As Stonington's fishermen age, a new effort to preserve their memories
Stonington — Half of the people that walked into the tent at the Stonington Town Dock Sunday afternoon, it seemed, could point out a relative in one of the photos on the wall.
A collection of snapshots of a centuries-old fishing tradition in Stonington brought back members of the traditional fishing families — and some newcomers — to the old days, and carried a message for the present.
Walter John Roderick stood in front of a picture of his father, Geal “Bait” Roderick, and his seven brothers, reflecting on the shrinking family of fishermen.
“There’s fewer people left in the industry,” he said, counting six living members of the Roderick family still fishing and comparing it to the 60 family members once working on boats in the 1940s.
“We were the kids,” he said. “Now I’m going to be 70 next month.”
The exhibit – which featured printed newspaper articles going back decades and photos gathered from the Southern New England Fishermen and Lobstermen's Association, the Stonington Historical Society and Mystic Seaport – was an effort by the organizing committee for Sunday's Blessing of the Fleet festival to bring some historical context to the annual event.
It also brought some family members together. While Roderick was standing in the tent, Roseann Morgenweck approached him.
“Are you a Roderick?” she asked. The two were first cousins, it turned out. They immediately set about identifying their parents and grandparents in the photos.
Morgenweck, who now lives in Milford and had not attended the annual Blessing of the Fleet in many years, was overwhelmed by all the family members, living and dead, who surrounded her.
“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” she said.
As people circulated through the tent all Sunday afternoon, jokes about cousins’ and uncles’ old hairstyles and glasses were the common currency. Many remembered relatives only by nicknames like "Bait” and "Pepper."
"Eighty-five years old and he still had hair," Roderick joked about one relative.
“That’s probably me up in the rigging,” said Glenn Roderick, peering at a blurry shape on a photo of a fishing boat.
But the exhibit also had a more serious purpose, Sandy Fromson said.
Fromson, with fellow committee member Sue Bove, collected the newspaper articles and photos as a start to their effort to archive the history of Stonington’s fishing fleet as the older members of the families start to age out of the business.
“Many of them have passed on,” she said, and those unfamiliar with the families and the boats may not remember the context for the Blessing of the Fleet, an annual event that since the 1950s has been organized to honor those in the Town Dock fishing fleet who have died at sea.
There’s another concern, Georgia Crowley said. The fishermen still working on boats out of Stonington have, for decades, argued that strict federal catch limits are damaging their profits, and have warned that the rules could put them out of business.
“These guys have a tough time making a living,” Crowley, a co-chair of the Blessing of the Fleet committee, said.
When the older fishermen saw the photos, Fromson said, they reflexively began sharing information about the boats, the fishermen and their families; information that might otherwise be lost or forgotten.
“They begin to tell the people around them stories … saying ‘here’s so-and-so,’” she said. “They’re real people, and they have real families.”
Fromson hopes to collect more of those stories, photos and articles and compile them into a larger exhibit, she added.
“It left me wanting to learn even more,” she said.