Two hours east of Ellsworth and two minutes west of the Canadian border, Lubec is off the beaten path. But the town numbering 1,500 year-round residents was once the beating heart of the American smoked herring industry.
“Anybody over 10 years old worked in the smokehouses,” said John McCurdy, the former owner of the McCurdy Smokehouse, which is now a museum dedicated to the history of the industry in Lubec. “There were maybe 8 or 10 smokehouses in operation when I was a young fellow.”
Throughout the 19th and into the mid-20th century, the smoked herring business boomed. The fish were an inexpensive source of protein that could be preserved for weeks, which was essential in the time before refrigerators.
Lubec fishermen brought in thousands of tons of Atlantic herring a year from the weirs scattered in the nearby Bay of Fundy. The silvery fish were then dumped, along with 80 pounds of salt, into water-filled tanks. They soaked there for a week before being impaled through the gills with long wooden sticks that are still in the museum.
“Looks like the fish grease is still on,” said McCurdy as he rubbed the ends of the blackened sticks, which were stacked from the creaky wooden floorboards to the cobwebbed ceiling in a room overlooking the clear blue waters of the Lubec Narrows. “I don’t know what the sticks are made of,” McCurdy said. “My concern was to hang fish.”
McCurdy and his 24 co-workers were experts in that department. The fish-laden “herring sticks” were hung to dry from “herring carts” for a few hours, so that the fish wouldn’t slide off the stick. They were then hung up to 30 feet in the air from the rafters of the smokehouse, while the smoke from a perennially burning fire on the floor cured the fish.
After seven to eight weeks, the herring were taken down, decapitated, skinned, gutted, deboned, split in half and packed into wooden boxes to be shipped all over the world.
“There’s no scientific way to do this,” said McCurdy, who worked in the smokehouse since he was 12 years old, when he made the wooden boxes for the herring to be shipped in. “You don’t have any chart to tell you how much salt to put on the fish, how long they stay in the brine tanks, or if it’s warm enough in the smokehouse. You’re there long enough, you can feel whether it’s too warm.”
The herring business did well through World War II, but the prosperous post-war period allowed Americans to trade out their iceboxes for refrigerators and freezers. The interstate highway system also ensured that fresh food could be delivered to markets faster, and medical research warned Americans against consuming too much salt.
“People started avoiding canned and cured in favor of fresh or fresh-tasting,” said Marjorie Krull, the museum’s lead docent.
By 1975, McCurdy’s was the last cold smoking commercial herring smokehouse operating in the United States. But in the 1980s there was a botulism outbreak that was traced to whitefish in the Great Lakes. The poisoning had nothing to do with McCurdy’s, but in 1991 the Food and Drug Administration responded to the outbreak by demanding that McCurdy eviscerate his fish before salting and smoking them. That would have required $75,000 worth of new equipment, which the then-61-year old McCurdy could neither afford nor tolerate.
“Botulism spores have never been found in Atlantic sea herring,” he said. “And if there were a spore, the salt content we put on these fish would have killed it.”
Without the resources for a prolonged legal battle, the smokehouse proprietor could do nothing but lay off his workers, shut his business down and watch as smoked herring just like his — but outside the jurisdiction of the FDA — streamed in from Canada.
“I resent the FDA,” McCurdy said. “But there’s a healing process. I don’t even think about it, though I did for a long time.”
In 1996, the decaying smokehouse was restored by the newly-formed Lubec Landmarks, and now visitors of all ages can string up stuffed fish resembling herring, assemble wooden boxes, and fill in their tally cards, as McCurdy did all those years ago.
More than a quarter century after it closed, McCurdy’s Smokehouse still has a pungent odor of smoke and fish. But McCurdy doesn’t mind. “Smells like money to me,” he said. “Just like anything, you get used to it.”
He praised Lubec Landmarks’ preservation of his family’s enterprise.
“These people have done a tremendous job restoring,” he said. “They’ve done a nice thing here.”