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A Way of Life: The Future of Clamming

Three Generations 2
Three generations of Grundstrom family clam diggers from Rowley. Courtesy of John E. Grundstrom.

Rainfall closures may inflate the price of the clam plate at Woodman’s, but consumer desire for the briny bivalves has not waned since their propulsion to fame at the turn of the century. Though clamming communities must adapt to survive, the humble clam remains a celebrated symbol in the modern imagination of our distinctive New England heritage.

John GrundstromJohn: See, before twelve years ago you could go anytime you wanted to go, unless there was a red tide. It could rain five inches and you went. But they did a study on watershed, and they started designating these areas. Twelve years ago, we made an agreement with them, the town of Rowley and Newbury, that when it rained a half inch, we’d get closed for five days, and an inch or more was eight days. But you could be closed for seven days; it rains an inch, you start all over again. Which happened last summer. 

Jack GrundstromJack: We were closed 154 days. Right in the peak of the season.

John: We would just be ready to open on a Friday; it would rain Thursday. So that’s where that’s really affected a lot of people. Maybe ten years ago in the summer time there may have been in Rowley, maybe fifteen clammers. Right now there’s about three of us. 

Jack: We sell a lot of permits, but they don’t go down and dig. There’s three regular commercial clammers, and that’s it. 

John: And the age at the meeting in Gloucester—every clammer that was in there are in their fifties. That’s not a good sign. You know what I mean? The average age of the clammer I would say in these five towns is probably fifty. It’s just — it’s a shame.

Jack: When he was in high school, it was probably ten or fifteen of them, that they all had their own boats.  Well, now we even put in a student program. A junior program, actually, at half price permit, so these kids would get involved. I think we had three, and they were my grandchildren!

Listen to the full audio clip.

Up from the mud-bottom rivers
Where the tides run deep and fast,
There’s a life all unknowing
To many of us who pass.

There are the early morning hours
When the men start out to work,
Where all the toils are laborious;
Where time bids none to shirk.

 There are the constant enemies
That plod the sea-salt earth,
Which seek and find their quarries;
The same as speedy clammers’ girth.

How Would You Like to Have Some of These Fried?
Courtesy of Joseph Carlin.

There are the continual labours
Against the tides and winds,
That cause many to quickly falter;
Yet, some never give in.

There are the family troubles,
Of times with breadless tables,
There’s that constant survival;
‘Tween the living and the dead.

There are the times of plenty
When happiness does abide,
The times of musical laughter
With loved ones side by side.

There may come times with changes
In this life as with the rest;
If changes are for better ranges,
Then ‘twill be for all to bless.

-"The Clammer's Life," by John Dolan, 1948


A Way of Life: The Future of Clamming