Articles

THE FISH THAT PAID FOR A TOWN

Two brothers with big ideas for little fish changed Black’s Harbor, N.B., from a tarpaper hamlet to a unique prosperous town where you can rent a six-room bungalow for fourteen dollars a month

IAN SCLANDERS August 1 1951
Articles

THE FISH THAT PAID FOR A TOWN

Two brothers with big ideas for little fish changed Black’s Harbor, N.B., from a tarpaper hamlet to a unique prosperous town where you can rent a six-room bungalow for fourteen dollars a month

IAN SCLANDERS August 1 1951

THE FISH THAT PAID FOR A TOWN

Two brothers with big ideas for little fish changed Black’s Harbor, N.B., from a tarpaper hamlet to a unique prosperous town where you can rent a six-room bungalow for fourteen dollars a month

IAN SCLANDERS

NESTLING in a finger of the Bay of Fundy there is a neat pleasant town of two thousand people where you can rent a six-room bungalow for fourteen dollars a month, buy milk for fifteen cents a quart, get bed and board in a hotel for a dollar a day, and obtain the main course of the family dinner free.

Billions of fish named Clupea harengus and two men named McLean are responsible for these and other things which make Black’s Harbor, New Brunswick, unique among Canadian communities.

They have turned it from a desolate settlement of tents and tarpaper shacks into a sort of poor man’s Shangri-la. Here, although only the McLeans are really rich, everybody lives well for less than it would cost in most parts of the western hemisphere.

Clupea harengus— let’s just call them sardines—and the McLeans have built one of the biggest seafood canneries in the world, a department store, a theatre, a bowling alley, a restaurant, a sawmill, a woodworking plant, a shipyard, a dairy, a garage, more than three hundred houses and a hospital. Together they installed the water and electric systems and paved the streets. They pay the two policemen and the garbage collector, finance the fire department, maintain a fleet of two dozen vessels, publish a weekly newspaper.

It’s their town. They created it and employ all its residents except the schoolteachers and clergymen and the staff of the bank. It couldn’t exist without the fish. Without Senator A. Neil McLean and Allan M. A. McLean it wouldn’t have been developed.

Black’s Harbor is only a seaswept dot on the map but it helps feed half a hundred countries and brings seven million dollars a year into New Brunst wick. In 1950 it crosspiled 490 million sardines in 70 million oblong tins: Besides being sold throughout Canada, these were exported to markets which ranged, alphabetically, from Aden to Zanzibar.

They were served in famous restaurants as hors d’oeuvres. From Newfoundland to British Columbia they were an important item in the dinner pails of scores of thousands of workers. Fiji Islanders ate them; they were so vital to the diet of West Indians that they were virtually exempted from import restrictions; and they were in brisk demand in the Latin American republics.

Its Prosperity Has Spread

They were shipped in quantity to Singapore and Hong Kong. A missionary who dined on them high in India’s Himalayas wrote a letter of appreciation. While Norwegians were sending sardines to Canada, many a housewife in Sweden, Norway’s next-door neighbor, shopped for the Black’s Harbor product.

The company which carries on this international trade is still called Connors Brothers Ltd., after two old fishermen who founded it long ago in a modest way. The McLeans have controlled the concern and owned Black’s Harbor for thirty years, and the annual output is now seventy times what it was when they took over.

Under them, Black’s Harbor has been a successful experiment in combining raw material, brains, muscles, capital and research. It has spread prosperity through the whole surrounding district. Yet salty individualists born and bred on the sardine shore once dubbed it Little Russia, said you couldn’t keep your liberty if your boss was also your landlord, and contended that the McLeans wanted to be dictators. This prejudice has since evaporated.

Neil McLean, president of Connors Brothers, is a tall man in his early sixties. His hair is thinning and his shoulders are slightly stooped but he looks yout hful. He speaks with a slow drawl and punctuates his conversation with homely phrases and anecdotes.

He’s a Liberal Party stalwart in the Maritimes but could be mistaken for a champion of Social Credit when he discusses monetary reform, his favorite subject. He claims that there should be no lack of work, no poverty, in a land with fisheries, forests, fields and mines, and his own operations indicate that this can be a practical theory. His home and office are in Saint John, but he’s in Black’s Harbor, fifty miles distant, every other day.

Allan McLean, managing director of the firm, lives at Black’s Harbor in a big white house on a hill. Pressing sixty, he’s a dark handsome man with a fondness for horses, dogs and purebred cattle.

Fishermen and cannery hands formerly addressed the McLeans as “Mr. Neil” and “Mr. Allan.” Then Neil was appointed to the Senate after being Canada’s fish administrator during World War II, and Allan received an honorary degree of doctor of laws from Continued on page 30

Continued on page 30

The Fish That Paid for a Town

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Acadia University. They are now referred to, with a tinge of local pride, as “the Senator” and “the Doctor.”

Their principal business - and they never forget itis packing fish. Their sideline activities are not expected to show profits but are designed to promote the welfare of the hired help. This is one of the reasons a pay envelope stretches so far in Black’s Harbor.

The housing was constructed at rockbottom cost with wood the McLeans cut in their own timber limits and sawed and planed in their own mills, and the rentals were fixed accordingly.

For a fish dinner the housewife can pick up mackerel or flounder or rosefish or haddock at the wharf. It’s fresh and there’s no charge. The householders also have adequate gardening plots, and the countryside offers wild strawberries, .raspberries, blueberries and cranberries.

Electricity, supplied by the company, is cheaper than elsewhere in New Brunswick. The town isn’t incorporated, levies no taxes, has no mayor or councilors. But when an issue arises it’s considered at a public meeting in the hall on the second floor of the fire station. The final say rests with the McLeans but they are usually guided by the wishes of the majority.

The ten-room school at Black’s Harbor, which has four hundred pupils, is financed by the Charlotte County Regional School Board with funds collected chiefly from Connors Brothers Ltd. The McLeans furnish the frills, such as the kilts, drums and bagpipes for the pipe band, the uniforms and equipment for the baseball and hockey teams. They also contribute substantially to the support of the three churches.

When there’s a special event, like the annual exhibition at nearby St. Stephen, the McLeans have been known to close the cannery, load every man, woman and child aboard their twenty-four vessels (two of them ocean freighters) and depart for the scene of the fun.

Pirate’s Gold and Sudden Death

The greatest feeding grounds of the sardines are within a thirty-mile radius of Black’s Harbor. There the fish fatten themselves on the plankton (microscopic marine life) stirred up from the bottom by the swirling currents of Fundy. Nowhere else on earth are there such tremendous schools of sardines.

In the summer they are caught in weirscircular nets attached to stakes driven into the bed of the sea close to shore. A weir encloses as much as three acres of water and is like a gigantic minnow trap. The fish swim in through a V-shaped mouth and can’t find the way out. At low tide—Fundy rises and falls twenty-five feet each twelve hoursthe catch is scooped into collection boats which speed it to the factory.

The weirs have names: Ladysmith,

Fair Maiden, Toejam, Last Chance, Pirate’s Gold, Sudden Death, Black Robber, Oatmeal, Blueberry Pie, and so on. In spite of these colorful labels weir fishing is monotonous unless a shark, a whale or a seven-hundredpound tuna happens to be following the sardines. One of these monsters can rip a net to shreds.

When a shark, say, gets into a weir a fisherman enters with his boat and manoeuvres until he is over the dark shadow of the invader. Then he either

plunges a harpoon into it or slips a wire noose around its tail, brings it to the surface with block and tackle, and kills it with a rifle.

In winter the fish move out into the depths and are hunted down by seiners — sturdy forty-five-foot craft outfitted with electronic devices for locating fish and radio telephones for keeping in touch with the cannery. They may cruise unsuccessfully for days, but occasionally they strike it rich.

On March 25, for example, reports reached Black’s Harbor that tens of thousands of sea gulls had suddenly appeared on the Nova Scotia side of the Bay of Fundy. Because there are almost bound to be sardine schools where the gulls mass this information was radioed to the seiners, which were soon plowing across Fundy in a storm, through fifty miles of open churning sea.

Four Million by Nightfall

Scattered flocks of gulls were sighted in the lee of the Nova Scotia headlands and the seiners trailed them through narrow Digby Gut into Annapolis Basin, where they encountered the main body of birds. As they zigzagged through the huge white patch of screeching furious gulls their sounders - which are a bit like submarine detectors— traced the pattern of the swarm of fish.

The purse seines were dropped over this target. Each of these nets is 600 feet long and from 130 to 160 feet deep, with floats at the top and weights at the bottom It is run out in a circle until both ends meet, then the bottom is “pursed” or closed by an arrangement of ropes. Ina single dip a purse seine has harvested one hundred hogsheads of fish, worth as much as three thousand dollars.

As the seiners pulled in their catch in Annapolis Basin on March 26 three Connors Brothers collection boats were on hand. They loaded three hundred hogsheads — 330,000 pounds — before heading home that evening. On March 27 at daybreak the cannery whistle wakened lllack’s Harbor with a series of short sharp blasts that signaled a big haul.

People tumbled from bed, dressed and breakfasted hurriedly, and poured toward the sprawling factory buildings on the shore. By nightfall they had tucked the mid-sections of four million sardines into tins and processed the heads and tails into protein meal for livestock and poultry and oil for soap and paint. The scales of the fish had become pearl essence, the preparation artificial pearls are coated with. This was the first rush of the 1951 packing season.

The fish that built Black’s Harbor were once regarded as worthless. What could you do with them outside of using them for lobster bait or spreading them on the fields for fertilizer?

The answer was found in Sardinia, in the Mediterranean, in the time of Napoleon, who offered a reward for a form of preserved food that would nourish his troops during military campaigns. The Sardinians won the prize with herring canned in oil—“sardines.” The Portuguese stole the process from the Sardinians. Eventually, the Norwegians learned the secret and Norwegian immigrants passed it on to United States packers.

In Black’s Harbor, which then had no more than half a dozen families, Lewis and Patrick Connors decided they could can sardines too. They caught the fish themselves, packed them with home-made equipment in a wooden shed, and peddled them from store to store in Saint John. The first

year, 1889, they put up a few hundred tins. Their product was inexpensive, nutritious and good, and found a ready market.

By 1920 the Connors had an annual pack of one million tins, but economic conditions were changing and competition was fierce—it was a case of expand or fold up.

Lewis and Patrick, no longer young, didn’t want to face the worry and responsibility of a major expansion. They knew and liked Neil McLean, who had started his career in a bank then branched into other businesses. They had often consulted him about their problems. Now they asked him to buy them out and reorganize their company.

Neil McLean persuaded his brother Allan, a World War One veteran who had a construction firm, to join him and the McLeans took over from the Cionnors. Black’s Harbor was still a hamlet. The cannery was only open in the summer and its workers were transients who “camped out” in tents and tarpaper shanties.

What to Do in Winter?

When the McLeans swung into action they doubled and redoubled production, then doubled and redoubled it again. Soon they required a much larger labor forceone which would be permanent. To attract the right type of worker they knew they would have to have decent housing.

Both the McLeans are hard-headed industrialists, but neither is without idealism. Since they had to create a town they were determined that it should be a pleasant town. As the first rows of modern bungalows went up the sardine coast grumbled and snorted about Little Russia, dictators and regimentation. But those who tried living in Black’s Harbor liked it.

The McLeans bought can-making and box-making machinery to provide winter employment. A research chemist, Dr. J. P. Berry, was engaged and given a laboratory. There was no coldweather shortage of clams, haddock, cod. Berry soon emerged from his new lab with formulas for canning clams, clam chowder, clam bouillon, chicken haddies, finnan baddies and fish cakes. If this did not entirely solve seasonal unemployment it at least eased it.

But the test of the McLeans, from the standpoint of the fishermen and cannery hands, came in the early thirties. The brothers had set aside substantial reserves and, when the depression set in, they told Black’s Harborites, in effect: “If anybody goes broke then we will all go broke together.”

They packed fish they couldn’t sell until their warehouses were crammed; they built new and better bungalows until it seemed silly to build any more; they extended their cannery in all directions; they established their own shipyard, built boats; and embarked on other make-work projects. When the economic upturn finally arrived they had exhausted their reserves but were able to hoist a proud sign on their plant—The Largest Sardine Cannery in the British Empire.

They also had a town that would not again be derided as Little Russia, a town where no resident had drawn government relief or missed a meal.

Neil McLean figured he knew when the depression was over. So did Captain Syd Thompson. McLean reached his conclusions by poring over financial charts, graphs, reports. With Skipper Thompson it was easier. He strolled down to the wharf one spring morning in 1936 and saw nine whales chasing a prodigious school of sardines up Black’s Harbor, right to the factory

door. What more would you want for a happy omen?

The McLeans had been looking ahead and negotiating with the federal government to have it legalize the use of seiners in the Bay of Fundy. This method of fishing, allowed since the late thirties, keeps some fish trickling into the plant all winter. Coupled with other winter activities it has ended the cold weather lay-offs.

Plie McLeans were also pulling diplomatic strings far afield. Mediterranean interests decades ago had won a ruling from the House of Lords that they alone were entitled to label their product “sardines.” Other Commonwealth countries adopted this decision.

The McLeans claimed—and scientists backed them up—that Mediterranean sardines (Clupea Pi/chardus) are just a kind of herring, like Bay of Fundy sardines or Norwegian sardines. They argued that if the House of Lords held that Canadian sardines should not be called sardines it should stop British china from being called British china because china was first made in China.

In South Africa, Australia and New Zealand the McLean logic prevailed and Canadian sardines may now be shipped to those countries as sardines. Britain refused to bow until World War Two, then, for the duration, begged for New Brunswick sardines. After the war the British got stuffy again. They’d be glad to have New Brunswick sardines, they explained, but not unless these were simply labeled “herring” or “little fish packed in oil.” The word “sardine,” said British authorities, was the exclusive property of Mediterranean packers and would have to be left off the label of any Black’s Harbor products exported to the United Kingdom.

“Not by us, it won’t be left off,” snorted Senator McLean. That’s where it stands today. The U. K. won’t admit Canadian sardines if they are called sardines, and the McLeans won’t ship sardines to the U. K. under any other name. So Britein is about the only friendly nation not on their list of customers.

In the forties the Connors Brothers cannery was again expanded and the McLeans did some careful checking on the capacity and annual output of their rivals in the United States, Norway, Portugal and elsewhere. Then they lowered their sign and put up a new one: The Largest Sardine Packers in

the World. The collection boats and the seiners and the freighters tooted whistles and rang bells as they milled around Black’s Harbor and the Senator and the Doctor beamed at each other.

Lewis and Patrick Connors would have been thrilled if they’d been alive. Those two old fishermen, who had known hardship and near-poverty in their day, wouldn’t have recognized the sardine shore. Not only in Black’s Harbor, but in scores of fishing villages, all the houses were painted, most everybody had a new car and money in the bank, and the chief worry was the income-tax collector.

On Grand Manan five war veterans who pooled their service gratuities and built a weir had shared ninety thousand dollars in two summers. On Deer Island fisherman Vernon Stuart took a notion that he’d like to fly. He went to the mainland for lessons, then he bought himself an airplane for cash, hired a bulldozer and leveled off his back pasture for an airport.

All the school kids were well-dressed and there were new schools. There were paved roads even on the islands. And the worthless little fish that had once been lobster bait or fertilizer for the potato patch were known now as salt-water silver.