.
Ganz clears muck from the business end of the tongs. (Photo by Tom and Louise Kane, NOAA Restoration Center).

The bullraker can use a longer device than the tonger since the rake is dragged along the bottom, a process less cumbersome to sustain from a distance, thus opening access to areas of untapped resources. By the mid-twentieth century, the bullrake was rapidly replacing tongs. Substituting aluminum stales for the wooden poles further extended the depth of the bullrake, propelling it into the favored position it currently occupies.

close-up of the tongs' catch.
A close-up of the tongs' catch. (Photo by Tom and Louise Kane, NOAA Restoration Center).

Quahoggers, especially older guys who have difficulty working the bullrake, can still be seen tonging the shallow areas. Veteran digger Ernie Matteson compared the two technologies: "I'd rather bullrake. It's more efficient. But, believe it or not, if conditions are right tongers can outdo a bullraker. If they come up with four or five at a time, they're doing great. You know, they're doing it every one minute, where we're pulling the rake for maybe five or ten minutes. They make ten hauls to our one, sometimes fifteen." Steve DiPetrillo said tonging "is less intense work. But it's still hard… It's something you need a little more focus to do. Tonging, you have to be more accurate. You set out two anchors and if you get on a spot, you can stay there and really work it. And it works in areas that sometimes bullrakes won't, like rocky areas."

The bullrake itself has seen substantial improvements over the past decades. Years ago, Howard Drew used an old "Keyport" rake (named for Keyport, New Jersey). It was "blacksmith weld with a hard pine stale" that was up to 24 feet long. Drew made the old-style rakes using a homemade jig to bend the wire. The length of the wooden stales could be adjusted with two wedge rings; extra length could be achieved by inserting an additional stale, called a "go between." He said that he once went to sixty feet with the wooden-stale rake off Providence Point!

Typical quahogging boat, docked in Greenwich Cove, 2007.
A typical quahogging boat, docked in Greenwich Cove. Note the "doghouse" at the back to protect the skipper from the elements. (October 6, 2007).

Drew explained that the Keyport had a built-in tendency to dig itself into the mud. "The old Keyport rake, you had to learn how to pull it to keep it from burying. And you get a new guy get that rake, he'd get that thing stuck in the bottom so bad you had a hell of a job just getting it out. And now, any idiot can throw one of these rakes over because it's either going to ride on the bubble or the back. It isn't going to dig too deep."

After 1999, the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) removed the ban on quahoggers' using a motorized winch (a "hauler") to assist them in raising their bullrakes from the bottom. Now, many rakers have attached lines to their rakes that can be thrown around the winch to help haul in the rake, heavy with clams. The line also serves to save the rake in case a stale breaks.

Mark Finn, manager of Greenwich Bay Clam Company (now Rhode Island Clam Company), said that before DEM officially allowed haulers, it "was sort of a gray area." Some rakers used them, and sometimes they got fined. Responding to the question of how deep he went with his stales, Ed Agin replied, "thirty foot of water, forty-five foot of stale." Pointing to the winch, he said, "Now that we have this, we can work in a little bit deeper water… and it's not so much pressure on our arms, our back, and on our hips." One of the younger rakers on the Bay, Lou Frattarelli, talked about the hauler's rewards. "It's kept a lot of old guys working. I know for myself, it'll add ten years onto my career. Why work harder? Everybody else uses some kind of means to pull up their gear. It just makes sense. I don't think the lobster guys pull up a thousand pots by hand."

Onion bags filled with quahogs.
These guys have already filled several onion bags with quahogs and are going back for more. (Photo by Roger Mulcahy, from the documentary Quahoggers).

Don Turgeon demonstrated how the hauler is used, saying, "Everybody uses these here. And now you ain't rugged anymore. You ain't got them big muscles." With tongue still in cheek, as if lamenting a fading machismo, he added, "We used to row." Not all rakers agree that the hauler is beneficial. Kris Hermanowski said, "I know a lot of guys, since they got the winches, got back problems. A lot of guys wearing braces. You don't use those muscles anymore, so now you strain yourself digging."

The individual approach to synthesizing old and new ideas is exemplified by the veteran digger who, from a distance, appears to be bullraking with a wooden stale. But those who know him know better, as Frattarelli pointed out: "He's got a wooden T-handle hose-clamped onto the metal stale." Frattarelli said the man likes the way the wood feels but, of course, is practical enough to go with the aluminum stales.

When Howard Drew was twelve years old, in 1940, he bought his first boat, a fourteen- to sixteen-foot skiff that had to be rowed. Getting a tow to the digging areas if he could, he would drop anchor, let out a 300-foot rope, and bullrake while drifting. At the end of the line, he said you would "pull yourself up with the rope, then drift again." David DiPetrillo also recalled the tow boats. You would pay the guy ("I think it was fifty cents," he said) and he'd tow you out. Without a tow, the rowing could be arduous and tricky. DiPetrillo explained that, whenever possible, "They'd go with the wind or the tide in the morning and then come home with the wind and the tide. Sometimes they'd have to beach the boat and walk along the shore, pulling it with a rope because they couldn't make headway into the wind."

Low tide at the mud flats north of Galilee Escape Road in Narragansett, 2006.
Play in the muck and bring home dinner: Low tide at the mud flats north of Galilee Escape Road in Narragansett. (July 1, 2006).

In those days, the Bay shellfishermen were generalists. Before the Hurricane of 1938 wiped out the oyster beds, they dug for oysters and quahogs and dragged for scallops. Howard Drew's son, David (who makes and repairs raking equipment and sells related supplies) said, "They supplemented their income, they improved their quality of life, by being able to make their own hours and work for themselves." He pointed out that during the Depression era and well into the 1940s, "It was kind of tough because a lot of times they couldn't sell the stuff. There was barter."

Howard Drew picked up the narrative: "There was a family over here in Scalloptown whose wife had a car, an old Buick, and we'd go out and catch quahogs and clams, like on a Tuesday. Then, on a Wednesday, we'd all pile in her car and go up around Greene [in Coventry] and places like that and we'd sell some of the quahogs and trade them for whatever these people had." He mentioned apples, vegetables, milk and eggs. "We'd even take a lunch," he said.

Drew talked about the strike of 1946. Obviously still nettled by the memory, he said, "You had to pay the oyster company for quahogs they didn't put there!" The diggers paid for each bushel they harvested, which in itself was hard enough to take. But the last straw came when the company proposed to institute mechanical dredging, a move that would have doomed the individual, independent shellfisherman. The diggers hired an organizer from New York City to set up a union to fight the company. The strike was successful, and they returned to work in the local fishery that had been designated in the charter of 1683 granted by Charles II as public property, "free and common to all." David Drew concluded this history lesson with the following observation: "When there's a problem, they [shellfishers] seem to band together. And when the problem's gone, it's every man for himself again."

The occupational folklife of quahoggers emerges from the fundamental processes and techniques of their work, which in turn are tied to the physical environment of the Bay. This folklife incorporates material culture, such as boats and bullrakes, as well as the techniques associated with its use. Also included are the beliefs and attitudes, verbal art, gestures, and customs that arise from the work situation. While quahogging characteristically is an individual enterprise and quahoggers value their independence, Bay quahoggers are a close group who interact on a regular and ongoing basis on the docks, on the buy boats, and at other venues for selling out, over radios on their skiffs, and by simply shouting back and forth when raking in groups or passing as they travel the Bay. They discuss their workday, trade experiences, give and take advice, catch up on each other's families, tell jokes, and make small talk—much like the daily routine in any office or other workplace.

The buy boat Snug Harbor docked at Greenwich Cove, circa 1996.
The buy boat Snug Harbor docked at Greenwich Cove, circa 1996. The boat was retired in 2006 and sent to New Jersey to be sunk as part of a reef for divers. (Photo by Tom and Louise Kane, NOAA Restoration Center).

The buy boat Clam Queen, 2007.
The buy boat Clam Queen replaced the Snug Harbor in 2006. Here she is docked at Greenwich Cove in 2007. (October 6, 2007).

One of the rare occasions when diggers gather outside of work contexts is at the annual, word-of-mouth clambake on Prudence Island. Bill Hollenbeck, Captain of the Snug Harbor, spoke about the event, concluding his narrative with a description of the traditional Rhode Island clambake. "The quahogs, lobsters, corn-on-the-cob, and so forth are cooked in a hole with rockweed. You get the rocks hot and then you throw in the rockweed and you put the food in and cover it with seaweed (it's different from rockweed), and throw a tarp over the whole thing and it steams. The rockweed has these little balls full of water, and when they get hot, they pop and make steam. And that's the real genuine clambake. That's the way they did it three hundred years ago. Do you realize there's very few people who still know how to do that?"

Referring to the Bay bullrakers, David Drew said, "It's really a small community." David DiPetrillo made a similar observation. He said that, although there were pockets of quahoggers, "Basically, we're all the same. Years ago they probably never even saw each other because they only worked where they were, where they went. Now, they've got 200-hundred horsepower motors that can eat the Bay up in fifteen minutes." Art Ganz, Principal Marine Biologist at DEM, fine tuned the folk-group designations: "The West Bay guys fish more in a fleet and the East Bay guys are more spread out in their own little nooks and crannies… Most of the West Bay guys come out of Warwick Cove, Apponaug Cove, Greenwich Cove, and Wickford Cove—and Allens Harbor, too. The East Bay guys, there's still some in Warren and Bristol, but, by and large, an awful lot of them trailer their boats… throwing them in on a launching ramp that's convenient to wherever they're going."

Full onion bags.
Full onion bags. (Photo by Tom Ardito, NOAA Restoration Center).

Perhaps the distinctive style of the rakers' interactions—apart from that arising from the strictly work-related lore, itself—can be characterized as humorous. Good-natured ribbing goes hand-in-hand with an equal and off-setting self-deprecation that seems to say, "Hey, I can poke fun at you, but look at me! I'm even worse than you!" After a newspaper article on quahoggers described a raker as "chubby," he said he was kidded for days. But he gave as good as he got by pointing out that the same article also characterized him as "smooth-skinned."

Quahog dog stands guard.
A quahog dog stands guard. (Photo by Roger Mulcahy, from the documentary Quahoggers).

How long have you been a bullraker?

"Fifty-two years. Well, fifty anyway. All in my family do it. My father, my grandfather. The same area every day. All my life."

Do you have GPS?

"Don't need it," he replied. "All I got to have is this watch and that compass. That's all you need… I know that when I run out of there, I run 120 [degrees on the compass] right over there at three thousand on my tach for seven minutes. Then I circle and I do 210, and I'll run that for ten [minutes] at three [thousand rpm] until I rake over. I can pick up a bottle that I threw there yesterday."

That's amazing for dead reckoning!

"Sounds good anyway, doesn't it?" he said with a wide grin. "I start to believe that stuff! Tomorrow I'll be looking for that bottle!"

Don Turgeon's exaggerated account of his dead-reckoning abilities and his lamentation over the loss of muscularity because of the winches flow in this humorous vein. It's difficult not to enjoy the company of quahoggers.

Quahogers clear ice from around their boat, 2004.
Cold weather can't keep die hard quahoggers off the bay. Sean (in blue) and Don Merrill (in green) work to free their boat from the ice while Oliver (in white) waits patiently. (Photo by Susan Merrill, February 2004).

Beneath the veil of humor, quahoggers have a serious side. After all, they are competing for the same finite resource in a physical environment that can turn deadly in an instant. Ed Agin said, "When you relax and begin to get very comfortable, something happens where you get a rude awakening. A bad storm; you fall overboard; you have an accident; you break something; you have a breakdown out there, you're stuck out there for hours and nobody comes to help you." Phil Spadola described his rescue of a skin diver whose thirty foot boat capsized on a very windy day with big waves. Fortunately for the diver, Spadola spotted him standing on the hull of his capsized boat.

Quahoggers have a deep respect for the shellfishermen who have attained a ripe age and continue to work, probably because they have a direct understanding of the hardships and dangers. Longevity in the business rests on a combination of skill, desire, endurance, hard work and, if you believe such a thing exists, luck. The title of "captain" or "cap'n" is bestowed on a small handful whose knowledge and skill have become legendary. When Cap'n Bill Benoit appeared on the deck of the "buy boat" Snug Harbor to sell his catch, his legend had preceded him. (Indeed, he was the captain of the Snug Harbor for years before the young Cap'n Bill Hollenbeck took the helm.) First Mate Albert Wilding said, "He has one of the oldest boats on the water." Other shellfishermen noted:

"There's a guy who's been on the water all his life."

"Cap'n's been around a long time. He's one of the real, real old guys that's left out there.

"He's a good guy. He's been out there forever. Billy's still going."

Maybe the ultimate tribute to Cap'n Bill's dedication is this fisherman's equivalent of the cowboy dying with his boots on: "They'll find him slumped over the gunwale one of these days."

Certainly, Howard Drew also was highly regarded within this community. Although he was seriously ill, he still went out raking each morning, off Providence Point or Quonset, alone in his "inboard-outboard" skiff. He declined his doctor's advice to tong instead of rake, if he insisted on continuing to work. Pulling forty feet of stale for three hours at a time, Drew said several times, in the self-effacing style of a raker, "I'm not much of a quahogger any more." Howard Drew died on March 1, 2001. When folklorist and former National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Bill Ferris spoke in Rhode Island in early 2001, he repeated the Southern proverb, "Every time an old person dies, a library is burned." Both the truth of this statement and the urgency of documenting the Bay's shellfishery were poignantly affirmed by the passing of Howard Drew.

Almost to a man, the rakers began when they were quite young and still in school. Characteristically, they were taught by their fathers or other close relatives. They would greatly prefer that their children not become shellfishers. This attitude seems to be prevalent among fishers of all kinds. They love the work, but wouldn't wish it on anyone else, particularly their own children.

A skiff snuggles up to the Clam Queen off Sally Rock Point, 2007.
A skiff snuggles up to the Clam Queen off Sally Rock Point in October 2007. (October 6, 2007).

An older raker and a youngster tied their skiff to the buy boat. In reply to a question, the older man said that his grandfather was a lobsterman. "And I've kind of been around the water all my life." Asked if the boy in his boat was related to him, he answered proudly, "He's my grandson!" The young man said he'd been coming out in the summers with his grandfather for a few years, but he doesn't think he'll do it for a living. The grandfather said, "You ain't getting any kids anymore… Too many jobs out there. You can get a good-paying job today. And, you know, you only get what you put into it. Now, today was a tough day. You couldn't move."

The grandson was learning the various tasks of a bullraker in the informal and personal setting of the actual workplace—his grandfather's skiff. Initially, he just watched as his grandfather worked and explained what he was doing. Soon, the youngster got to try raking under the close supervision of his grandfather, who provided an ongoing critique of his performance. As a novice gains skill and confidence, he may look beyond his mentor, observing and perhaps imitating the techniques of other rakers. This learning technique maintains the continuity that is central to occupational folk groups, as, over generations, traditional ways of accomplishing required tasks are established. But the process also inherently provides for continual creativity.

As a relatively close-knit occupational group, bullrakers have a lot in common. Yet each is unique and independent. Within the traditional frame of accepted techniques, there is room for individual approaches and preferences. Under the same conditions, Spadola drags an anchor while Hermanowski puts up sails. Howard Drew said, "You've got to get your own style, whatever feels right for you." To arrive at your own style, you need to "watch guys raking and try different ways to see what works for you." Or, in the parlance of folklorists, you imitate customary examples. The resulting array of quahogging styles exemplifies the variation that is a defining feature of all folk processes. You don't have to reinvent the wheel, but you aren't a slave to tradition.

But some customs seem to be inviolate. Drew pointed out that rakers mostly work off the right side, saying "Any guy who works on the other side, they always figured he was working the wrong way." In some cases, the mentor's influence can be impossible to overcome. Drew said, "I'm right-handed but I work left-handed because my father was left-handed and he taught me." When asked if he couldn't switch, he replied, "I tried and I got all fouled up."

Don Merrill patronizes the buy boat, 2006.
Don Merrill patronizes the buy boat on a sunny September day in 2006. (Photo by Susan Merrill. September 2006).

>The Snug Harbor moored near the entrance to Greenwich Bay on a beautiful morning in late October. The day was sunny and unusually warm, but the air still had that crisp autumn feel. Over the ensuing six hours, each of the two dozen shellfishermen who tied up his skiff to off-load and sell out his catch on the buy boat operated by the Greenwich Bay Clam Company was greeted with the same question: How were the conditions out there today? Their responses illustrate the interaction between the conservative and dynamic elements, that is, both the constraints and the freedom, that characterizes the traditional repertoire of close groups.

A raker working outside of Allens Harbor, just past the High Banks, responded, "Slow. Tide was running too hard on the bottom. Couldn't keep the rake in."

The next on board said, "There was a couple of hours good and then it just got slower and slower."

But another replied, "They were pretty good today. The wind and tide were together. Yesterday was just the opposite. When you get the wind against the tide, you're off the side of the boat and you don't do that much. Today you can do halfway decent."

Later, a veteran digger tied up. "Out there, the tide was running but the guys were working in deep water. But I was working in shallow water. It wasn't too bad where I was. But I wish we had a little bit more wind."

As independent and self-sufficient as they are, the Narragansett Bay shellfishermen do not work in isolation. The normal course of their labors puts them into contact, both directly and indirectly, with a variety of other groups, including regulating agencies, wholesale dealers, retail stores, and restaurants. Bullrakers also work alongside others who take a different approach to harvesting the same resource. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the number of divers using SCUBA gear to harvest quahogs began to increase dramatically. Initially, the rakers were alarmed, seeing divers as a threat, not only to their livelihood, but to the resource, itself.

One raker talked about the demise of Bissel Cove, south of Wickford, where, as a youngster, he waded in the shallow water with a bullrake attached to a pipe (a "short-stick"). "It was pretty good there. Then the divers got in there and kind of wiped it out. It's not deep. You could see their tanks… You'd be digging over here and there's a diver next to you. I'm serious."

Another raker said, "Ten years ago, we had so many divers come out, maybe a hundred guys diving and they all used the shoreline. They put their boats, canoes, in the water and they cleared all those beaches right out. They have the same license we do. You can dive or bullrake."

A veteran quahogger said, "In the past, we had a lot of competition from skin divers, but they seem to be on a decline." He compared the way divers work to strip mining, contrasting that to the bullraking process, which because of its relative inefficiency does not overtax the resource. "Divers leave a barren zone," he said, and the next year there's nothing there. "When you're doing this with a boat, you're on top of the water, you're moving around. You can't stay in the same spot—even if you tried, you can't. When you can't make a decent living there, you tend to move and go where they're more prolific. So, you don't really stay there and take everything. And that's good! And that's why we never really clean the Bay out. I suppose they [divers] have to make a living, too, but that's not a good way to do it."

Three quahogging skiffs, Greenwich Cove, East Greenwich, 2007.
Three quahogging skiffs docked at Greenwich Cove in East Greenwich. (October 6, 2007).

Art Ganz of DEM elaborated on the contrast between the diving and raking technologies: "Typically, a bullraker is going to work for four to six hours max, then get tired and go home. A diver, on the other hand, can go down there and get the limit. The overfishing control, if you will, has a lot to do with the inefficiency of the gear. To a certain degree, we have regulations on the spacing of the rakes and stuff like this to make them effectively more selective to the larger animals. However, the divers—and I'm not saying I'm anti-diver or pro-diver—but the divers are much more efficient in a small area. When they get through with a square yard, it's clean. And then they can move on. As opposed to scratching a broad base and not getting a whole lot, but enough to keep."

Shellfishers working the shallow areas have more competition because the resource is easier to get for everyone. Several distinct occupational folk groups may routinely work elbow-to-elbow. Ganz said, "At low tide, there's the group called the short-stickers who walk out waist-deep with a bullrake on a short handle and rake. These are commercial fishers, not recreational. The traditional harvester in shallow water was the tonger, and particularly the older men that are not physically able to bullrake anymore. They go tonging. So they're in the shallow end in a boat with twelve to fifteen-foot tongs. Eight feet below the water is about the limit. So you've got the short-stickers working in the shallow end, you've got the divers working in there, and you've got the tongers. It's always a fight."

In the past several years, divers and rakers have reached an uneasy truce, in part because there are fewer divers now (Ganz estimated about thirty) and they usually go out in the mid-afternoon, when most rakers are coming in. But there may be a more fundamental reason. Ganz said, "About five, six years ago, the diggers wanted the divers outlawed. Then, when aquaculture became the big thing, the diggers and divers became allies against aquaculture. The fishermen are all pretty much united because they know that if your gear type gets eliminated by regulation, the other guy's might be next. That kind of thing is the only solidarity the fishermen have."

Selling his catch at the end of the workday puts the quahogger into contact with other maritime occupational folk groups, such as shellfish dealers and fish companies. The amount that he takes home each day depends on the numbers and sizes of the clams he caught and the market price on that particular day. Recent innovations in both sorting technology and how DEM tracks each individual catch have streamlined the selling-out process.

Quahog sorting device, Clam Queen, 2007.
The quahog sorting device aboard the Clam Queen. (October 6, 2007).

Detail of quahog sorting device, Clam Queen, 2007.
The two rollers are set at a slightly diverging angle from one another, allowing shellfish to slip between them from smallest to largest as they slide single-file along the device. (October 6, 2007).

Detail of quahog sorting device, Clam Queen, 2007.
The sorted clams make their way down chutes under the rollers and fall into separate onion bags. (October 6, 2007).

In years past, quahogs were sorted into three different sizes, usually by the shellfisherman himself, who passed each one through appropriately-sized rings. Now the clams are sorted mechanically. The entire catch is dumped into a hopper at the top of a downward sloping set of rotating rollers made of PVC pipe. The top set of rollers allows all but the largest clams to fall to the set of rollers below. The large clams ("chowders" or "bigs") proceed down the top rollers and are funneled into one of two onion bags attached at the end. These bags are weighed and the fisherman is paid according to the number of pounds. On the lower set, the space between the rollers gradually increases, so the smallest clams ("littlenecks," measuring one inch to one-and-a-quarter inches at the hinge) fall first, passing across a laser beam that counts each piece as it slides into one of the bags. Then the medium-sized clams ("cherrystones" or "top necks," which are one-and-a-quarter to one-and-a-half inches) are electronically counted and bagged. The fisherman is paid by the piece for the smaller two sizes (which is why, collectively, they are referred to as "counts").

After the catch is sorted, a process that takes only a few minutes, the totals are tallied and the numbers and amounts paid are entered onto an old-style mechanical credit card machine. The fisherman hands the buyer his plastic DEM license (which closely resembles a credit card) to swipe. The fisherman gets a copy for his records, as does the buyer and also DEM. The bags of clams are tagged, documenting the source of each catch. This process creates a paper trail of not only the clams themselves, but also of the fisherman, the buyer, and the amounts paid out.

One of the rakers selling out on the buy boat said, "A good day for me would be three or four bushels of necks and two or three bushels of big quahogs." A bushel of quahogs usually weighs out between fifty-two and sixty pounds and a bushel of littlenecks contains about 440 necks and weighs thirty to thirty-five pounds. On that day, the buy boat was paying seventeen cents a pound for quahogs and seventeen cents apiece for necks. So, a good day would net somewhere between 250 and 300 dollars. Of course, not every day is good, and the prices vary. One raker explained that "in the summertime when everyone is on vacation, spending more money at restaurants" the prices are higher. Prices then drop but pick up again as the holidays approach, after which they drop again. Art Ganz said, "If you have a robust economy, people are willing to pay for these shellfish. The irony is, when the economy is in the dumper and the jobs are hard to come by, there are more people on the water. But there's also, in that same tough economy, not as many people buying shellfish, which is, indeed, a luxury item."

Bullraker Kris Hermanowski said that when he first got into the business in the early 1970s, "there were no top necks" and the fishermen were paid by the pound for everything. "Then—when was it, '85, '86, when they went to the count?—then it started going different grades, different sizes, you know, different price for this and different price for that. The dealers still run the cherries. The cherry is in between the top and the big. They got the littleneck, the count, the top, the cherry, and the big. That's how the dealers sell them. They don't pay us for it. They pay us for littlenecks, they pay us for the tops, and for the chowders, the big ones. They grade out the cherries and they sell them, they get more money… It's business. What are you going to do? The dealers are the ones that got to put up the money. We go over there, we give them the clams, they pay us, we go home, we don't have to worry about nothing."

David Castelli, owner of Ocean Pride (formerly Captain's Catch) fish market in Cranston, correlated the various sizes to their tastes and culinary functions. He said the smallest quahogs—which he referred to interchangeably as "littlenecks" and "baby necks"—are the most tender and sweet, so they usually are steamed or eaten raw. The cherrystones are baked or stuffed and the largest, simply called quahogs, are cut up for chowders or clamcakes. When selling the littlenecks, however, the smallest are culled out and sold as "selects." These are sold at about four dollars a pound, as compared to three dollars for just plain "littlenecks."

One may be surprised to learn that the vast majority of quahogs dug from Narragansett Bay are shipped to the Fulton Fish Market in Lower Manhattan. From there, they travel throughout the country and beyond. While a number of local fish markets sell locally harvested quahogs, many restaurants, raw bars, and supermarkets order only the farm-raised product. The major reason is the need for a dependable, uninterrupted supply. Shellfish obtained from aquaculture companies meet this requirement, while the availability of quahogs naturally harvested from Narragansett Bay depends on factors that cannot be controlled. A restaurant or market that needs several bushels of littlenecks daily to meet its demand is unwilling to disappoint customers if the shellfishing fleet is iced-in or because heavy rains have created combined sewer overflows that pollute the beds and prohibit harvesting.

Markets that offer locally harvested shellfish are willing to make an extra effort because there are enough Rhode Islanders who prefer Narragansett Bay quahogs to mahoganies from Maine or farm-raised varieties. Many assert that the native quahog has a distinctive, sweeter flavor with no unpleasant aftertaste. David Castelli said that, regarding wild-caught Bay quahogs, the "availability is not what it used to be. I have to deal with three or four suppliers to get what I need." Still, most of the quahogs he sells are wild-caught locals, "the sweetest clam in the world."

Workers seed Narragansett Bay with young quahogs.
Each year dozens of quahoggers, under the aegis of the DEM and Narragansett Bay Commission, help move quahogs from polluted areas to clean state-monitored management areas. After about half a year, during which the quahogs filter out accumulated pollutants and make baby quahogs, they'll be legal to harvest. (Photo by Louise Kane, NOAA Restoration Center).

Some experts have predicted that, just as agriculture transformed our hunting-gathering ancestors into farmers and pastoralists, aquaculture will soon turn fishers into "marine pastoralists." This prediction may indeed come to pass, but in Rhode Island, shellfishermen traditionally have resisted aquaculture. Bullrakers Jerry Shay and Lou Fratterelli have served on the shellfish subcommittee at the State House. They support programs to seed the natural shellfish beds and they wouldn't mind seeing oysters and scallops farm raised. But they and their fellow rakers continue to oppose measures that would undermine the viability of the local shellfishery and threaten its hard-won status as "free and common to all." Art Ganz said, "Generally speaking, areas that have gone into really big aquaculture have essentially annihilated their natural resources. We really are not at that stage… The production in Rhode Island for aquaculture is probably equivalent to what one good, conscientious shellfisherman could dig in a summer—just one person. So, the wild catch still dominates."

While the World Prodigy oil spill of 1989 devastated a significant amount of the Bay's marine life, one positive result was to generate money to carry out a shellfish transplant program. Ganz said, "What we have in the Bay are a series of spawner sanctuaries which are either brought about by our efforts or brought about by water pollution. But either way, there are big banks of shellfish that are out of bounds for harvesting and their larvae travel out with the tide and set and re-set the bay." The shellfish from polluted areas also are carried to areas that DEM has closed as spawner sanctuaries. Initially there were two, the Potowamut Site (at the mouth of the Potowamut River) and the area called the High Banks. Every other year, one is open while the other is closed. With the assistance of the shellfishermen, several hundred thousand pounds of quahogs have been transplanted into these spawning areas. The success of this program induced DEM to include Greenwich Bay as one of these transplant beds that double as shellfish management areas. The Greenwich Bay area is open only during the winter and provides, in Ganz's words, "an area that's very easy to fish. In the wintertime when it's just nasty, they can always find a lee, and so it's a prime, desirable spot to go."

Quahogging is still a thriving industry in Rhode Island, with perhaps three hundred full-time shellfishers (mostly bullrakers) on Narragansett Bay each day, a number that fluctuates in response to general economic and employment conditions. When the economy is booming and unemployment is low, the number of rakers on the bay diminishes, as many who might be quahogging find better paying jobs ashore. A full-time quahogger said, "You can see it when the economy takes a downturn, a big influx of guys who did it years ago. They still have jobs, but they want to supplement their income. You see a lot of white faces and rusty rakes."

 Recreational quahogger Bob Matteson, 2007.
Recreational quahogger Bob Matteson doesn't have to go far for his dinner—productive beds are only a shell's-throw from the back door of his Sally Rock Point home. (October 6, 2007).

A bit of Bob Matteson's catch, 2007.
A bit of Bob's catch. He says that he and his family eat a lot of what he finds, but sometimes he'll trade with his neighbors—shellfish for fresh vegetables from their gardens. (October 6, 2007).

Why are the dedicated full-timers attracted to this arduous, uncertain and sometimes dangerous occupation where benefits, such as retirement, health and unemployment insurance, are not provided? While each shellfisherman had his own reasons, almost all specified one or more of the following rewards: You are your own boss, accountable to no one else. You work as hard as you want, and the fruits of your labor are yours; the longer and harder you work, the more you can earn. You work outdoors in one of the most beautiful settings in the world, where every day is different and every season has its own special vistas. You are working with nature, as part of an ecosystem larger than yourself that must remain balanced if it is to continue to be viable. The air is clean and fresh and you are getting good physical exercise, so you are healthier than if you worked in an office or factory ashore. Your catch provides a wonderful food source for the many people who love littlenecks and chowder; you are making a measurable contribution to your society. There are some unique motivations, as well. Art Ganz remembered a young, sightless man who raked while his father drove the boat. Ganz said, "The father was his eyes." And many of the diggers pointed out Bob Smith, who always seemed to have a cigar in his mouth. This deaf bullraker recently retired at the age of 70. Quahogging is an occupation that can accommodate individuals who might face formidable obstacles in other pursuits.

But the quahoggers themselves have expressed it best.

"Either way, it's a love-hate thing. I hate the pain. I love the independence… If you love pain, this is the place to go."

"There's no benefits. But I've seen ten thousand sunrises."

"I like the fact that if I don't like who I'm with or where I am, I can move. I can start up that motor and be gone. Go someplace else… For a while I thought I was doing this until there was something better. Then I realized there's nothing better than this. I realized, 'I am a fisherman. I am a Bay man.'"

Quahog in a bucket, 2006.
(July 1, 2006).

Michael Bell, formerly Rhode Island's official state folklorist, is the author of Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires.

Last Edited