Island Industry

The primary industry of the people of the LaHave Islands was fishing. The men of the islands would either fish with their Bush Island boats or they would join other fishing schooners. Riverport was one of the closest fishing ports to the LaHave Islands. It was located on the eastern side of the LaHave River and was a frequent destination for men from the Islands looking for work on fishing schooners out to sea. Because of this, it was common for people from the LaHave Islands to move to Riverport, and many men wound up married to women from the town on the opposite banks of the LaHave River.

On shore, the people who did not go out on boats to fish tended to work in the fish plants in the area. One such plant was the G.E. Romkey & Co. Fish Plant in West Dublin on the mainland near the LaHave Islands. There were also plants in Shag Harbour and Port Medway. The LaHave Islands were home to two herring dressing stations. Herring dressing stations were places where fishermen could dress their catch themselves and be paid for their work. These stations were created for times when there was too much fish for the larger fish plants to do all the work themselves. The LaHave Island Dressing stations were located on Bush Island, which was run by Harris Bush, and Bell Island.

Men unloading fish at the G.E. Romkey Fish Plant into a scow. Wally Bush is to the far right of the picture.

The West Dublin fish plant started out as a shipyard. Ronald Currie wound up buying the site and had it converted into a fish plant. Mr. Currie later sold the plant to Captain M. Parks and then to G.E. Romkey. Mr. Romkey constructed more buildings at the plant to handle the increase in business that occurred.

There were four main products produced at the fish plant in West Dublin, and of those marinated herring was the most prominent. In addition to the herring, boneless cod, dried pollock, haddock, cod, and shredded fish for fish cakes were also produced.

The men who worked at the fish plant were often the same men who caught the fish. They would go out at 3:00 am to bring in their nets and hope to arrive at the fish plant by 10:00 am so they could put in a full day’s work there. This schedule would go on for two or three months while the herring was in season.

The plant would be open all-year round, but the busy season was from May to September when herring was in season. By September, only small herring would be present so the fish plant began to process salt cod and other dried fish. During the herring season, as much as 150,000 pounds of fish would be dropped of at the plant in a day. The employees would work from 8 am to as late as 10 pm on a busy day like that.

Information on the G.E. Romkey & Co. Fish Plant is taken from an interview of Gordon E. Romkey Junior of Crescent Beach preformed by Christina McCory. Mr. Romkey was
a foreman at the fish plant until it closed.

Preparing the Fish

Salt and vinegar were used for curing the fish, depending on the desired product. Cod, haddock and pollock would be cured using salt, but the only salted fish cured at the Romkey plant was herring. The fishermen would cure the cod, pollock and haddock caught. Herring would be cured using vinegar, or vinegar and salt together.

To preserve the fish, the fish must be saturated with the preservative used. First all the water must be removed from the fish. Additionally, the fish’s flesh could not touch any other surfaces including other fish or the sides of the tanks or else it would be spoiled. To prevent this, salt was layered between the fish and a small gap would be left between the side of the tank and the fish. The weight of the fish in the tanks would press out the water in the fish below them. This allowed for more preservatives to get into the fish at the lower levels of the tank. To keep things even, more salt would be put around the fish in the upper layers of the tank.

Fish are hung out to dry.
Inside the cutting store. This is where workers, mostly women, would skin, cut, and bone the fish. From here, the fish would be sent down a chute to the dry fish store where the fish would be processed.

It usually took three days for herring to be cured, depending on the temperature and the preservatives used. Once it was ready for shipping, the herring would be trucked to Bridgewater, where refrigerated rail cars would carry it to be exported to the United States. The G.E. Romkey plant would fill about 20 rail cars a year with the herring they produced.

The fishermen themselves would dry the cod, haddock and pollock caught. To do this, they put the fish out on “flakes”, which are planks of wood held up by saw horses with a screen attached to them to allow air through to dry the fish. This was known as “fishermen’s dry” and was considered to be soft-dried because there was too much moisture remaining in the fish. The inspectors at the plant were to prevent the purchase of fish that had too much moisture in them. The price paid to the fishermen was also dependent on the amount of moisture in the fish, and dried fish that had too much water in them would cause the inspectors to adjust the weighing scales to compensate.

Fish cured at the plant may also have been dried there as well. The salt would be washed off and they would be sent to the dryers in the upper floors of the dry fish store. After the fish was dried, it would be packed in barrels, often piled two feet above the rim of the barrel. Large screws would then be used to press the fish down into the barrels. These screws required four men to turn and would press the fish piled above the rim of the barrel down to the proper height. The barrels would then be sealed and a stencil would be used to label the barrels with the company logo, as well as the weight and type of fish.

The Fish Plant primarily processed herring, but cod was also purchased from fishermen after the herring season had ended. The fishermen would cure the cod and then the fish plant would clean, split, skin, cut, and bone the fish. The fish would then be cut into the size of the press and then pressed to the box shape. They would be then wrapped and boxed. The fish plant had eight of these presses operating at onces, and could produce about 1000 boxes an hour. This cod would be sold locally or exported south. This was done in the dry fish store at the Romkey Plant.

The G.E. Romkey & Co. Fish Plant closed for two reasons. First, the amount of herring had decreased over time. It also closed because it couldn’t afford to meet the new standards set by the government for fish processing. Fiberglass tanks and cement floors became required over the wooden floors and tanks of the West Dublin plant. It would have been too expensive to convert and only the large companies could afford to meet the new standards.

Most of the buildings of the plant were torn down in the 1970’s.

Boat Building

The picture above is of the old building used by the Covey Island Boatworks on Covey Island, one of the islands that make up the LaHave Islands. The company eventually outgrew the building shown and moved to a newer one in Petite Rivere on the mainland.

In a community where fishing was so important, so too was boat building. There were many people on the islands who built boats for others to take out fishing. The most common type of boat in the area was the Bush Island Boat but people also used Dories and other small fishing vessels for in-shore fishing. For the most part, these people had small shops on or near the water.

Leaving Home

For the people of the LaHave Islands to spend their entire lives on the islands was very rare. They would live there for most of it, and they would call it home, but most men left home to join the fishing fleets of LaHave, Bridgewater, or Lunenburg. It was also common for the men to sign on with cargo ships and see places as far away as the West Indies, Caribbean, and sometimes even parts of Africa and beyond.

Photo of the Salt Banks at Turk’s Island, Bahamas, a common destination for Nova Scotia Lumber. Ships would return loaded with Salt from Turks Island for transport around Nova Scotia.
Books like these would be bought as souvenirs. Inside they contained photographs that could be used as postcards, or kept as a souvenir of their travels.