Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Epitome of the 20th Century Cannery-man

My father worked in the fishing business all his life, not necessarily starting working in the cold storage in Petersburg when he was thirteen. That would have been around 1929. The year the stock market crashed. Also the year his parents built the house that his sweetie still lives in today, up the street from Raven's Rood park. The prospect of keeping the mortgage afloat those first years in that first architect-designed house in Petersburg was dim indeed.

Grandma Augusta went to work in the steam laundry while Grandpa Martin kept plugging away with the family fishing boat, the Augusta. I don't know what happened to fish prices in the early years of the depression, but it couldn't have been pretty, if there was much demand for the fish at all on the market. The family home was ultimately saved by the generosity of the woman who owned the steam laundry at the time. I remember us driving to her house in Seattle to visit during my first trip to Seattle, during the 1962 World's Fair. It was a fateful moment in the Enge timeline.

Cannery-men are still the subject here, but in passing, I should mention the generosity of John Hammer and Andrew Wikan, who owned a grocery store. Many Petersburg folks would have had an unknown future if not for the credit these two businessmen extended. The only reason they stayed in business was due to the rental houses they owned adjacent to the present South Boat Harbor. People pulled together back then. Not that they still don't, it's just that big businesses dominate the landscape with the classic W. C. Fields motto, "Never give a sucker an even break."

Dad certainly did his share of crewing out seining for salmon and longlining for halibut on the Augusta with his two brothers and other crew members. He remembered his dad settling up with the crew with little stacks of gold coins on the galley table. Of losing Uncle Ernest, the youngest of the three boys, overboard and Martin just turning the wheel hard over at running speed to come about and pick him up. Dad seemed to be the skiff man a lot. Which meant you had to lean into those big oars on the seine skiff the whole time the seine was in the water. That was probably the hardest job on the boat. Now it's the least physically demanding, albeit, requiring some above average boat savvy.

He worked his way through the University of Washington School of Fisheries this way. He was a member of the Chi Phi Fraternity and lived at the frat house. He was it's President for awhile at least and had his brother Arnold stay there too while he was taking flight lessons. They shared ownership of a Model A Ford. Dad was quite the Esquire Man even back in those days. He told of dating the daughter of the head of the Alaska Packers Association who had canneries all over Alaska and Puget Sound. The girl had her own Dussenburg which in those days was the equivalent of dating Paris Hilton. Dad said she wore braces on her teeth which sounded like a deal-breaker. But maybe this was the time he became interested in fish buying and plant operations. Certainly there would have been influence if he had been around the father much.

Those old captains of industry were the kings and king makers of the economy of the West Coast in those days just prior to World War II. And I know that the draw of Alaska is also a deal-breaker for relationships at college in 'The Lower 48.' Spring anywhere in the world smells like herring and salmon and reminds one of the cultural and financial rewards of getting one's rear end post-haste back to the fishing grounds. Dad was like his sons and most Alaska men, content to live the demanding lifestyle of Alaska last frontier life until love comes knocking in the form of a recent immigrant beauty. In Dad's case it was a new Home Economics teacher at Petersburg High right after the war.

His leadership skills were further formed in the crucible of the War as a Lieutenant in the Navy, first as a Navy pilot, then as the captain of several ocean going LSTs. He had been in the ROTC at the U of W. When war broke out he was in Petersburg and immediately reported in. But between college and his military service he had been buying fish at the Petersburg Cold Storage for Washington Fish and Oyster Company of Seattle. His friend, Dave Ohmer, was the buyer for Whiz Fish Co., also of Seattle. Besides bidding on halibut trips that came in to the Cold Storage under the then auction system at the public facility, he ran a fast flat bottom river skiff down the Wrangell Narrows to buy from the beach seiners like Shaky Frank. Shaky Frank had a warehouse in the first bight in from the mouth of Petersburg Creek.

Dad had also fished commercially up Petersburg Creek as a kid. He and a couple of other kids gillnetted steelhead for his Grandfather, Rasmus. I don't know who did the splitting and salting in barrels, but they did the cold, wet fishing in the spring for that early run, which could have been substantial in those days. Petersburg Creek even had a king salmon run in those days, but I don't imagine it lasted long with commercial fishing available anywhere in the watershed. The king run could have been snuffed out in that first steelhead fishery up the creek. Which begs the question, could they be re-introduced?

After all, Rasmus had been the first Production Manager the town of Petersburg had. It was his job to get fish for the canning line in the first cannery there. Back then at the turn of the century anything went as far as finding fish went. Manifest Destiny was in full swing in Alaska, even though the buffalo had been wiped out by then Down South. When Rasmus had a falling out with Petersburg's namesake, Peter Buschmann, over excessive harvesting of herring in front of town, he got into the fish buying and selling business himself. Rasmus pioneered the Stikine gillnet fishery too and sold barrels of salt fish to the Norwegian farmers in Minnesota out of a horse drawn wagon.

When Rasmus settled in to run his theater and roller skating business and building buildings on Sing Lee Alley, Dad was his little shadow. Dad loved to accompany him around town visiting other businessmen friends of Rasmus. Business got in his blood. Dad was tall for his age and his mother Augusta, the socialite that she was, made sure he was properly decked out in the latest boy's fashions. She even had him take piano lessons. Dad recalled looking down from the second floor of the Enge Building on Sing Lee Alley where they lived, and where he was born, at the other boys playing while he was supposed to be practicing. The lure was too much and Augusta finally relented, thus ending his piano career.

You might say he was groomed from the start in the business end of the fish business. But he also was a product of generation of Enge fishermen before that, and someone was bound to end up running fish plants. And he was quick witted enough to pull it off. In later years when the politics of the fish business became particularly odious, Mom said that Dad kept his job running the plant in Petersburg for Whitney-Fidalgo Seafoods mostly because he had a good recall of facts and figures. By then, in the seventies, he had mastered the fishing game and worked it until his retirement from Petersburg Fisheries at the age of 72.

I suppose I'll have to recount his exploits and routine duties of running cold storages and canneries in Alaska in future posts before I can move on to other subjects in this blog. It's hard to stick to one subject about Petersburg and Alaska when memories come flooding back. I'm sure it's Jean Curry and her work on the Petersburg Class Reunion web-site that has re-ignited my desire to get back to where I started in my blogging: putting memories to paper for my kids and others. And maybe with the idealistic aim of trying to keep history from repeating itself so much.

 I think Dad excelled at the game of bidding for halibut and salmon on the Petersburg fish auction. He said some buyers had a hard time keeping up. He really wanted to expand his role at that facility due to this success, but he was young. And very young for a ship's captain when he had to quit buying to support invasions of Japanese and German held lands. He might have been at the Normandy invasion except his ship was blown in half by a German torpedo or mine. He spent most of his service in the Pacific supporting the island hopping of the Marines. He would have two landing craft on deck when they got somewhere and then slide them over the rail to take men ashore. When the beach was secure he would land his ship and disgorge tanks and whatever else was in the main cargo deck.

The scope of operations like that certainly gave him a larger vision of what could be done to improve the infrastructure of the fishing industry. Cannery tenders and canning lines could hold any mystery after experiences like that. I think he was typical of servicemen returning to a economy devastated by the Great Depression, an economic void, but with the resources and now full of men with vision and a lust for the good things of life. With his prior fish buying experience, Dad sought out a potential fish buyer in the form of Lennie Engstrom of Wrangell, who needed buyers in various places. Dad got the job of buying fish for the Engstrom Brothers at the fairly new Pelican Cold Storage in Pelican. That's where a couple of us little Enges sprouted from.

There was a lure to being a fish buyer and plant operator in Alaska that maybe even had more allure than being a hedge fund manager today. In owning a plant there was certainly the prospect of relative healthy financial rewards. But even as a hired plant manager, there was the prospect of the traditional role of the superintendant as king of the local economy and a good piece of the fabric of the culture of the town it was located in. Mankind has always sought power above anything and my Dad was no exception.

After two years in Pelican he met a cannery man from Petersburg, Chris Dahl, who offered him the job of running their new cannery and cold storage there. The dream job just showed up. Being the top buyer in the town he knew and that his Grandparents helped found. His town, and now he had the job befitting his experience, his DNA, and expectations. To most of the old cannery-men it didn't matter much whether they owned a piece of the action or not, just being the top guy was enough. He passed on some opportunities to get a piece of the action.

Is what he liked, besides 'unloading the boats' as he said, was helping people in the fleet and the business  In that regard he wasn't the best at what he did. He wasn't ruthless enough to go beyond what he had on his plate as a 'super.' He bemoaned others who broached his sense of business ethics. And ultimately came under fell under the axe of the out-of-control Whitney-Fidalgo Seafoods 'axe man.' Not that the axe-man was out of control. Whitney only lasted two more years before filing bankruptcy. In 1969 when they bought the Kayler-Dahl Fish Co. plant in Petersburg Dad was running, they were canning 25% of the Alaska canned salmon pack and were about the largest fish company on the West Coast of the United States. It was fun for both me and Dad working for them in the early to mid seventies. Disappointment with the company set in pretty fast.

Dad liked helping out fishermen wanting to get a new boat or into a new fishery. Some of this was from his knowledge of fish resources and fish biology from his training under Dr. Donaldson of the U of W. and some from the pioneer days of people helping each other to just survive. One time he bought a sweet little troller called the 'Adak' for a fishermen who just didn't have the money at the time. We had some great trips on that boat until the fisherman came up with the money to buy it from Dad. We would tow the little Davis double ender to Ideal Cove and us kids would hike up to the lake for some swimming and trout fishing.

Later my uncle and Gordon Jensen brought up the first steel fishing boats to Petersburg and Dad got him prospecting for king crab. He got another less than prosperous boat man to run a tender to bring in some of the first catches of king crab to Petersburg. Ralph had been a famous brown bear guide out of Petersburg. He just didn't have the knack for fishing and that flopped with the loss of the string of company financed pots. My uncle developed multiple sclerosis two years after buying that big steel limit seiner. But by then other fishermen for the other big cannery in town had jumped in and the rest is history. Mostly a history of overharvest as was the case in the Bering Sea king crab fishery.

Like Dad's prior appoiintment to the Alaska King Crab Marketing and Quality Control Board that kicked off the king crab boom and craving for the delicious seafood, he worked with the University of Alaska Marine Advisory Program Director, John Doyle, to inaugurate herring gillnetting. One of Whitney-Fidalgo's plants, the cold storage in Yakutat, had been the first in Alaska to buy and process seine herring for the Japanese roe market. Dad however felt that gillnetting herring was the best way to catch herring as it was possible to select only the upper year classes with larger mesh nets, where seining catches the younger year classes as well, making it harder to sustain the fishery. And that has been the case in some herring seine fisheries. In fact all the seine herring fisheries in Alaska, most of which are non-existent even after seining has ceased on many of them for seventy five years in a lot of cases.

This was the kind of work that set the stage for him to be the pioneer processor and maybe instigator of the first herring gillnet fishery in Alaska. I say this because us three boys represented the company, a tender, and a gillnet skiff in the first attempt to go out and actually gillnet some roe herring. The first processing of finfish caught with pots also occurred at his plant in Petersburg, with me supplying the blueprints of the pots and Steve going out and loading up on blackcod.

And this prefaced his work to run one of the first two bottom-fish plants in the State and surrounding waters by Americans. More on that in a later post as well. And I suppose that last pioneering was the pinnacle of the career of a cannery-man: the establishment of a major processing contingent using new technology. And it didn't hurt that he was named the first President of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, whose pilot projects proved that Americans could make surimi just as good as the Japanese.

Getting back to his helping people in the industry pull themselves up by the bootstraps, he gave the founder of Icicle Seafoods his first job in Alaska. That was a real win, unlike trying to get a bunch of king crab into his plant. Helping Bob was something he naturally did, even though it cost him his fleet of boats when his boss in Seattle didn't match the prices paid to fishermen by the newly minted Petersburg Fisheries under Bob's purview. But Dad had the background to always make a profit for his company.

I remember Dad and Tom Thompson discussing the break-even volume of canned salmon needed for particular plants like they had had analyzed the numbers for months like a Marsh & McClennan accounting office. Which they hadn't. Just a lot of comparable factors that nobody but these plant managers would have a clue about. Just a long history in the fishing game.

Cannery men sometimes had ancillary skills like Dad's interest and adeptness in aviation. Flying a plane for the fish company came in real handy when a boat needed help wrapping up a school of fish, or a part needed to be dropped off on the grounds. Cannery men had a lot of interests that were later parlayed into good moves on the chess board of fisheries. Doing a lot of these things yourself made it possible for a small cannery/cold storage to make money and support the family which ended up numbering five children. As he was retiring other plants and fishermen started to hire pilots with airplanes to do the same thing.

Recruiting of key staff and control was not the least of his abilities and talents. His cold storage foreman worked there for 25 years and his shrimp and crab and sometimes cannery foreman about the same amount of time. One Alaska Native and the other Japanese American. Loyal to the core and efficient to the max. They were like King David's Mighty Men of Valor who could shoot a bow with right or left hand. Joe Kawashima could teach anyone how to best pick shrimp, rewire a motor from single phase to three phase, or he could drive piling by himself in the middle of the dock under buildings. I didn't find out until years later when I was contacted by someone in Los Angeles researching Ben Berkeley that he was in fact a martial arts master. My first boss and a wonderful teacher of many things practical.

Some of the rest of the crew was like then too. Like Dick Kuwata who trained in the Philipines to resist a communist insurrection. He could draw and throw a knife like nobody's business. Dick could head salmon so perfectly and fast that there was no reason to get a heading machine for the cold storage while he was there. And everyone else had to shoot for his degree of perfection, saving the company untold dollars in the recovery rates attained. Dick worked for Dad for about 22 years I think. Keeping in mind that Dad worked in a cold storage plant when he was thirteen, I didn't start until I was seventeen.

When we both went through the 'great disillusionment' during the fall of Whitney-Fidalgo, I felt it more keenly than Dad who had seen companies come and go and his own boss cause the near ruin of Kayler-Dahl. And his grief of being frozen out of the Petersburg Cold Storage when he came back from the War. Where I picked up my pieces and took a right turn into R&D, fisheries banking, and government service, he went on with a different company, working for a former protoge, Bob Thorstensen, like nothing had happened.