Salt ’n Spar

Wiscasset one-time ‘Marine Worm Capital of the World’

Fri, 05/10/2024 - 8:45am

Let’s talk worms, marine worms that is – “blood” and “sand” – prized bait for saltwater sports fishermen and that fetch between $12 and $15 a dozen on the Jersey shore. Once upon a time Wiscasset was known as the “Marine Worm Capital of the World” when 10 to 12 million marine worms a year were being shipped to bait and tackle shops in North Carolina, Florida, Texas and California. This was 35, 40 years ago.

The worms are still here but Maine’s marine worm industry has long since moved Down East to places like Hancock, Addison, Harrington and Jonesport-Beals where bait worms are more plentiful. As the diggers will tell you, the mudflats around here are pretty much “wormed out” and have been for quite a while. There are a number of theories for this, suffice to say, this was not the case in the spring of 1979 when I wrote my first story on the marine worm industry. Worm digging then was a really big deal in Wiscasset where there were five bait wholesalers in town. Bloodworms were always in more demand because they have a firmer body and are better to fish with. When they started getting scarce the dealers started selling sandworms too.

Frank Hammond and Fred Peaslee, both have since passed away, were two of Wiscasset’s better known bait dealers. Frank sold blood and sandworms from the basement of his home at the lower end of Water Street that faced the riverfront. If Frank happened to be busy elsewhere the basement door was usually left unlocked so local anglers could buy small packages of bait worms paying for them on the honor system. Frank was in business during what became known as the first “Worm Strike” in August 1966, when the diggers demanded to be paid 50 cents more per hundred for bloodworms. The going price then was $2.25 a hundred. Strange as this may sound, the worm strike made national news. The story headlined: “WORM DIGGERS STRIKE FOR MORE PAY” was picked up by the Associated Press and published in newspapers all over the country. Frank Hammond was quoted within it saying Wiscasset accounted for about 20% of all the bloodworms being shipped from Maine. Other worm strikes were to follow including a bitter one in June 1984 pitting Midcoast worm diggers against their Down East rivals. At the time the annual marine worm business had grown to a $4 million industry.

For 35 years Wiscasset’s Fred Peaslee owned the S & P Bait Company on Railroad Avenue. His place of business was a dimly lit, cavernous basement of cement walls where the floor was usually wet and it smelled like a mudflat. Here beneath bare lightbulbs hanging from the low ceiling the diggers sorted and counted their daily harvest. After this the live worms were carefully packed in shallow cardboard boxes lined with newspaper and filled with damp seaweed. The “S” in the name S & P Bait Company stood for Soule, i.e., the late Sonny Soule of Wiscasset. He was a business partner of Peaslee’s, the two men being related through marriage. Sonny is perhaps better remembered as a top-selling car salesman for the former Strong Chevrolet in Damariscotta.

Peaslee, Hammond and the other bait dealers bought the seaweed they used to keep the worms alive from “weeders,” men or boys who collected boatloads of seaweed along the waterfront at low tide. Dicky Dyer of Wiscasset was among the better known weeders. He could frequently be seen working in the cove by White’s Island filling burlap sacks full of seaweed; not common rockweed mind you, the kind that looks like French-cut string beans. After the worms were safely packaged the cardboard boxes were bundled and shipped to customers by truck or Greyhound bus.

Digging went on year-round but the peak worming season as you might expect ran concurrent to the fishing season from about March through November. During the off-season Fred sold Christmas trees he grew over in Edgecomb off Boothbay Road. The first time I interviewed him and Frank Hammond for the newspaper was in June 1979. It was during the so-called “Energy Crisis” when there was a nationwide shortage of gasoline, causing prices at the pump to soar. (If you remember this you’re at least as old as I am.) For a while there was serious talk about rationing how many gallons of gas you could buy. As Fred explained it, the gas shortage was hurting his business because the charter fishing boats weren’t going out as much which in turn had slackened the demand for bait worms. He said the higher gas prices were hurting the diggers too. “Some of them think nothing of driving 100 miles a day to dig because they’ve got to go to where the worms are.” Fred said he had about 60 diggers who regularly sold their worms to him.

For the record, a gallon of gas in 1979 cost around 89 cents, although in some places it rose to a dollar or more. This sounds like a bargain now but keep in mind 45 years ago the minimum wage was just $2.90 an hour. As for worm diggers they were getting paid 7 to 10 cents a bloodworm, depending on its size, and 48 cents for a dozen for sandworms.

Locally, marine worms, “bloods” in particular were not only getting smaller, they were becoming scarcer. Frank told me he remembered in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s when there was plenty of good worm digging along the Sheepscot River and around Oak Island in the Back River. He blamed the lack of worms on over-harvesting, saying what was needed were conservation measures; a statewide minimum size for blood and sand worms and maybe temporary closings of some mudflats to give worm populations a chance to rebound. Frank felt the industry, too, was hurting itself by buying and selling smaller “immature” worms that hadn’t yet spawned. “That’s why I won’t buy any worms less than four inches in length,” he said. Others linked the depletion of marine worms to the sewer plant, although that’s never been proven. Now there’s something new to worry about – global warming.

The other Wiscasset bait dealers operating in those bygone days included Stanley and Patsy Fairservice, their bait business was in their home off Hooper Street and Randy Wanser, he started his marine worm business on Flood Avenue and later moved to Bath Road. Another of the old timers was Warren Dorr who lived on Gardiner Road in the building where the veterinarian office now is. When the good worming moved Down East, Warren Dorr went with it moving up the coast opening a bait business there.  

My friend Steve Christiansen of Wiscasset helped jog my memory reminding me the three-story house where S & P Bait Company was located was owned by Sonny and his wife Caroline Soule. The upper story of the house which fronted Water Street was an apartment and on the first floor was a small garage where the cardboard worm boxes were stapled together and stored. “When I was a kid, I earned extra money by making worm boxes, I got paid five cents a box,” he said. Like a lot of the other guys who grew up in Wiscasset, Steve gave worm digging a try when he was in high school. “We worked the mudflats around White’s Island and up by the train trestle north of town.” A digger’s standard gear includes rubber hip boots, a worm hoe to rake up the mud, and a pail for the worms. “The really hard part,” continued Steve, “is bending over with your legs spread apart to keep from falling over while you’re digging. The most I think I ever got was maybe 300 worms.” Steve reminded me you have to be careful handling bloodworms because an adult worm can deliver a nasty bite. He said in the 1960s and 1970s it was nothing to see a couple dozen diggers working the mudflats around Edgecomb’s Cod Cove, or on the flats on either side of the old timber-pile Wiscasset bridge. It’s a rare sight to see someone digging here now but who knows maybe someday the marine worm population will recover enough to make the effort worthwhile.

When he was much younger my neighbor Oscar Cronk of the famed Cronk’s Outdoor Supplies dug marine worms. Unlike other diggers Oscar preferred going after sandworms to the higher-paying bloodworms. He told me when I interviewed him a few years back he enjoyed worming so much he stuck with it for 25 years! “My brothers and I dug the mudflats all over Maine, including Down East. I think my all-time record was 3,500 worms on one tide,” he said.

Worm digging requires a strong back, a good deal of self-discipline, and a love for the outdoors. You have to tolerate working in all kinds of weather, cold, raw days in the springtime and under a broiling sun in the summer. There are also those peculiar sink holes on the flats called, “Honey Pots” where an unsuspecting digger might step in and find himself suddenly hip deep in mud. Wiscasset’s Chewonki Creek is a place noted for Honey Pots, or so I’ve been told. Diggers follow the tide. Depending on the phase of the moon they might start work at sunup or not begin until midday or later. Certain times of the year they can work two tides and many do. They take a great deal of pride in their profession and some families in these parts have been digging worms and clams two, three, or four generations. But don’t take my word for it, talk to a wormer and hear it firsthand.

I have included a few pictures surviving from that June 1979 newspaper interview in the worm sorting cellar of the S & P Bait Company. They were taken with my trusty 35mm Nikon camera using available light, that is to say without a flash, the only illumination coming from several bare light bulbs.

Phil Di Vece earned a B.A. in journalism studies from Colorado State University and an M.A. in journalism at the University of South Florida. He is the author of three Wiscasset books and is a frequent news contributor to Wiscasset Newspaper. He resides in Wiscasset. You can contact him at pdivece@roadrunner.com