On October 21st I drove down to Port Penn, Delaware and walked to the marshes along the Delaware River. According to the Independent Seaport Museum’s accession records, the eel fyke net I am studying this semester came from the Port Penn Area Historical Society (now the Port Penn Interpretive Center) in 1987. Although the center is closed for the season, I thought it would be beneficial to visit the closest thing to an origin point I have for this fyke net and examine the environment in which it was used, to situate it both in space and time, as I contemplate the object’s age.
I have yet to pin down an original owner, but based on this net’s purpose, I can say that the original owner was a fisherman, and certainly an eel fisherman. Given the object’s size (just over three feet long) and its composition (hoops possibly made of willow wood and netting of twine or cotton) I also speculate that the owner made this net himself, likely in the late 19th or early 20th Century. More modern eel fyke nets, specifically the leaders and wings that extend before the net itself, can vary from fifty to 200 feet long. Given this variation in size between modern nets and the one I am studying, I am confident it must be significantly older, and therefore likely made by hand. Additionally, given how small a town Port Penn is, and how old I believe the net to be, I further speculate that the original owner was not a man of considerable wealth.
As expressed before, the net was used specifically to fish for American Eels which live in the Delaware River and its surrounding marshes. In addition to its original utilitarian purpose, I believe the net was also used for decoration, as it has a stick attached to its side which could have helped in hanging it on a wall somewhere. Significantly more interesting is how this object reflects the particularities of its surroundings. In 2017, the two major forms of employment I saw in the small village of Port Penn are agriculture and fishing. Port Penn is no more than ten miles from Route 13, but in traveling those ten miles I saw primarily small farms, and in town I saw several stores related to fishing (a bait and tackle shop, a market for crab, and so forth). Although there may never have been an eel fishing industry, it seems possible that the original owner sold his catches in a local fish market. These are the particularities of the human environment; in the natural environment I saw a few willow trees on my drive into town, which lends credence to my assessment that the net’s hoops may have been made of willow, though other sources state that most fyke nets were made of oak, hickory, or grapevine. Furthermore, the inlets from the river that lead to the marshes are not particularly wide. Given the nets roughly three feet in length, if we consider proportional additions in the leader and wings, the net would be roughly eight or nine feet wide. This is more than enough to span these inlets and capture plenty of eels. I wonder though, if the proper methodology dictates that one stakes these nets down and waits for the eels to swim in, what would the original owner do in this down time? Would he bring a fishing pole with him and catch the bass and other fish that swim through the Delaware? Would he bring box traps to catch the blue crabs I saw scuttling about in the surrounding ponds?
My interactions with this object have colored my impression of it insofar as I am now more certain than ever of its colorful life. By life I refer to its creation, likely at the hands of its original owner, its usage in the marshes of the Delaware River, its time as a wall ornament, and its arrival at at least two maritime museums. If my assessment is correct, this object was made by the original owner. This means that the owner had to bend the willow wood into hoops, and weave the twine or cotton into its z-twisted form and then craft the net and internally woven traps, and then treat it all to prevent water damage. This evokes a sense of wonder. The time, energy, and care that went into crafting this net colors my impression of it greatly. Furthermore, what struck me most as I sat by the marshes was the ambient noise around me. I could hear the water flowing by, the seagulls screeching overhead, the wind blowing through the wild grasses, and the birds in the brushes. All of this evoked an idyllic image of a man fishing by the river, surrounded by these sounds in the early 20th Century, but without airplanes and large barges drifting down stream. Whether this image is valid or not is something I have yet to determine. During a previous visit to the Tuckerton Seaport Museum in New Jersey, an archivist there spoke of a lumber industry not far from the Delaware River that, at times, would choke the river with sawdust. This is a different form of pollution than what I witnessed at Port Penn, but certainly one worth considering as I move forward.
Nevertheless, in visiting Port Penn, Delaware and walking around the marshes along the Delaware River, I obtained a greater understanding of this eel fyke net through witnessing the environment in which it was used, the town it once called home, and considering the changes this village has seen over time.