‘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:
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