‘I’m a bullraker. I’ve been bullraking all my life’
By Elizabeth F. McNamara
Bebe (aka Fred) MacDonald was just 12 years old when he started pulling quahogs out of Narragansett Bay. It was 1944, World War II was on and his family could use the extra money. So, Bebe started quahogging while his brother got a job at Jigger’s Diner and his sister went to work in their aunt’s children’s clothing store down by the fire station.
His brother and sister would go on to different jobs, but Bebe had found his life’s work and, other than a stint in the Army Air Force during the Korean War, he has quahogged ever since.
That’s 76 years.
The irony – and it rankled a bit – was when people over the years would ask him if he was “still quahogging” or had gotten a real job.
“They couldn’t go out there and pull a rake if they wanted to,” he said in a recent interview. “You throw the rake in and you’re working with 40 to 50 feet of stale. And you have to pull it. It doesn’t pull itself, believe me.”
Quahogging is an art form particular to the communities along Narragansett Bay. For many boys growing up in East Greenwich back in the day, it was a rite of passage, making a few bucks out on the water with nothing but a small boat and a bull rake. McDonald noted that former Gov. Donald Carcieri quahogged as a young man, following in the footsteps of his father, the legendary EGHS coach Nick Carcieri. Former Gov. Phil Noel quahogged too. And Bebe quahogged with all of them.
It’s an inexact science and that might be why there are still plenty of clams in the bay. A bull rake is a metal basket with teeth attached to a pole that a person drags at an angle to collect clams from the sandy bottom.
Today, there aren’t as many men (it’s a pretty male-dominated profession) quahogging these days, but it’s still a way of life for some, like MacDonald.
It always worked for him because he could be his own boss. “Nobody tells me what to do,” he said. “I’m independent.”
He would supplement his earnings tending bars some nights at The Oaks, or cleaning the apartments owned by his cousin, Joe Zenga, or when he was younger, at the Bleachery, the old textile bleaching factory north of Cedar Avenue, next to the pond now known as Bleachery Pond.
They would use all the colors in the rainbow to dye different fabrics, he said, and all that dye would end up flowing down the Maskerchugg River into the top of Greenwich Cove. Back in those days, the cove was still open to shellfishing. According to MacDonald, even with that runoff, the clams they harvested never made anyone sick.
He recalled freezing cold winters too.
“The ice was so thick, they used to drive cars on it. And you could do that all the way over to Rocky Point almost,” he said. “In the wintertime, when we started getting frozen in, we’d put the boats on top of the ice and pull them all the way over to open water. Then they opened up in front of Goddard Park for us. We used to go over there with an axe and an ice saw and dig a big hole.”
No fair-weather quahogging for him.
“We worked all the time,” he said. “You go out to make a day’s pay. If you had something else you wanted to do, you’d stay and make a few more hauls to make the extra money.”
Nowadays, he said, people don’t plan like that. They just spend what they have.
He and his fellow bullrakers even organized a cooperative so they could earn a higher price for their clams.
“I like quahogging because it’s very peaceful,” MacDonald said. “And it was prosperous too.”
Indeed, MacDonald lives in Potowomut, in the house his parents bought after they left the King Street apartment where he grew up. He and his wife, Barbara, have a place in Aruba and another place in Florida. Of Barbara, McDonald says, ”She was the Ivy Day Queen, they wanted her to go in the movies. She was beautiful – she still is.”
To his frustration, MacDonald hasn’t been out on the water at all this year. A heart ailment landed him in the hospital this past winter and he’s still recovering.
“They told me I’d be able to get out there again,” he said.
If you’d like to read some more about clams and quahogging, check out these articles:
From Bullrakes to Clambakes
The Dirt on Clams
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Congratulations, Bebe, You are right ! Not many can “pull that rake” and to do it at 88 is AMAZING !!!! I always like to say that 2 years bullraking and 2 years working concrete forms were what made me decide to go to college.
Way to Go and, hopefully, many more years.
Hope for a quick recovery buddy. Someone else is parked in your dock spot. Now I know why.
Hope all is well with you my fellow clasmate!!
You certainly deserve the very best. 😁
🛥’s in the water, Quahogs in the water, just need Mighty Mouse in the🛥!! Dig Bebe Dig!! No thrown Bricks!!🤣
A great man . Probably the first digger I met when I started on the water many years ago. One of the characters that make my job so interesting . One of the last old high liners !
Sending healing prayers
What a great article Bebe is a icon from the families that lived below the tracks! My Dad Pop Nick Herbert Nicholas used to Quahog with him! I remember seeing him many days we would go out! God speed Bebe hope you get well soon and get to get out again!
What an EG icon! One of our longest and dearest friends as we worked on the water with him for many years. Yes, I say we because I was my husband’s picker for many years. Also, one of the many characters that worked on the water. A heart of gold and a great sense of humor. A strong and proud Italian-American – forza, BeBe, forza!! Get well our old friend!! those necks are just waiting for ya!!!
Bebe bought me my first beer at the Oaks after a day of digging. I couldn’t handle a bull rake so I used tongs. Not as big a load, but it worked for me. I barely survived one summer going out on the bay and quahogging. Toughest job I ever had. I fired myself and went to work at the Harborside. Bebe is a legend.
Still remember my days as a commercial shell Fisherman in the early 50’s supplementing the Korean GI Bill during my college days at URI. Good thing that the equipment you have today wasn’t available in the 50’s since I would probably be working right along side you making those big bucks!
Love most of the photo’s in the film presentation. Hope that you are back to work soon so that when the virus is controlled I can get back to EG and get my special little necks from my favorite supplier.
Wonderful column on our family friend. BeBe….the quahaughs will be waiting for you in the spring after a you have a full recovery. Thank care and God Bless.
I knew Bebe MacDonald
When I started to quahogging Myself Back in the early 70s
I saw him and Barbara at the good old Post Road Inn
it was some great days back then
Bebe never cared what kind of weather was going on
He just gets in his boat and just goes to work never complaining
just did what he did best quahogging
a lot of us quahog Left and went to other work
But Bebe MacDonald Always stayed at it
he was a true shell fisherman
I always set it Bebe could catch quahog
On Main Street East Greenwich he was that good beautiful article
One summer when Brown and Sharpe went on strike Bee Bee hired me to help pull Lobster pots he had set in the bay. This effort lasted 2 Summers when the lobster season was open, we have this effort up ,too many rules and too many Deputy’s
No double Bee Bee is one of the kindest and generous guys you’ll ever know .
Bebe was a Lobster man:
When Brown and Sharpe went on strike, Bebe Hired me as his First Mate on his converted Quahog skiff to help haul the Lobster pots he set in Narragansett Bay.
We did this during the summer when the season opened. Unfortunately we gave this up due to a very week Lobster run and way too many Deputy”s.
Bebe is the nicest and most generous man you could ever meet.
A speed recovery Bebe. Sandra and I wish you and Barbara all the best. From SANTEE, SC
Good luck old friend.
All the best Bebe , I remember you from the co-op in E.G. way back when . I remember you an’ all the other guys from E.G.. Here’s to a speedy recovery for you . My nick name was Butch , I met you when I worked out of E.G. trailering my boat every day for six years before moving over to Moe Mooreheads dock in Apponaug for many years until being “discovered” as an artist painting what else , pictures of boats an the bay . Good luck you ole salt !