John Hamm (1920-2006) told me this story in 1989 for a Folk Arts Project where I first interviewed residents about their childhood experiences in the 1920s, and then hosted a public program in February 1990 where they could share memories and mementoes with neighbors. John's story then appeared in print for a small booklet published by Brookside: Saratoga County History Center called Life in a Mill Town: Schuylerville and Her Hamlets in the 1920s by Todd DeGarmo (1990).
First, some background:
Eels, a fish naturally found in the rivers of eastern North America, and harvested in the Fall, have historically been a "very important food fish" according to the 1903 Catalogue of the Fishes of New York. This eel harvest is an industry long associated with the grist mill in Grangerville, a hamlet in the Town of Saratoga, on Route 29 west of Schuylerville and east of Saratoga Springs. The mill not only tapped Fish Creek (a tributary of the Hudson River) for its waterpower, but also harvested eels from its waters. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, barrels of the fish were shipped out of Schuylerville first by canal boat, and later by truck and train. In 1890, The Post-Star noted that 1300 pounds of eels were shipped out the week of September 16, and almost 2 weeks later, over a ton of eels were stolen from Grangerville, "taken by parties who carried away the eels in wagons."
John Hamm told me that when his father, Caswell Hamm (1888-1942), bought the Grangerville Grist Mill in the early 20th century, he also bought the eel wire that came along with the mill. Due to the dams on Fish Creek, John says, Cass Hamm would help the young eels with their upstream migration, gathering what John calls the “hairfish”.
“Eels are a saltwater fish. So in the spring of the year, when they’re born, they would swim up the river, and then they got as far as the dam at Victory Mills. Now these little eels look like a lot of hair running around. We can them ‘hairfish’ because they were only 4-5-6 inches long and they were just like hair swimming. When these came up, there’d be millions of them. So my father knew there was no way for them to get over the dam in Victory Mills, so he went down with milk cans, at night, scoop ‘em up in the milk cans and take them above, I believe, the second dam. There’s one in Grangerville and another regulating dam a mile or two up further. He’d take ‘em up above and put ‘em in the Crik. And these way he assured that he was going to have some eels come down in the future years. But they really were small. I’ve seen ‘em up around by the grist mill years ago. ‘Look at them things: little snakes going along.’ They look like hair, little black hairs.”
During the full moons of July and August, when the eels were on their way back to the ocean, the harvest began in earnest. The water of Fish Creek entered the mill’s fume, and on to six or seven water holes. Each water hole was fitted with a gate to control the water flow. Behind most gates was a water wheel, to power the main grinder, or the buckwheat grinder. Several of the water holes were no longer in use, and one led to the eel wire. When the eels were captured here, they were transferred by hand to an “eel car” for safe keeping.
“You pick ‘em up easy. You don’t grab ‘em ‘cause if you did, they’d slid out. Put ‘em in what we called the ‘eel car’. The eel car was, I would say probably, three feet high, six by ten, with a door at one end and a lid. We put those eels in there, and you had a rope on it and let it out in the water, so the eels had water going through. It was all screened, made up out of wood, and hardware cloth so they couldn’t get out once they were in there.”
The Hamms sold a lot of eels each year, whole or dressed, packed in ice, for local sale or shipped out to New York.
“I’m talking a lot of eels. They used to ship ‘em out. They’d get a truck with an eight by twelve foot body and fill it with barrels of eels to ship to New York. They used to send a lot of eels, both skinned and just the way they came out of the Crik - alive. I know once they had a whole truck load they sent to Saratoga and missed the train. ‘Brought ‘em home and dressed the whole thing. There was a manure spreader full of skins. What a mess to get off that manure spreader afterwards! They packed ‘em in ice and shipped ‘em to New York all dressed. And I’m going to say Dad got probably fifteen cents a pound alive or twenty cents dressed. And it was worth the nickel a pound to get ‘em dressed.”
Dressing eels quickly is a skill worth money. John has fond memories of trying his hand at it, but he remembers fellows who were much better at it.
“Off and back up. They’d snap them around around the neck and they’d clean ‘em all in one operation. When they got done with them, they were just as clean as could be. Take a nice piece of wrapping paper and grab ‘em off the hook and snap ‘em, and there weren’t any blood on ‘em. They were clean.”
Eels were also eaten at home, his mother mother preparing them in a special way, that he and his siblings enjoyed once they got used to them.
“She’d take ‘em and cut ‘em up in pieces about two inches long. Eels are snakes. She’d cut ‘em up an inch and a half, two inches long, and parboil them in milk and baking soda, and then afterwards get out the iron skillet and fry them. She’d first roll them in flour, and salt and pepper, and fry them on top of the stove. And you acquired a taste for them. They were delicious. And the bones came right with the backbone, so you didn’t have many bones to worry about. Because we’re all kids, we ate ‘em like candy, once we got to know them.”
The family also ate them out of season. Cass’s brother Bert canned them with a pressure cooker, and they came out much like canned salmon with soft bones. Cass also tried freezing the eels after reading something about frozen food experiments. He had a store with the grist mill outfitted with a four-hole ice cream cabinet. Since he didn’t sell much ice cream in the winter, he used a couple of the freezer holes to freeze eels during the harvest. If he got an eel banged up in a fight or something, he’d skin it right away and coil it into that ice cream freezer, and the family had eels to eat during the winter months. Sometimes others also got a taste of this frozen treat.
“I remember one day a guy came along and says, ‘I’ve got a taste for eels.’ And Dad says, ‘There’s no eels now. It’s the winter.’ He says, ‘I’d give anything for one.’ Dad says, ‘Well, I’ll help you out. I’ll have an eel for you. But it’s froze. I can’t sell it but I’ll give it to you.’ A week later the guy’s back looking for another one. So Dad ended up giving him another eel to eat. The first frozen fish that we had. And they were delicious.”
For more information contact Todd DeGarmo, Founding Director of the Folklife Center at Crandall Public Library, Glens Falls, NY, 518-792-6508 x237, firstname.lastname@example.org.