You might not, at first, think of Brunswick as a fishing town, but the history of fishing here runs long and deep. Between Merrymeeting Bay, the Androscoggin River and all of the coastline, not to mention freshwater ponds, there have always been plenty of opportunities to go fishing for a variety of species. A recently opened exhibit at the Pejepscot History Center celebrates that heritage and connects the past to the present through art, stories and examples of fishing gear. “Hook, Line and Sinker” opened last week in the upstairs gallery of the PHC’s Skolfield-Whittier House on Park Row.
Because PHC’s breadth represents the entire Pejepscot region, there is plenty of material to draw from. The Pejepscot region is named after the subtribe of the Native American Anasagunticooks, the Pejepscot, according to the PHC‘s website. The name is thought to translate roughly as “long, rocky rapids part” or “crooked like a driving snake,” due to the importance of the waterways to the people living here. Part of the importance of these waterways was for transport and part was for the fish that it provided, so even the name of the region celebrates fishing.
In addition to Brunswick, the scope of the work of PHC also includes Topsham and Harpswell. Given its inclusion in the region, Harpswell’s Historical Society Museum lent several items for the exhibit. Items like a photograph of a group enjoying a seafood picnic, a wooden carving of a fishing dory and a modern lobster trap are introduced by the exhibit’s feature photo of a group of children proudly holding up strings of freshly caught fish.
The fishing exhibit fits into the broader theme of the PHC’s efforts and exhibits for 2022 — immigration. “Untold Stories 2022” is the title of this year’s focus which includes a slate of programs that tell the stories of people from around the world and how they came to Maine. From its beginnings, Brunswick has drawn people from different countries and continues to do so now with new populations coming from places including Somalia and Afghanistan. Earlier programs offered this year include one on the Ulster-Scots who immigrated to Maine and another featuring a recent book that tells the stories of the groups coming to Maine this century. Some of these, including the fishing presentation, have been accompanied by an after-school story and craft program for students grades 3-5. The fishing-themed activity included making hanging paper fish and nibbling on a snack of goldfish.
To mark the opening of “Hook, Line and Sinker,” PHC hosted its first in-person program in over two years in the historic Skolfield-Whittier House. The event, “Immigrating to Fish: An Italian Family’s Journey’s to New England and Maine,” featured local fisherman Tom Santaguida, who has been fishing for over 50 years for species ranging from squid to groundfish and swordfish to lobster and crab. At the program, a part of PHC’s “History Happy Hour” series, Tom recounted the story of his family emigrating from Italy to settle in a coastal community in New Jersey where he grew up among Portuguese, Asian and Norwegian fishing families who each had their own preference for certain species and techniques of preparing them. Along with instruction from his Italian grandmother, it was here that he learned how to appreciate and how to cook a wide variety of species, many of which might not be familiar to the average seafood consumer. He applied this to a cooking business he ran for several years called “Cucina Pescatore” (Fisherman’s Kitchen). Tom tied his past to the present by describing the number of people from other parts of the world that he now meets as a part of his charter business where he takes people out to see what it is like to lobster along the coast.
A curious audience stayed on to ask many questions and also to enjoy fishing-themed refreshments offered by the PHC staff, including “Sea Breeze” cocktails and cupcakes topped with Swedish fish along with samples of Maine Coast Monkfish Stew provided by the co-host organization, Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association (MCFA), a local nonprofit that supports sustainable fisheries in the Gulf of Maine, where I work as the director of operations.
The evening provided a unique opportunity to connect the present to the past in a very local way. If you missed the presentation, the exhibit provides a way to learn more on your own about the importance of fisheries then and now to many different groups of people in the Pejepscot region.