Fishing for Fertilizer

Footnotes to Long Island History

Fishing for Fertilizer


Thomas R. Bayles

       The fish popularly known as Bunkers, or by the name of Menhaden, are mentioned by the very early writers as having been used by the Indians as fertilizer for their fields of corn. The white settlers first learned from them, their great value for agricultural purposes and in the early days immense schools of them entered the bays for the purpose of spawning.

      At first the means for catching them was limited, as the only twine for nets had to be made from linen thread, and it was out of the question to make nets of any size. When cotton twine came into use the business assumed great proportions.

      Among the first to use his great influence to develop this means of restoring fertility to worn out land was Ezra L'Hommedieu, and once started the practice soon spread throughout Suffolk county. With the aid of fish for fertilizer large crops of wheat and corn were raised.

      Seines were made which would extend nearly half a mile in length, and as the fish were plentiful, great quantities of them were caught.

      Seines knitting became a regular business during the winter and the women soon became skillful knitters. The net was about five feet deep, with a cork line on top, supported with wooden corks and a lead line below with small lead rings. In early days of the business the seine was simply a long, straight line of net. It was piled in the stern of a boat, which was rowed swiftly around a school of fish that was within reaching distance of the shore, then the net pulled into the shore and the fish bailed out with scoop nets into large corn baskets and put into piles. A haul of 30,000 or more was a common catch.

      A number of fishing companies were formed and this business became an important one until the outbreak of the Civil War, when the scarcity of cotton made cotton twine so costly that the business was given up.

      A while later the use of steamers for fishing became an important business. These steamers carried large purse nets so arranged that when a school of fish was surrounded there was no chance of escape.

       At a secluded place on the shore of some bay a long row of rough sheds furnished protection for the try works, which consisted of a row of very larger kettles set in masonry. Large baskets made of hoop iron filled the inside of the kettles and were large enough to hold 1,000 fish. The baskets were fitted with strong iron bails by which they could be hoisted out and in. These baskets filled with fish were placed in the try pots and flooded with water. Fires were then lighted and when the whole mass was boiling, the baskets of fish were hoisted out and swung over a press into which they were dumped. Pressure was applied by means of a powerful screw and the oil pressed out.

       In 1878 a tract of worthless land east of Amagansett became a village of fish factories under the name of Promised Land. A business sprang up that employed more than half a million dollars of investment and hundreds of men. Great quantities of fish were brought here and rendered into oil, and the solid part under the name of fish guano was in great demand for fertilizer and large quantities of it were exported to Europe and used in the vineyards of Italy. In 1881, 30 steamers were engaged in this 1,000,000 gallons of fish oil and 22,000 tons of scrap processed.

       In September, 1899, a destructive fire destroyed three of the large factories at Promised Land with a great loss of property. The increasing scarcity of fish also made the business less productive.

      This business is still actively carried on and one operator there has nine ships operating and employs 250 men during the season June to October. About 500 carloads of fish meal are shipped from Amagansett by the Long Island Rail Road annually to feed mills where it is used in the manufacture of poultry feeds. An airplane is used to spot the schools of fish and then signal the boat crews where to find the fish.

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