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When Sardines Were Bigger Than Lobsters, Maine Women Had Good Jobs

In the Downeast town of Stonington, Maine, the women used to listen for the factory whistle, which blew when a boat came in with a sardine catch.

A sardine factory worker, identity unknown.

A sardine factory worker, identity unknown.

They hustled to the long, low wood building on the wharf. They donned rubber aprons, took their positions on the cold, slippery floor and picked up their scissors. There amid the awful clatter of machinery they snipped the heads and tails off the tiny fish. Then they packed them into the tins, careful to avoid cutting their fingers on the sharp edges.

For thousands of women, life revolved around the cannery when Maine was the hectic hub of the sardine business. Nearly every town along the coast had at least one small sardine factory. Some had more than a dozen.

Now the sardine factories are all gone, and stories of the women who worked there would be forgotten were it not for three amateur historians.

“What was very poignant was that many of the women that we interviewed said that they would return to work at the factory if it were open today,” said Gail Sytsema, a Stonington summer resident. “There was a marvelous sense of support amongst the women in a job that was so challenging.”

Sytsema used to take a daily walk along Stonington Harbor by the old sardine factory – now the Isle Au Haut boat service. She grew curious about the people who once worked there. Sytsema enlisted Sharon Hellstedt and later Trish Brierley in finding out more. The women spent the next five years combing the state of Maine, researching the sardine industry, collecting artifacts and interviewing former workers.

Stonington Sardines

The Stonington sardine factory today

The Stonington sardine factory today

Stonington lies at the southern tip of Deer Isle, where lobstering is now the biggest industry. Back in the day, it used to be cutting granite and catching and packing sardines.

Like many sardine workers, Anita Oliver, had fond memories of work at the Stonington cannery.

“We could talk all day, laugh,” she said. “That was the best time of my life.”

Oliver was speaking on a video produced in 2012 by Stonington’s Opera House Arts and researched by the three friends. In the video, Oliver and four former sardine workers -- Ann Eaton, Janet Nevells, Catherine Larrabee and Kathy Eaton Gray -- talk about the good old days in the cannery.

The video is on display at the Deer Isle-Stonington Historical Society as part of an exhibit about the cannery. The Maine Coast Sardine History Museum tells the story in Jonesport, once home to 15 sardine canneries. The Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport has produced a video about the Jacob Pike, a sardine carrier (view it here).

A Short Sardine History

sardines featureThere is no actual ‘sardine’ fish; they are pilchards, small oily fish in the herring family. They were once a luxury food, while lobster was food for poor people.

Sardines were served with special little dishes and forks. Before Prohibition, bartenders set out sardines and crackers instead of popcorn and mixed nuts. In 1935 Oscar Wilde's son Vyvyan Holland started a sardine tasting club in London.

During World War II, sardine canneries flourished with large government orders for the troops. Sardines then became the ramen of convenience food, a staple of every workman’s lunchbox and Friday night supper for the poor immigrant family.

The industry reached its peak in the early 1950s, with nearly 6,000 workers at more than 50 canneries in Maine.

Stonington

Stonington’s first sardine cannery started in 1867. A state-of-the-art sardine factory was built on the harbor in 1911. It became the town’s largest employer, with more than 100 employees, mostly women. Women were quicker at packing the small tins.

The cannery also provided work for fishermen, seiners and truck drivers.

Ann Eaton’s husband was a fishermen making $50 a week. They had one child and one on the way. It was pretty obvious she had to get a job. At the sardine factory she found income, empowerment and lasting friendships.

The work was hard and the women worked quickly, as they were paid by the can. The women talked and joked all day.  Sometimes they played practical jokes on each other. “We had some good times,” said Janet Nevells. “You couldn’t leave your table,” said Catherine Larrabee, one of her victims.

Red Feed

A sardine packing card

A sardine packing card

Many women taped their fingers to protect them. “You could get some good little can cuts,” said Ann Eaton.

Sometimes their hands broke out in sores and bled in reaction to bacteria from undigested red feed, a small marine crustacean eaten by the fish.  Red feed also caused the fish to break down as they were handled.

The women rebelled against the red feed. Some left their tables. Some left the building. Some put the affected fish down the flume – a hole near the tables where the heads and tails were thrown. The boss then made sure they didn’t use fish with undigested red feed.

Work wasn’t steady. The women worked when the factory whistle blew or later when the radio station in Rockland told them to go to work. When they worked a cumulative number of hours, they were eligible for the unemployment benefits to which they contributed.

How two Stonington sardine workers changed the law, from the Deer Isle-Historical Society exhibit.

How two Stonington sardine workers changed the law, from the Deer Isle-Historical Society exhibit.

But a quirk in the law said cannery workers had to work steadily through their shifts to receive unemployment. If a worker took a half hour off during the month, she couldn’t collect her benefits.

The women protested it wasn’t fair. They didn’t know when they’d work, and sometimes they couldn’t avoid picking up a child or going to a dentist appointment.

In 1979, Anita Oliver and Donna Stinson went to the unemployment office and were told they’d never change the law. They went to the Maine Legislature in Augusta.

“We said we believe in it and it’s time something was changed because it’s not right,” Oliver said. “I said if you’re the sole provider of a family and you don’t get a paycheck for a week, what are you going to do, fall on the state?”

Their representative introduced a bill to correct the injustice. It passed.

Gov. Joe Brennan came to Deer Isle for a fundraiser and asked to see them. “You changed that law,” he said. “We were so happy because everyone said you couldn’t do it,” Oliver said.

End of the Line

The recreated sardine factory office at the Deer Isle-Stonington Historical Society.

The recreated sardine factory office at the Deer Isle-Stonington Historical Society.

But time was running out for the sardine factory. Tastes were changing, and other kinds of convenience food replaced sardines. Tuna fish was marketed to the masses with great success.

Sandy Oliver, a food historian who lives on Islesboro, said tuna dealt a body blow to the sardine industry.

“Marketing matters,” she told the Bangor Daily News. “What tuna fish producers did in the 1950s and 1960s was remarkable.”

There were other reasons for the death of the U.S. sardine industry: Overfishing. Regulation. Globalization.

Ann Eaton could see that overfishing would doom the factory, which also packed fish steaks.

“They would come in with these big fish, and they were full of spawn,” she said. “They did it for years. We could see it. They said, ‘You keep this up. You’re killin’ em’.”

New environmental and safety codes also killed the industry. In Stonington, the waters around the factory turned red on days when the sardines were packed in tomato sauce, yellow when they were packed in mustard. The factory burned coal, so soot and dust settled on clothes drying on nearby lines. And the wooden floor was a fire hazard.

In 1992, the Stonington sardine workers hung up their aprons for the last time.

In 1992, the Stonington sardine workers hung up their aprons for the last time.

It would have cost too much to bring the cannery up to code, Eaton said.

The Stonington sardine factory shut down suddenly in 1992. “We never dreamed it would close,” said Kathy Eaton Gray. Seventy women lost their jobs. Some went to work housekeeping for a local motel or working for the new nursing home.

All along the Maine coast, canneries were bought, stripped and closed as the industry consolidated and moved offshore. There are still huge sardine factories in Portugal, China, Australia and India.

On April 18, 2010, Stinson Seafood, the last sardine factory in Maine, closed in Prospect Harbor.

There’s no question the sardine workers regret the death of the industry. “If that factory was there today, I’d want to work there,” said Ann Eaton.

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