Herring In The River
The Spring migration of the herring from Mount Hope Bay up the Taunton and Nemasket Rivers to Lake Assawompsett and other ponds to spawn announces by the sea gulls who follow them, always ready for a meal. This migration of herring has always governed any changes considered on the Nemasket River. The fish were generally used as food or fertilizer, or lobster bait, but there is a record of them being used as a payment of services. There were laws to protect the fish, to regulate the catching of them, and to decide who would receive them. There were agents who would supervise the catching, distributing, and collection of the money for the herring. They were also to see that the fish were caught only at the weir, by those appointed by the town, and at the appointed times. Anyone caught fishing illegally would be arrested and fined. There were some who did not like the laws protecting the herring as evidenced by an article in the Bridgewater News in 1868 which stated several hundred voters from the City of Fall River petitioned the legislature "to repeal all laws in regarding taking alewives and shas in Taunton Greater Fall River and Nemasket River so far as relates to the City of Fall River." The petition was not published according to statute so they had to withdraw it for want of a legal notice.
Near the old grist-mill at the Muttock was a community herring house. Here the herring would be smoked and salted for distribution to inhabitants who were eligible for free fish. Later a nominal fee was charged for 200 fish. They would still be given to widows and spinsters and others who couldn't afford to buy them. About 40,000 fish could be caught before noon of which 6,000- 7,000 would go to the poor house. Youngsters earned one cent a stick for putting a dozen fish on a stick ready for smoking. There were herring peddlers in the spring and summer.
The town always received a revenue for the privilege of catching and selling of the herring under the rules decided at the annual town meeting. The auction of fishing privileges would be held in February or March. The privileges provided that herring be taken between March 1st and June 15th, 4 days a week. Since part of the river and lake are in Lakeville, the town gets a share of amount paid for the fishing rights based on the proportion of rate-able polls in Lakeville to those in Middleborough.
Commercial fishing in the early 1900's was done with hand nets or seines and the fish were put in barrels. In later years it was mechanized and they were dumped into trucks. The main fishing site was at Star Mill. There was no municipal fishing pool because of the cost to maintain a bridge. The prices of $100 to $250 in the early 1900's rose in the 1940's with the highest bid of $8,600 in 1944. This year the rivers water level was extremely low and pollution in the Taunton River killed most of the fish, making a disastrous year for the fishing bidder. The fishing rights continued to be sold at the Star Mill until 1965 when the Winthrop-Atkins Company cut a new channel to allow for expansion.
The abundance of herring continued to decline, as a strange disease in 1965 killed many of the fish. It was during this year that many projects were started to improve conditions along the river for the fish. A new bridge at Wareham Street near the light plant with automatic gates under the road for the fish was constructed with the funds of 50% from the Department of Public Works, 25% from the county, and 25% from the town. The interest in low water affects on herring and surrounding marshland prompted a study of methods of controlling weed growth in the river. There was even a demonstration of mechanical weed cutters.
During the 1960's through the 1980's many of the proposals for river improvements took years to complete. The building of a fish ladder at the headwaters of the river took three years. In 1968 a "denil fish way" the first of its kind in Massachusetts was constructed by Marine Fisheries biologist Joseph "Buzzie" DiCarlo and his crew. The town only pays for materials, the Marine Fisheries Division supplies the design and does the construction at no cost.
The Nemasket River Environmental Corridor Plan was first introduced in 1974. The progress of this plan has been extremely slow. The objectives were stated, allocation of Federal Funds were sought; the possibility of a joint venture with Lakeville for cleaning and protecting the upper section of the river was explored; final approval to clear accumulated silt from the gatehouse area was received; and easements to allow test borings at the headwaters prior to the removal of sediment and installation of a sediment trap were obtained. But any visual changes in the river have not yet taken place.
Other projects of the Conservation Commission were to establish a greenbelt along the river with land acquired by gift, donation, or purchase; to conduct a study of the three-year cycle of the herring by tagging the fish (1967 to 1970); to transplant herring into Tispaquin Pond for 5 years while construction of fish ways on Fall Brook a tributary of the Nemasket River is completed; to plant millions of shad eggs in the river in hopes of re-establishing the "shad" run in five years (started in 1969); and to renovate the fish ladder at Nemasket River near the light plant by making it deeper and wider insuring easier access to the fish (1969), as a note it was renovated in 1997.
A very worth-while project was the restoration of the Oliver Mill Park. The work was conducted by Roland Wells Robbins. Two stone fish ways were completed in 1968, one in 1969, and a new fish ladder in 1982. Much of the beautification of the park was done by organizations and individual volunteers. The park has become a nice place for a summer picnic. The stonework offers a nice setting for picture taking. In the spring it is a popular spot to observe the annual canoe race and of course, the herring migration.
The importance of the Nemasket River is evidenced by its inclusion on maps of the town as far back as 1831 and 1855. The river mentioned in an article titled "An Indian Journey" in November 1885 Harper's Monthly Magazine. There was a poem written by James Rily, who had lived in the Muttock section of town, about Billy Allen who worked in the grist mill on the Nemasket River. The poem published in 1888 was entitled "Miller in the Mill." A more recent use of the river's name was in a column of the Middleborough Gazette called "By the Clear Nemasket River of Echos from Shad Row." The river is also included in a small handout map of the historic "sights" of Middleborough prepared in 1984 by the local historical commission. Although the Nemasket River today just passes by such places as the Ocean Spray Cranberry processing plant, the original waterworks, the original light plant, the Thomas Pierce Playground, the Winthrop-Atkins Company, the Nemasket Hill Cemetery, Oliver Mill Park, and beautiful countryside, it will be a remembered as a contributing force in the development of the town of Middleborough.