Simple, structurally elegant and perfect for the job it was designed for over a century ago, the scallop rake is as much a symbol of Nantucket as the whaler’s harpoon. If only it got that kind of respect.
In his “Report Upon the Scallop Fishery of Massachusetts,” D.L. Belding noted that the tool most often used by recreational scallopers was the scallop pusher.
“This implement consists of a wooden pole, from 8 to 9 feet long, attached to a rectangular iron framework, 3 by 1-1/2 feet, fitted with a netting bag three feet in depth. The scalloper, wading in the shallow water, gathers scallops from the flats by shoving the pusher among the eel grass,” he wrote.
The report was delivered to the state in 1910. It includes a photo of what anybody who has tried out recreational, or family, scalloping, even 113 years later, will know as a scallop rake. Looking at it is like seeing a photo of an ancestor across a century and finding out he looks just like you.
“The question is who decided to call it a scallop rake? It’s illogical because it obviously isn’t a rake,” said Ron Shepherd, a blacksmith by trade who has made more than a few of those iron rectangular frames Belding described.
“Three feet by a foot and a half is a big one,” he said. “Since then, they’re smaller and the net isn’t as deep. Other than that, the design is pretty much the same. These are wrought iron, blacksmith-formed frames that go back before the turn of the century.”
Shepherd holds up two examples, looking at them through the eyes of an experienced blacksmith. He estimates they are at least 125 years old, when the last blacksmith to operate a shop on Straight Wharf, Aquila Cormie, was making them.
Hand-forged push rakes were made out of scrap metal. There may have been small differences in the style of each blacksmith, but they were variations on a theme.
Shepherd used one of the old frames as a sort of template when he began forging them himself in 1978. It was the same year that Rick Kotalac began selling marine supplies.
“I started making them and Rick started selling them out of his first store,” he said.
“It could be up and down (depending on the success of each scallop season) but I don’t think I went two or three years that I didn’t make anything. I would average 100 to 140 a year.”
Over the last 45 years that adds up to between 4,000 and 6,000 rake heads.
Melanie Kotalac remembers assembling the scallop rakes for sale as a family business. The net bags were made out of twine by local fishermen, the poles ordered in bulk and hammered into the rake heads.
“Our entire family contributed to making the push rakes every year and we would usually run out of supply,” she said.
The main difference between those scallop pushers of 1910 and the scallop rakes of today is that blacksmiths a century ago used wrought iron and today they use what is called mild steel.
“When people say wrought iron when they see a gate or what I call Sears Colonial it is a misnomer,” Shepherd said. “What blacksmiths talk about is the chemical composition. Old forged wrought iron was chemically different. It didn’t rust as quickly as mild steel. That is why some of the old stuff still survives.”
Shepherd has friends who keep their eyes and ears out for anybody throwing away old scalloping gear.
“Everybody in Monomoy had two or three of them hanging in their garage. But old homes get sold and garages and basements get cleaned out and the gear gets tossed. A lot of the stuff I have I collected from the metal pile at the dump or traded friends for it,” he said.
Some people prefer a viewing box, a simple box with clear glass on one end so you can see the bottom of the harbor, and a small net that Shepherd calls a “pooper-scooper” to simply scoop up any scallops you can see.
The scallop rake pushes the eel grass out of the way and shakes the scallops out and into the attached net.
Shepherd holds up a much smaller iron frame. This one is wrapped in red and white cotton cloth and has a metal scallop ring at the end of the net. The cotton cloth was added so that the string netting would not rust and fray against the iron. It was made by a fisherman named Jimmy Worth.
“Worth didn’t make the frame, but this colorful red stripe cotton he wrapped it in and the hand made net, this is a real piece of Nantucket history. It belongs in a museum,” he said.