Fields of Ghostly Nets
By Lisa Cavanaugh
Imagine the work 800 yards of fish net requires. Nets that have been soaking in the ocean, harvesting thousands of pounds of fish.
This was an annual challenge for weir fishermen on Cape Cod. Since the early 1800s, when commercial weir fishing began to grow in popularity, until the 1950s, when it began to wane, local fishermen would draw their nets onto shore and spread them wide over fields, often located close to other fishing industry. There they would repair snags and tears, tar the line to protect it, allow it to dry and keep it stored until it was needed again.
This once-common form of fishing that originated with the Native Americans uses tall poles pounded into the sand below the surface of the sea, with nets strung between them to catch fish trying to swim back to deeper water. Fishermen typically begin weir fishing in April, checking their “fish traps” daily and pulling their gear out of the water around December. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries menhaden, used both for oil and bait, was the primary fish caught in weirs; In 1873 alone, Provincetown landed 2000 barrels of the fish and Chatham took in 5000 barrels.
With only a handful of weir fishermen still active on Cape Cod, the time-consuming ritual of maintaining nets is long past for most fishermen. “Twine fields,” where the nets were spread, are also mostly gone.
But two Cape Cod towns have recently worked to preserve. In 2015, the Chatham Conservation Foundation, working as part of a public-private partnership, successfully purchased a 7.3-acre twine field property off Morton Road in South Chatham, having recognized both its historic and natural resources value.
And in December of last year, the Truro Conservation Trust finalized a $1.6-million deal to purchase what may be the last historic twine field on Cape Cod, a 10.6-acre parcel on Pond Road in North Truro. Close to where the Pond Village Cold Storage company was once located, adjacent to the former North Truro railroad station, this sunny meadow was once prime twine real estate for Truro fishermen, many of whom worked for the Cold Storage plant.
Built in 1893, Pond Village Cold Storage was the only commercial fish freezer in Truro, with a capacity of 3000 barrels. It was situated close to the Old Colony railroad depot, which first saw train service in 1873, facilitating easy transport for fresh-frozen fish caught by local fishermen to Boston and beyond.
Truro resident Gwen Kazlouskas-Noyes, who runs a number of local businesses and previously worked as a naturalist for local whale watching vessels, has a long family history with both the Cold Storage plant and the twine fields. Her grandfather, George Howard, was once the engineer at the plant and among his responsibilities was ensuring that the ice-making machinery operated efficiently. While her grandfather passed away when she was little, her grandmother lived to be nearly 100 and used to take Kazlouskas-Noyes and her brother as children to the empty twine fields to pick blueberries.
“It was just a dirt road and a meadow then,” Kazlouskas-Noyes says. “But my grandmother would tell us about the fishing boats coming up alongside the tram that used to run past the pond area. They would load their fish totes onto the tram, which would then convey them to the cold storage freezer.”
The railroad was discontinued in the early 1960s, the abandoned Cold Storage plant leveled in the 1970s. For years the Rogers family owned the remaining twine field property now sold to the Truro Conservation Trust. There is a request filed with the town to demolish a small cottage and cement garage still standing, and to seal up the septic and well systems.
Fred Gaechter, president of the Trust and a year-round Truro resident, says they have begun planning how to put a public trail across the 10 acres, with historic photos that will educate the public about the twine field and the weir fishermen who used it.
“We have formed a committee for the walking trail, (they) will work with the Truro Historical Society to obtain photos of the fields and the nearby cold storage freezer plant and ice works,” says Gaechter.
The Truro Conservation Trust is also working on a plan to remove invasive species and repopulate the area with indigenous plants. The twine field is an upland meadow, one of the more rare natural environments on Cape Cod, and can serve as vital habitat for Cape Cod wildlife.
Gaechter hopes to hold a public dedication ceremony this June to celebrate this historic and ecological treasure. He believes that the land will be a unique resource.
Kazlouskas-Noyes agrees that the twine fields hold a deep significance. “The stories passed down from the old fishermen are an important part of our community lore,” she says. “It’s vital to preserve that fishing history.”