Elyse Moore: ‘Flip dog’ in the shadhouse: Recalling the Connecticut River days when fish and rum ran freely

Last modified: Wednesday, May 21, 2014

SOUTH HADLEY — In 1733, the first recorded retail purchase of 30 Connecticut River shad for a penny apiece in Northampton launched a fisheries industry that continued through the industrial development of the mid-19th century. Commercial fisheries along the Massachusetts reach of the Connecticut during the spring migratory runs of salmon and shad supported an associated tavern culture at riverside communities that shared the river’s historical moment of prosperity.

By 1801, as many as fourteen fisheries wharves below the Great Hadley Falls, a natural 30-foot cataract in the river between Northampton and Springfield, landed, salted and shipped between 15,000 and 20,000 pounds of shad daily, at five to ten pence a pound.

John McPhee, a present-day shad fisherman and author of the book “The Founding Fish,” declares that the location known today as South Hadley Falls is possibly the best shad-fishing spot in America. Connecticut River shad were prized for their sweet flesh and sought after at New York City’s Fulton Market. The unheated shad houses, adjacent to the wharves, handled the catch, but were only active during the spring fishing season from mid-April to mid-June. Hadley Falls fisheries companies conducted their pre-season organizational meetings and official business at Craft’s Tavern, a mile above the falls at the Ireland Parish depot — the northernmost parish of West Springfield, now Holyoke.

A roadhouse acclaimed for its excellent food and communal pitchers, Craft’s Tavern served the hot and heady concoction called flip — a slightly sweet, rum, ale and spice beverage heated to a caramelized froth with a wrought iron “flip dog,” a fireplace iron especially made for heating liquids. During the fishing season, flip followed the fisheries to the shad house where a local schoolmaster, Chester Chapin, took an extended leave from his teaching duties and invested annually in a puncheon of rum and a deep supply of cheap cigars, making and peddling flip to the fisheries trade from a little wood-heated riverside shanty.

The informality of the fisheries’ business meetings belied the broad reach of the barrels of salt fish that were processed by a small army of knife-wielding fish gutters in the humble shad houses of Ireland Parish and South Hadley. Thousands of barrels of salt fish embarked from the shad house — by oxcart to the marketplaces of rural Massachusetts where, according to Hadley historian Sylvester Judd, an estimated one-quarter to one-third of a typical river valley household’s food stuffs were fresh and salt fish; by Connecticut River steamship and rail to the Boston and New York City wholesale fish markets; and by ship to the sugar plantation markets in the West Indies.

Commercial shad fishing at the Great Hadley Falls and inn-keeping shared a common culture visible in winter planning stages conducted at Craft’s Tavern in the Ireland Parish highlands. In season, it was visible at the riverside, where as many as 1,500 horses were said to have been drawn up at one time in a classic New England scene of economic, natural and cultural abundance. Fishermen and householders alike came to secure their annual supply — of salmon, shad and alewives, so abundant that it was difficult to maneuver a boat across the river without tipping over.

When a company of a dozen Hadley Falls fisheries men arrived at Craft’s Tavern, they took their flip slightly watered down, and with a little less rum — enough to warm the heart and redden the cheeks, but not so much as to distract them from the preparations for the coming fishing season. By mid-April, the shad would begin their spring run toward the spawning grounds in the pebbly shallows upriver. Boats, seining nets and barrels would have to be mended or replaced, and a two-month supply of salt had to be ordered and readied at the riverside shad house. The men would join a tavern chorus of often-repeated and embroidered fishing tales of the old days.

But even as these natural rhythms of rural life enlivened the winter days and nights at Craft’s Tavern, by 1847 a few enterprising men from Vermont and Boston were planning the construction of a 60-foot hydropower dam at Hadley Falls — based on the success of the Lowell and Lawrence mill towns on the Merrimack River, north of Boston — a partition across the river that neither shad nor the few vestiges of salmon could surmount.

The abundant commercial food supply of the early-19th century fish migrations would fade into a planned industrial grid of the soon-to-be chartered city of Holyoke. A seasonal riverine culture that had dominated the Connecticut Valley spring economy, between winter and summer agricultural pursuits, would submit to the industrial age. Though neither shad nor rum would be completely eradicated from the small markets along the river, the surge of paper and cloth manufacture in the city of Holyoke would usurp the primary character of commercial fisheries and sever generations-old ties between food and drink that shaped life along the Connecticut River.

Elyse Moore was a career chef before entering Mount Holyoke College where she is studying Connecticut River history and journalism as a Frances Perkins scholar.


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