From Dories to Trawlers

Matthew Mitchell's voice is quiet and his manner is mild. "On my first day in a dory, on the Banks, while fishing in Newfoundland, I was astray all day in the dory. I was fishing with an experienced man, but we were astray all day. We missed the buoy and never got back. I was just 14 years old. We were picked up by the Iris & Verna, Captain Bob Moulton. He got us aboard our own vessel during the night."

A timid soul would have refused to go to sea after that trip but Matthew Mitchell, and scores of other young fellows, pushed thoughts of sea-sickness and home-sickness aside. They belonged to the era of "Wooden Ships and Iron Men". They came of age during the Great Depression. Jobs were scarce, but the desire to work was strong.

Captain Mitchell's memories are told in the voice of experience. He can paint a picture with his words and his listeners feel the roll of the ocean waves, almost tasting the salt spray.

"An Adventure in Realism" has been a slogan at the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic for as long as anyone can remember. The retired fishermen, like Captain Matthew Mitchell, who work aboard the Museum vessels, make certain that the "adventure" is as powerful as their handshake and as real as their "Welcome Aboard!"

The schooner Theresa E. Connor is impressive as the flagship of the Fisheries Museum but, the vessel comes to life when the men tell their stories of fishing on the North Atlantic. Their real life adventures are part of the treasure trove of history found at the Museum. A conversation with one of our fishermen makes a visit to the Museum complete. Captain Mitchell smiles, as he comments, "I wouldn't know how many people have shook our hands and told us 'You made our trip.' They love the old yarns."

Visitors can meet retired fishermen aboard both Theresa E. Connor and the side trawler Cape Sable , to re-live the "good old days". The "good old days", however, were not that good. For fishermen and their families, it was a lot of hard, dangerous work. Matthew Mitchell was born at Port au Bras, Newfoundland. His parents were Violet and Frederick Mitchell. Young Matthew helped his father with his cod trap. As youngsters, "Mitch" and his brothers knew how to gut, dress and clean fish on the wharves at Port au Bras. It was good training for the years to come.

"Mitch" came to Lunenburg when he was just 16 years old. He did not know anyone in the community. "We left Burin, to come to Lunenburg, on January 10, 1934. It was aboard the Silver Arrow. We fished our way up, in dories. I fished that winter aboard the Silver Arrow and then went salt fishing aboard the Pasadena II, Captain Cecil Walters." Over the years, Captain "Mitch" went salt fishing, halibuting and fresh fishing. He was a member of the crew aboard many vessels, including Bessemer, Alcala, Marjorie and Dorothy, Bluenose and the Brenda Marguerite.

The names of his dorymates show the strong connection between the port of Lunenburg and Newfoundland fishermen. His dorymates included Gordon MacDonald, Owen Grandy, Gordon Walsh, George Hamilton, Wally Gaulton and Cecil Lace. In 1947 he went aboard the wooden side trawler Cape North, as a deck-hand. Cape North and Cape LaHave were the first successful trawlers to fish from the port of Lunenburg. "Mitch" sailed aboard the Cape North for 19 years.

He was Captain of the trawler for 10 years, taking over from Captain Tom Pittman when he retired. He remembers Captain Pittman as a good man and one who taught him a lot. Matthew Mitchell married the late Olive A. Cook in 1939. They settled in Lunenburg. They had four children: Joan, Sherman, Susan and David. The lore of the sea runs in the family. Joan has been an Interpreter at the Fisheries Museum since 1990. Sherman and David have both worked aboard vessels. After Captain Mitchell's command of Cape North, he was master of the trawlers Cape Norman, Cape Pictou and Cape Bauld.

He retired from the sea in the mid-1970s. The late Ainsley Fralick and John Meisner Sr. asked him to come to the Fisheries Museum, to be the Shore Captain of the Museum vessels. Since 1976, he has welcomed thousands of visitors to the Museum. When asked if he had thought, when he left Burin 62 years ago, that he would have such an interesting career, the answer came quickly. "No. There were times, when you were dory fishing, that you never thought you'd get aboard, let alone thought you would be a skipper." Every day on the North Atlantic was a challenge.

Today, every visitor to the Fisheries Museum can share in that same spirit of adventure. The Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic - An Adventure in Realism!