Historic Resources Strengthen Hands-On Programs
It was a typical spring day at the CWB Boathouse on South Lake Union. The upstairs office – what was once the library – seemed about to burst at the seams. CWB staff, volunteers and board members were busy working away, preparing, planning and coordinating programs for the time when the sun would return, and with it the droves of visitors to our docks. Seeking sanctuary, I took a laptop downstairs to the gallery.
Lucky for me there was no field trip or rental that day, just relative silence. That is, until a man wandered in. Don’t get me wrong; he was quiet, and respectful of my focus on my work on the laptop. He spent a while circulating, examining the large format photos displayed as part of the temporary exhibit, “Persistent Work”.
As he completed the circuit, I disturbed the silence, asking, “Do you have any questions, sir?” He quickly explained that he had a bunch of old photographs that his father took while working as a commercial fisherman in Washington and Alaska and that he was interested in showing them to someone. We made arrangements for him to return at a later time. A few weeks later, Mr. Rick Ranta and I sat at the large table in the upstairs office (a field trip was occupying the gallery). In a shoebox, Rick had brought almost the entire history of his father Toivo Ranta’s career as a commercial fisherman, from the mid-1930s until the mid-1950s.
As a young man, Toivo had emigrated from Finland with his brother, Into, in 1931 to join their father, working summers for the Alaska Packers Association and Libby McNeill & Libby packing companies. The family first lived in Aberdeen, Washington, and later Port Angeles.
Photographs documented their work sailing gillnetters nearly awash with the mass of fish piled aboard. Other images illustrate the danger of sailing small boats in the shallow, choppy, remote Alaskan waters. A series of several shots shows two men perched precariously on the nearly submerged keel of their gillnetter as another fishing boat sails to their rescue, all this within feet of a forbidding shoal. Still other images speak to the camaraderie among the fishermen, dining aboard rafted gillnetters or hamming it up for the camera outside the bunkhouse. Most interesting were the “tally books” used to record the daily catch offloaded at the scows. Fishermen were shown forking the fish, mostly sockeye salmon, over the side of the barge-like scow under the ever-watchful eye of the “tally man.” The books recorded the name of the scow or packer, some of which still float at moorings on Seattle waterways. The tally books also recorded the vagaries of a fisherman’s fortunes. One day in 1950, Toivo and his partner landed only six fish, and the next day more than nine hundred!
Another interesting item in the collection is the framed “payout” sheet recording the end-of-season total of Toivo’s summer efforts. The document lists the number of fish caught during the season, the prices paid for each salmon, and the extra pay and fees for transportation and housing through the summer. Rick had the document framed and displayed it proudly at his desk while working at NOAA Fisheries “to let the highly educated screen watchers know I had a family background in fish.”
Other photos record the transition from sail to internal combustion power in the Bristol Bay fishery. One image depicts a fleet of brand new stern-pickers lined up outside Bryant’s Marina on Seattle’s Portage Bay. The Ranta family poses aboard the vessels that spelled the end of small working sail on the large scale. Rick recalls his father’s distaste for the motorized fishing on Bristol Bay and remembers that it was not long before the family diversified by starting a plywood mill in Port Angeles. However, fishing remained a part of the family history, as evidenced by the photos of the Canadian built stern-picker Toivo commissioned and by Rick’s memory of getting seasick in a trip off the San Juans as a boy.
The Ranta Collection and story already are enhancing CWB’s programs such as The Golden Age of Salmon. Youth Program Manager, Tyson Trudel, notes that “the true story of Tovio adds texture and authenticity, helping kids to relate to the people and families that have helped shape the culture aand history of our region” Theirs is a real story with photos to document a Washington family history of living the American Dream through fishing. Thanks to Rick, CWB is allowed to use his photos and his father’s story to educate visitors, young and old, about the hardship, bounty, and promise offered by the early days of commercial salmon fishing in our region. CWB has also arranged for Toivo’s story to be forever preserved and shared by connecting Rick with the University of Washington Labor Archivist, Conor Casey. Soon the Ranta Collection will be available to researchers from all disciplines as we try to understand the past and future of this important industry in the Northwest.