Smiths Catch Lake Fish for 99 YearsJune 3rd, 1945
The Milwaukee Journal
Port Washington Family Has Seen Commercial Operations Grow From One Rowboat and NetFor 99 years the Smith family has fished Lake Michigan waters. In the beginmng - when old William Smith and his son, Gilbert, left Lake Ontario to start a little fishery near Port Washington -they had only 300 feet of seine. This they would drop offshore from a rowboat and then drag onto the beach with the struggling fish.
The Smiths of today have seven modern fishing tugs, 50 employes, miles of nets, a restaurant and store in Port Washington, two retail stores in Milwaukee and a name in fishing that has spread throughout the country. Last year alone 733.000 pounds of fish were netted, and it is expected that the 1945 total will triple that figure.
Unfortunately, there is little history of the firm's early years. The site of the first Smith fishery was near an Indian village. The country-was sparsely settled and transportation was only by foot, horseback or boat. The prospects of success in commercial fishing seemed none too bright. In fact, when William died in 1848 he left his son but two seines as assets.
Son Gilbert kept to his fishing, however, and also found time to raise six sons. He formed the G. H. Smith & Sons Co., which continued until his death in 1892. The sons kept on with the business, but there wasn't enough room for all. In 1898, two of them - Herbert and Delos - moved southward to start a fishing company at Blakesviile. They changed locations several times and then, in 1896, moved to Port Washington.
Offshoot of Old FirmThe old Smith Co. dissolved and it was the Port Washington offshoot that, after many years of hardships, attained the mature stature it has today.
In 1904, Herbert and Delos added to their equipment a tug which fished out of Sheboygan. In addition. Delos always had the dream of fishing for "his own market" so in 1912 he attempted to crash the Milwaukee market with a retail fish store.
It proved a failure within four years. In truth, the affairs of the entire company were in poor shape by 1912. In 1915 Herbert sold out to Delos and moved away. Delos held to his dream of a market of his own. His two sons, Lester and Oliver H., joined him in the firm, which then became known as D. H. Smith & Sons.
Oliver, though a lad of only 15 put up his own money. He explained last week how he obtained it.
"It was my job to peddle fish orders around town," he said, "but I quit because I didn't think the girls in high school would like it.
"An uncle in Colorado wrote me that there was a great demand out there for small trout. I started buying baby trout weighing about a half pound each - you could catch them in Lake Michigan then - from other fishermen and soon I was filling an order for 50 pounds a week. A Denver company heard about it and ordered 500 pounds a week. Soon I was filling orders for 1,000 pounds weekly and that finally increased to 3,0O0."
"Rocky Mountain Trout"About this time, Oliver found himself clearing something like $200 a month - and he a youngster in high school! It was not to last, however Other fishermen realized what they had been overlooking and stepped into the market to sell the fish which, Oliver said, were being advertised in western hotels and on trains as "real Rocky mountain trout."
The competition meant an end to his high profits but not before Oliver had become the owner of the first Model T in Port Washington in 1916 and had saved enough to buy a small boat for the company.
Shortly after World War I the firm's business boomed.
"Automobiles became more numerous" Oliver said. "There were better prices and it wasn't long before we had people knocking at our doors asking for fresh fish. In 1918 we added another boat which fished out of Oscoda. Mich."
Then apparent disaster struck in 1924 when a flood washed away all of the company's buildings and much of its equipment.
"We thought we were wiped out." Oliver said "But people came from all over to see the wreckage, so we took advantage of the opportunity. The flood was on Monday and by Friday we were in the business of selling fish again. There were so many people we couldn't handle them all."
New buildings and equipment were purchased and the work went on. A new source of profit opened as a result of a request made in 1926 to Delos's daughter Evelyn. Bowlers attending a tournament in Port Washington suggested that she fry some fish for them. The combination of culinary artistry and fish ' just out of the water' proved a natural. Soon she was frying fish on Sundays for people to take out with them. To meet the demand, the company purchased another steam tug to fish out of Grand Marias, Mich., in Lake Superior waters.
Delos retired in 1930 and the business was taken over by his children, Oliver, Lester, Evelyn, and Hope. In 1933 they formed the Smith Brothers of Port Washington, Inc., the name by which the firm is now known.
People continued to ask for fish dinners and in 1934 - although the depression was at its depths - the company opened a fish restaurant in Port Washington.
"We had just two tables which seated 10 people," Oliver recalled with a laugh. Today, the new restaurant gaily decorated with designs of netting can seat 375 persons.
Between 1933 and this year another thing paid off for Smith Brothers, too. In 1933 the company had again tried to break into the retail fish market here. A store was opened and, this time, prospered. A year and a half ago a second store was opened.
Aided by the meat shortage, the increasing demand of the public for a substitute and the ability to furnish fresh fish. Smith retail business boomed. Last year over 65% of the 733.000 pounds caught were retailed through the Milwaukee stores. Thus the dream Delos had of catching fish and selling to his own market finally came true, although Delos himself witnessed only a partial fulfillment before his death in 1940.
Proud of "Herman"To meet the increasing demand for fish, the company purchased another tug in 3935 and stationed it at Manistique, Mich., for winter fishing by the Grand Marias crew. There were also replacements for some of the other older vessels. Last year, Oliver purchased his current pride and joy - the 52 foot, electric welded fishing tug named after himself. It is equipped with a power Diesel motor capable of delivering a speed equivalent to 12 miles an hour.
Oliver is particularly proud of "Herman." the automatic pilot aboard the vessel. He likes to set a course, snap on the pilot and then relax and talk during the trip to the nets for, you see, Oliver still goes out to fish. Nor is the work easy.
A typical example was given one day last week. The Oliver H. Smith, with Capt. Oliver at the wheel, left the dock shortly before 6 a.m., to return about 12 hours later. The trip was a 35 mile jaunt to the Sheboygan reef, which lies near the center of Lake Michigan. Two days before Smith Brothers had dropped six miles of gill net in that area.
The tug. arriving at one end of the net, was halted while an automatic hoist was worked into position. Smith and his two helpers worked busily for nearly three hours removing the fish which had been caught.
Turning about, Smith and his crew then dropped six miles of new nets before setting out for home. En route, "Herman", the automatic pilot, took care of the navigation while the three men sorted and cleaned the day's catch, which amounted to about 1.000 pounds of lake trout, chubs, and lawyers. By the time Port Washington was sighted, the entire catch lay in bins ready for washing and refrigerated storage.
The work was fascinating to a landlubber but Oliver conceded that a good deal of the glamor was gone.
Rivalry in Old Days"There used to be more rivalry," he said. "Tug captains used to watch where rivals went. They then would check the other fellow's day's catch - either by watching unloading or, if the other captain waited until dark for that, by the number of express shipments that went out. If the catch looked good, the other captains would be sure to fish the same area as soon as possible.
"It was fun trying to find ways to deceive the other fellows. Now they just don't seem to care about that. When the day's work is done they just knock off."
While regretting the end of the old days and the old ways. Oliver looks forward to the time when there will be more powerful and better equipped tugs. He expects to install ship to shore communication systems on his own vessels in the near future. Among his post war plans is the hope of packaging and delivering the smoked fish for which his company is widely known to the east and west coast - possibly by plane.
Another of his postwar hopes is to have hack with him again in the business his sons, Herbert, 21, who is in the coast guard, and Lincoln. 19, a V-12 student at Lawrence. A third son. Daniel, 17, is in high school. A nephew, Allen Smith, 20. is in the navy in the Pacific, and he too, will return.