Earle Sanders and his wife both grew up across the river in Kittery Point. Earle got his start in the lobster business in 1951 as a truck driver for Jimmy Haig, who had a home on Gates Street with his wife, Eleanor. They used to store the lobsters in a lobster 'car', which they floated off the old wooden Pierce Island Bridge. Haig had restaurants and A&P supermarkets for customers, and suppliers up the Maine coast, all of whom Earle got to know as he made his pickups and deliveries. In February of 1952, Jimmy Haig was aboard a boat bringing a load of lobsters back from Monhegan Island during a nor' easter snowstorm. The vessel went down on that fateful trip. Both Jimmy and the boat captain were lost.
In the early days as a lobster middleman, as Earle tells it, the prices and methods of handling and shipping lobsters were much different from today. He remembers backing the truck down to the beach, putting lobsters into a wheelbarrow and wheeling them up to a scale to be weighed. In his first year of business the average cost per lobster was 38 cents; today that same lobster is $5. Earle doesn't expect that prices will go down either, as "high gas prices have increased boat operating costs, and bait prices for herring and ‘red fish’ (ocean perch) have also gone up."
All lobster handling in those days was done by hand, which was tricky – it doesn't take much to poke a finger through a soft shell. Crate or barrel loading was performed by strong-backed labor. Lobsters were trucked to the railway station and shipped out via Railway Express in wooden barrels which contained lobster compartments surrounded by ice. Depending on the distance traveled – up to two days at most – you could pay a re-icing fee of $1 per barrel to keep the lobsters cold. Today, lobsters are shipped worldwide in styrofoam containers in compartments surrounded by gel ‘ice.’
Earle's wife, Phyllis, was not particularly happy about moving into the South End neighborhood with its "flophouses, slums, winos and junkyards. People didn't brag about being a South Ender then," says Earle. "There used to be a 15-room tenement house on our front lawn [between Pray Street and Partridge Street] with absentee owners." Earle kept his lobster pound crew busy in the slow winter months by taking this old building down piece by piece and burning the debris on the beach every morning. It was the first slum clearance in the neighborhood. As lots in the area went up for sale, Earle purchased them and continued to clean them up.
In providing for his family, Kristin admits, "Earle has had good instincts and been able to maintain constancy through good and bad years." His dedication is evident in the story of the day Kristin was born. "Dad dropped Mom off at the Portsmouth Hospital in the morning, then continued on to the restaurant to make his lobster delivery before returning and checking in to see how she was doing." Kristin also commented that "Marcy Street was a scary place when I was kid with brothels and such – you didn't walk down Marcy Street!"
Jim continues as the middleman – buying from fishermen and selling to wholesale and retail customers. He fished traps for a while as a hobby, but traded them in for a banjo, which he can be seen playing in his pick-up down at the pound. His major suppliers include three family-run wharves in Cundy's Harbor, Maine, one of which has been doing business with the Sanders family for three generations. Under verbal agreement, Sanders takes all of the production from their boats, daily in the summertime. The Sanders truck leaves Pray Street at 3:30 a.m. to pick up the previous day's catch, which can run anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 pounds per day in the summer, soft shell lobster season. Sanders also specializes in jumbo lobsters, weighing six pounds or more, caught off the coast of Canada by a fleet out of Newington. "There doesn't appear to be a shortage of lobster available during season for catch," Jim says, "most likely because of the decline of their natural predators such as haddock and cod in East Coast waters."
By 8:00 a.m. back at Sanders' pound, the employees are weighing, sorting and loading boxes of lobsters on the trucks for distribution to their wholesale customers. They ship to their largest customer daily, seven days a week, year-round; this past Memorial Day weekend they delivered 75,000 pounds of lobsters in three days. In 2001 Sanders won a "Partner of the Year" award as top supplier for Shaw's seafood counters. Surplus lobster meat goes to processing plants for use as frozen lobster meat or to the Red Lobster chain of restaurants. They also sell meat for lobster rolls in restaurants around Laconia and Lake Winnipesauke. They maintain plenty of lobsters and steamers on hand for their local and regular retail customers at both the lobster pound and Sanders Fish Market, as well as for those customers nationwide who order overnight shipments. Overall, Sanders now handles about a million pounds of lobster and other seafood annually.
In 1990 refrigeration systems utilizing heat exchangers enabled the circulation of the water in the lobster tanks through pumps to keep it chilled and filtered. Lobster crates are now offloaded from pallets by forklift and stored directly in tank waters chilled to 40 degrees, resulting in a lot less physical handling of individual lobsters. These changes have also cut down on ‘shrinkages’ (that’s lobster talk for loss of lobster life).
The Sanders have a winter storage facility in Hancock, Maine, a dammed off area in the bay to keep live lobsters in the water through February and March, when lobster boats don't typically go out. Here the lobsters are fed herring and haddock racks (what's left after the filets have been taken off), as well as a five-day regimen of feed medicated with penicillin to help prevent diseases such as ‘red tail.’ To harvest these lobsters, a diver goes down with a large suction tube attached to a long hose, which literally sucks lobsters directly up and onto a conveyor belt to a packing table.
Today’s Sanders Mill Fish Market was called the Blue Fin Fish Market from the ’40s through the late ’80s, when it was run by 'Babe' Marconi, his wife, Lorraine, and their children. In 1987, Lorraine approached the Sanders family, with whom they'd had an ongoing business relationship, and asked if they would carry it on and purchase the business along with some other properties. Earle recounts, "Jim said we needed it," and so they bought the fish market, although Jim admits they didn't really know the fish business at the time and have learned and adapted over the years. Joanne Marconi, Lorraine and Babe’s daughter, stayed on and helped them out in the beginning. Interested in preserving the history of the property, they named it Sanders Olde Mill Fish Market, as a tribute to the Pickering family, early settlers who had operated a mill on the same Back Channel site. The town had granted South Mill rights to John Pickering in 1658, on the condition that he built a foot path over the mill-dam. When Sanders took over the property, the building was falling into the water and needed major structural repairs, including new pilings and foundation.
Kristin started full time at the Fish Market Labor Day weekend in 1992 – she remembers processing clams all day. Kristin had previously run the Sanders' New Hampshire Lobster Company down in Hampton Beach for 10 years, an operation the family had begun in 1961. She later sold the property and moved back to the South End, "...closer to Daddy and family," to help Earle out. "Now," he says, "I help her out." She sources a lot of the product sold at the Fish Market locally – clams, lobster and crab meat from Maine and fish from fishing boats that unload at the co-op over on Pierce Island. For the rest they make weekly or bi-weekly trips to Boston.
On Fridays, Kristin travels over to Concord, where she sells seafood out of the back of their truck at the Concord Arena. A hundred regular customers or more come by to see her there most weeks. Fridays were originally chosen in keeping with the Catholic tradition of ‘fish on Fridays.’ Over the years, Kris has also picked up several farmers markets throughout the state.
After operating it under the name Sanders Olde Mill Fish Market for over twenty years. In June 2008, the newly renovated and revitalized business reopened as Sanders Fish Market and is being run by Jim's son Michael. Earle spent happy hours there greeting longtime customers and old friends from his personal leather chair in the front room.
Both Sanders family-run companies have become established South End landmarks, with Sanders Lobster Company in existence for over fifty years, and the Olde Mill Fish Market for twenty, still in their original locations. Kristin says, "Returning vacationers stop by every summer to the same spot and many of them say it's like coming home." Jim talks of a family from Ft. Kent, Maine, who have come down to the pound every Memorial Day week- end for years, "a custom started by a father, continued by a son with his family." Many locals are frequent customers as well. "A doctor comes by regularly, picks his lobster to be cooked on-site and has a cocktail while he waits for the lobster to be steamed cooked – it's kind of a ritual." Many other families come to Sanders for lobsters and clambake supplies for special annual or semi-annual events, or make a day's outing out of it with their kids, to come and see the lobsters. The Sanders have also helped out with lobster-based activities at the Children's Museum. When the Children’s Museum of Portsmouth opened in the South End, Earle took it upon himself to get the beautiful clock in the tower running again, orchestrating and subsidizing its refurbishing. He and Phyllis also sponsored the very popular lobstering exhibit in the museum.
In addition to serving the community's customers, Sanders' businesses have provided a good training ground for young people. "Almost everyone knows someone who's worked for Earle," remarks Kristin. "He gets them young, 14-15 years old, and trains them weekends and summers through school." She maintains this tradition and enjoys "doing with kids what Earle has done for us." When asked what lessons she's learned from her dad, she replied, "to treat people nice – like family, treat product and people with respect, develop good business relationships with other local businesses, and most of all, hard work".
Jim has no plans to grow their facility at Pray Street and says he doesn't need to. "It’s a nice old, rustic building that’s become part of the neighborhood," adequate to handle the current size operation on which they pride themselves, providing fresh product with a high turnover rate. In keeping with recent retail trends, they do plan to set up an ordering system on their website so customers nationwide can place an order online and have their lobsters shipped directly. Another new project is to modernize the Olde Mill Fish Market inside and out in the coming year, while maintaining the character of the old building. It will be upgraded to complement the new South Street and Vine store next door. Both buildings will continue the old-style store layout with retail on the first floor and apartments above. Jim and Kristin also own multiple buildings in the area that they are continuing to refurbish and rent out, with the goal of keeping prices fair and affordable.
Will their sons and daughters carry on the family tradition and keep the businesses running? Both of Jim and his wife Gail's sons, Michael and Jeffrey, work at Sanders Lobster Company and fill in at the Olde Mill Fish Market when needed. Michael is currently studying business at UNH and Jeffrey, who recently graduated high school, is on his way there next year. Kristin's daughter Mollie has worked in both the family business at Hampton Beach and at the Fish Market up until she started her own family. Now her children, especially Samantha, 11, like to help out at the Fish Market. Kristin says, "The grandkids think working here is better than gold." Both Jim and Kristin hope that their businesses will stay in the family and that they can keep them going. As for Earle, he can be seen bicycling between Pray Street and the Fish Market, overseeing the family operations he started years ago and spending time with his kids and grandkids – but without his signature corn cob pipe, which the family has talked him into giving up.
Earle M. Sanders: January 19, 1929 – October 4, 2008
Earle M. Sanders of 54 Pray Street died at his home on Saturday, October 4, 2008, due to complications from lung cancer. Born on January 19, 1929 in Kittery Point, Maine, he was the son of the late Stephen Edwin and Queenie (Harrison) Sanders. After graduating from R.W. Traip Academy, Earle served as a member of the United States Navy.
Earle married Phyllis Hoyt in 1953, and in 1954 they moved to the South End where they raised their three children – Kristin, Jim, and Karen. Earle was instrumental in initiating the revitalization of the South End neighborhood, replacing and renovating some of the tenement buildings, and at the same time maintaining the tradition of the working port by running a successful lobster business, Sanders Lobster Company, on Portsmouth’s back channel.
Earle was a passionate outdoorsman. He loved being in the woods or on the water, hunting and fishing, oftentimes traveling to long distance locations in order to do so. Earle’s craving for adventure was as strong as his work ethic. He was a Yankee in the very best sense of the word, living, loving, and working hard. Earle served on the New Hampshire Advisory Commission on Shore Fisheries and was awarded a special plaque in recognition of thirty dedicated years of service to the Commission.
Earle is survived by his loving wife of fifty-five years Phyllis (Hoyt) Sanders of Portsmouth; daughter Kristin Sanders-Davis, son James Sanders and wife Gail; grandchildren Mollie Sanders-Laster and husband Eric, Michael Sanders, and Jeffrey Sanders; great-grandchildren Samantha, Noah, and William Laster; brother Paul F. Sanders and wife Helen of Bellevue, WA, and many dear friends and family members.
Earle was predeceased by his daughter Karen Gail Sanders in 1978 and his brother Stephen Edwin Sanders of Skowhegan, ME.
To honor Earle’s memory, his family would kindly suggest that we each perform a random act of kindness.