“There was always something on the table. I’m proud of that,” says Eva Cushman, matriarch of the oldest fishing family in Port Clyde, Maine. She wasn’t just a fisherman’s wife – she participated directly in the work. And there was always work to be done. Over the 97 years of her life, Eva has knit lobster trap heads, snipped off the heads of sardines, and worked in the town store. On top of that, she grew bushels of potatoes and other vegetables in the family garden, her seven children helping her haul water while her husband was out fishing. He did everything from dragging to clamming, lobstering, and seining. “You name it,” she says. “He fished for it.”
Now, Eva spends her days doing jigsaw puzzles in the very same house where she raised her children with her husband, Shannon.
“I had to give up knitting a couple of years ago because my hands got bad,” she says. The house where she still lives represents the roots of her family – the roots from which have grown somewhere on the order of 74 family members who are all in the area.
“I can’t keep them all straight,” says Eva with a laugh. “I’ve got them all on the calendar somewhere. It’s all written down.” There are also two brand new members of the family as of this August – two great-great-grandbaby boys. So, perhaps it is now 76.
Among the over seventy family members are Eva’s four daughters. She had three boys as well, but sadly lost all three of her sons in their adult years. Her girls all take turns checking in on her. Three of them live locally and one calls daily from North Carolina and visits every summer.
“They are all busy, busy,” she says, “but they help me with my housework, my errands, and my mail.” Eva has always been quite independent, though, and became accustomed to living alone after her husband passed away in 1989. “I broke my leg awhile back,” she says, “but I get by with a walker now. I can still get around alright.”
Many of Eva’s family members are still involved in the fishing industry. Three of her grandsons fish for lobster and another is a ground fisherman.
“Randy tried lobstering for a bit. He had Shannon’s old boat, the Moby Dick, but he’s a ground fisherman. That’s what he likes,” she adds. Shannon fished for just about everything at one point or another, including working as a fish cutter for the O’Hara Seafood Corporation. “Fishing has always been our bread and butter here. Still is,” says Eva of the continued heritage in Port Clyde.
Things have changed quite a bit since Shannon started fishing the waters of Muscongus Bay, though. The hauls of fish were much more plentiful than they are now – so plentiful that fishermen would give away their catch to people in town who came down to the docks when they came in from sea.
“The locals would go down and ask, ‘Can I have a fish? Can I have a fish?,’” recalls Eva. “They didn’t even pay for them – just gave them away.” That’s when a 10,000-pound haul of haddock wasn’t rare and they had to bring people in to help haul them up. And, fishermen landed right at the dock in Port Clyde. Now, groundfish boats like Randy’s land much smaller catches and have to go to Portland to sell them.
Lobstering was different then as well. Shannon used to collect spruce boughs and bend them to make his traps and Eva would knit the heads and the bait bags. Many of the boats were built right there in town, as well. Now, the traps are made of wire and many people buy them from a trap company rather than make their own.
The town has changed too.
“I knew the Wyeths way back,” says Eva, referring to the now-famous family of artists from the area. “Now the town is full of artists,” she adds. “There are lots of people from away now, too.” But, she also remembers some big names from the past. “We used to watch the Kennedy boys play touch football on the lawn. And, the actor Zero Mostel – he was here too. They all used to come up in the summers.”
Eva saw many of these people come through Port Clyde while she worked at the General Store, a wood-frame building that stands on the town wharf and provides all manner of services to people in town from diesel to milk to lobster rolls. Many people who came from the store were headed out on the mailboat that her husband Shannon ran for a stretch. The mailboat that Shannon captained, the Nereid, was used in World War II. That same boat was also used to seine for herring, once plentiful right off the shores of Port Clyde.
“They would fish at night and you could see the phosphorescence in the water.” That fishery sustained a factory in town where Eva was one of some 150 people who worked. “They used to bus people in, there was so much work,” she recalls. She did a bit of everything from snipping the heads off the fish to packing them in tins.
Port Clyde is a rare place in the world – and Eva is a rare woman. She represents Maine’s fishing heritage and the traditions of a Maine fishing family. As she works on her puzzle, fitting together a picture of a hummingbird and flowers, from her family home, she will undoubtedly see any number of family members throughout the day. Down on the wharf, fishing boats including her grandsons’ will head out for the day to fish and customers will go in and out of the General Store. Much has changed, but the history still thrives through the stories of the town and the stories of Eva Cushman and her family.
Information for this article was taken from a recent interview with Eva Cushman as well as from an Oral History project done in 2017 by the Island Institute and the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association with the support of the Maine Humanities Council.