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Taken from "The Autobiography of a Herring Choker" by Tom Sjoblom
After the Duluth & Iron Range Railroad was built between Two Harbors and Duluth in 1556, several immigrant families from Duluth moved up the North Shore to homestead between Knife River and Two Harbors. They named their new community Larsmont after Larsmo, Finland, the former home of many of the settlers.
Tom Sjoblom's parents were both born in Finland. Victor Sjoblom was born in Purmo, Finland, in 1880. Victor's parents were of Swedish descent and had moved to this small community on the border of Sweden. Tom's mother, Sophia Barthell, was born in Vasa, Finland, in 1879. Sophia had two sisters who had emigrated to the United States and then found their way to Duluth, Minn. so, early in 1900, Victor and Sophia and several of their friends came to America to join her sisters.
Dad (Victor) and his brother John began a shoe repair and tailor shop in Duluth and were kept very busy. Mom (Sophia) went to work as a maid for a wealthy family who lived on London Road...Dad and Mom were courting at this time and he would ride the streetcar to go visit her. However, if he stayed too late, he'd miss the last streetcar run for the night and have to walk 10 miles to get back home. But mother's blue eyes, beautiful auburn hair and lively smile had Dad walking on air. In September of 1903, they were united in marriage at the Temple Baptist Church in Duluth.... Dad always preferred country living, so in 1909 he purchased a piece of ground up the north shore of Lake Superior. He cleared the land and built a very primitive dwelling for the family. He then started to do some commercial fishing and some farming to provide a livelihood...and Mother played an important role in their lives and was always busy. When she had a chance to relax, she was sewing or knitting those heavy wool mittens that were used on the lake. When they froze into ice chunks, a dry pair was ready for replacements.
By their second summer in the country, Dad's brother John and his wife and 3 children bought some land adjoining theirs. A little later, John Hendrickson with wife and 2 children also..joined the little community. The men helped each other build homes and after a short time, our family had a larger home with an upstairs. The old home became the fish house until it was demolished by a fierce northeaster' storm some years later.
The Larsmont school was started with 13 children in a 1-room schoolhouse. The school building still stands and is known as one of the best maintained 1 room school houses in the country. Community activities and meetings are still held in the school....(Nine children eventually joined the Sjoblom family.)
As family members, we all became involved in the fishing industry as soon as we were able to be of help to my dad. Helen, being the oldest, was the first to render aid and spent many days on Lake Superior, fishing as well as cleaning fish, mending nets and doing the many other chores... Hank and Bert furnished the manual labor required in lifting the nets to get those silvery fish out of the water. The fish would then be packed in boxes and hauled to the depot and shipped to Chicago.
What fascinated me most was the equipment involved in the fishing business. I anxiously looked forward to the day I'd be old enough to go out on Lake Superior and help. Until then, I was content on shore, turning the big reel where we dried the nets and assembling fish boxes for shipping...l learned how important it was to run as fast as I could around that thing we called a windlass, a primitive hand winch winding a cable that pulled the boat up on the skids. Then there was that crude big crutch with a piece of scythe blade across it, hanging on the wall of the fish house. The first time I helped Dad haul out and set a buoy stone, I realized the importance of that line cutter. It would slide down the line over the dull side of the blade.
Then, with a hard jerk, the sharp side of the blade cut the buoy line at the anchor on the bottom in order to salvage the line. The stones that formed the net anchors weighed 300 to 400 pounds. The stones were strapped together and then placed across the bow of the boat. In calm weather, with bow low in the water, I'd cautiously row out to the area where the net was to be set. Before the proper location for the anchor was determined, Dad had all the line strung out on the water to eliminate any chance of an entanglement with the boat which would spell certain disaster.
Commercial fishing on Lake Superior can be a rugged and hazardous job, especially during the winter months. The boats we had were heavy, cumbersome skiffs. Due to their design, they plowed into the waves rather than riding over them. The only power was a set of oars and two strong arms. Maneuvering capabilities were governed by one or two sets of oars and the physical strength of the one operating the oars.
If an initiation into this profession was to be had, I would have to say it was on a beautiful, calm day when Dad decided to take this youngster along and begin breaking him in. We were picking the fish from a net when Dad noticed a sudden northwest storm was brewing. He instructed me to get ready for some heavy rowing. By the time he released the float and got to his oars, we were already beyond 2 miles from shore and heading further out. It was discouraging to see how slowly we were gaining on the float that had been released. Needless to say, my little arms were growing weary. I eased up a bit but tried to maintain my stroke with his. Dad immediately detected the slack and gave me the most direct and meaningful order a father could give his child at a time like this. I shall never forget his warning; "You are young and have your life ahead of you. If you want to get to shore and be around a while, you'd better keep pulling!" Dad's orders plus Mother's prayers, which I had heard her resort to so many times in similar situations, really helped. I ignored my weariness and turned on the added power that Dad needed so badly and we made it safely to shore.
"IÕll never forget my first trip on the lake with the luxury of a gasoline engine. I thought I was on a Mediterranean cruise ship even though it was only a 2-cylinder Kermath Marine engine with a 'putput' exhaust pipe out the side. I enjoyed watching that white exhaust vapor trailing behind the boat instead of the vapor of my breath as I labored behind a pair of oars...l loved that big old lake and cherish many fond memories of it.
October meant it was time to begin getting our fishing gear ready for the fast approaching winter. By November, we were in full swing as was the cold and stormy weather. The most dreaded storm was the 'northeaster.' That would last 3 to 4 days and inflict heavy damage to our equipment out on the lake. Numerous lake freighters have sunk during these storms. After the winds had abated, there would be large ground swells, spaced several minutes apart. Being anxious to get out and undo damages as well as remove fish from nets, we would sneak out between these waves. Successful timing without today's breakwaters and marinas required incredible boatsmanship skills.
Then there were the waves generated by the stormy conditions that developed while out on the lake. These waves created a greater challenge as there was no lull between the rollers. This forced one to try to ride the crest of a wave and hopefully be able to maintain a direct shot at the skids on shore. With some success, we generally wound up high enough on the skids to get the winch cable hooked up before the next wave would pull us back out. Misfortune always haunts ones memories. I remember the time the waves plus my full engine throttle which was out of reach of the rudder pin, put me on a collision course with the end of the dock. Needless to say, the bow was damaged, but I was able to wade ashore and salvage what was left of the swamped boat and equipment. The only benefactors were the sea gulls who devoured the fish strewn along the shore.
Like any other business venture, marketing the fish was an important aspect. With prices beyond our control, fishing was far from a financial success. We resorted to various methods in our attempts to get the best price - average price was 2 cents per pound!
In preparation for shipping, the herring were usually cleaned, or 'dressed' as we called it, and then smoked, frozen or salted when the market was flooded. When salted, they were cut down the back and pressed in rock salt. The herring were then stacked in wooden kegs for shipment to the south where there was a demand for something that resembled 'lute-fisk.' The usual procedure was shipping dressed fish packed in boxes by either train or truck. At one time, we used large boxes that would hold 150 pounds of fish but later, standards were set requiring smaller boxes with half the weight.
There were two kinds of fish boxes. One type came in a broken down kit form. These were made from one half inch rough lumber and assembled by nailing it together. This job was always a treat to youngsters who enjoyed pounding nails. The box nails were easily driven into the soft poplar lumber. several box factories were located in the area where one could buy them ready made. One could also buy the used boxes from the dealers. Again, a treat for the kids who built bridges and buildings which didn't last long as the need arose to fill them with fish.
Then there were the net boxes. These were something special with recessed handles and tapered sides enabling the mesh to roll out more smoothly when setting nets. There could be no protruding materials like handles or exposed nails to snag the nets...Our most important piece of equipment in the fish house was a stand with a square board attached. A 4 inch hole was in the center of the board. The entrails, more commonly known as 'fish guts', were scraped through the hole and into a tub on the floor. seagulls would congregate in anticipation of our dumping the tub onto the rocks and would devour the leftovers. This would signal the end of the day's fishing activities....
Besides a rubber apron, we wore one canvas glove to hold the fish with in case the knife should miss its goal. The term "dress gloves" brought some confusion at the Sears Roebuck store. Our neighbor, a Norwegian fellow who had some difficulty with the English language, was trying to tell the clerk he wanted to buy a pair of dress gloves. The clerk displayed several pair of fancy leather gloves but to no avail. At this point, my brother (who worked there) recognized the man and solved the problem by bringing him a pair of canvas gloves.
Because we slid the net over our lap from one side of the boat to the other, we wore either a heavy rubber apron, or pants made of rubber with suspenders much like bib overalls. These were far more practical but also more expensive. Of course, if it was a rainy day, we wore the familiar yellow oil jackets which were large enough to fit over several layers of clothing. Then there were the rubber gloves which had the advantage of keeping the hands dry and warmer. Many fishermen used them though I found them quite cumbersome and slippery to work with. Footwear was either knee or hip boots, large enough for several pairs of heavy woolen socks inside....
"In order to get more money for the fish, some tried peddling door to door. I would go with Dad to a Finnish community where he could handle the language. I never could understand what Dad said but we did sell a lot of fish. It was evident that the women understood for they would come out of their homes with platters, pails and dish pans...l doubt there are many folks today who would tolerate the limited compensation - at times zero income for their physical efforts in attempting to provide a livelihood for the family!
"At the peak of the fishing season, we set out every piece of equipment available with the theory in mind that the more fish we had on the market, the larger the fish checks in the mail. However, when the price went down to 1 cent per pound, one had to wonder if soon we'd be unknowingly making donations to the Chicago fish markets. Much to our dismay, there were instances when we received a note in the mail informing us that the market was flooded and our fish had been dumped upon arrival in Chicago. The note was accompanied with a bill from the railway express company for freight charges on the fish we were led to believe were worthless! We also bore other expenses such as boxes at 30 cents a piece, fuel, not to mention the wear and tear on our equipment. Then consider the labor involved. A half day out on the lake, generally under adverse conditions, dressing the fish and then packing them into boxes. There were no snow blowers or plows to open our road to the county road where our car was parked. So we were forced to drag the fish boxes on sleds, making several trips to the railroad fish platform which was located about a mile and a half from our home. Again I ask, "Would anyone do that today without at least some compensation?" It didn't seem to bother Dad. He just kept plugging along with hopes that some day, things would get better.
Published in the North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum Journal (Tofte, Cook County, Minnesota), summer 1998.
© Mary Alice Hansen
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