1930-1985John Ball: Portrait of a Gloucester FishermanPeople and Communities, Economy and Industry, Maritime & Fishing Industry, 400 Stories Project

John Ball
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FOREWORD

My grandfather, John Matthew Ball, was born on January 8, 1908, in Rencontre, Newfoundland, Canada. He arrived in Vanceboro, Maine, on March 22, 1930; he came to Gloucester shortly thereafter and married my grandmother, Mary Ann (May) Ball, also from Newfoundland, on September 26, 1931. He became a naturalized citizen on June 25, 1937. John began fishing as a young boy when he left school in sixth grade at the age of twelve in Newfoundland.

ABOUT THE COVER PHOTO

On the cover are the author’s grandparents, John M. and Mary Ann (May) Ball, circa early 1930s.

John Ball: Portrait of a Gloucester Fisherman

BY DANIELLE O’CONNOR

My grandfather, John Ball, was a great storyteller, and no matter how many stories he shared, I suspect there were many more that he never told us. My grandparents were great friends with Joe and Helen Garland, and Joe had asked my grandfather to allow him to write the story of his life. My grandfather simply replied, “No.” After my grandfather’s passing, Joe Garland said in a letter to the editor of the Gloucester Daily Times, “John Ball’s sparse, straight-line life said something about Gloucester and beyond Gloucester.”1 My grandparents remained friends with the Garlands until they both passed.

One of the stories shared by my grandfather was told to me by my cousin, Norman Neves. It was the story of him running rum from Newfoundland to New York City during Prohibition. Because of an oversupply of fish and low prices, fishermen could no longer make a living from fishing, and many began using their vessels in the rum-running trade to provide for their families. Rum-running was dangerous; the rumrunners had to evade the Coast Guard, police, and pirates.2 My grandfather made many trips running rum. On one trip to New York City, as they were waiting to unload the rum, the boat he was on was boarded by machine gun-wielding pirates who took the rum. The men aboard didn’t put up a fight and were left unharmed but without their rum.

Another harrowing tale my grandfather recounted was in April 1926, while fishing on the Bluenose. The Bluenose was caught in a storm off Sable Island, known as the graveyard of the Atlantic. The storm was so rough that the crew went below deck after they tied Captain Walters to the steering wheel.3 When the storm finally died down, the crew emerged. The captain was still alive; his skin was worn raw from the ropes, and the deck of the boat was coated in several inches of sand, but they all survived.4

Before my grandfather died, his son, Maxwell Ball, took him on a cruise on the Bluenose II, an exact replica of the famed schooner Bluenose John had worked on. It was a trip of a lifetime for him.5

Life as a fisherman was hard and dangerous. On June 20, 1952, John was working on the 100-foot dragger Albatross owned by the B & B Trawling Company out of Gloucester. The dragger was making its way in heavy seas when at 2:30 AM, about three miles off Highlight Light, she collided with the 10,000-ton tanker Esso Chattanooga. John was one of the twelve-member crew who got into a dory to abandon ship. The captain, deciding the dory was overcrowded, stayed behind to wait for rescue. He was last seen floating by the wreckage before disappearing. My grandfather said the captain was lost when the wreckage sank, and the pressure pulled the captain under with it. The tanker rescued the dory.6 The story was the subject of a United States Coast Guard investigation, and story a published in the New York Times.7

John was a staple in the fishing industry in Gloucester. He was a former doryman, and later, a cook on the Adventure. Joe Garland described him as “[from] a group of dedicated, hard-working fishermen who are sadly disappearing.”8

When he was a doryman on the Adventure, John knew that the cook was the third highest paid crew member after the owner and captain. He knew he wanted to become a cook and turned to my grandmother to teach him how to cook. Using all the knowledge she gained as a young girl in Newfoundland, my grandmother taught John to cook, and that was the beginning of his career as the cook on the Adventure and other vessels. When a reunion, organized by Joe Garland, was held aboard the Adventure, my grandfather had passed just days before. Joe spoke of my grandfather at the reunion. He said, “He (Ball) exemplified the old-time dorymen, that old-time tradition which is fast leaving the stage. He was one of the breeds of Newfoundlanders, like Leo Hynes, who came down here and contributed to the fishing industry. These were tough, old guys.”9

The list of schooners and fishing vessels John worked on is long, including some of the most notable schooners of the time including the Adventure, the Schooner Esperanto (at one time considered “the Queen of the North Atlantic Fleet” in Gloucester), the Gertrude L. Thebaud, the Columbia and the Bluenose. Less notable schooners and vessels he worked on included the Killarney, which burned off Cape Cod in 1957, the La Dunton, which is in dock at the Mystic Seaport, the Holy Cross, and the Phantom, to name a few. He also worked on the Albatross and Seafreeze Atlantic.

In late March 1969, my grandfather boarded the Seafreeze Atlantic for her maiden voyage with a 64-man crew, including 34 from Gloucester. During an interview in 1980 with Bill Cahill, a writer with the Gloucester Daily Times, John described the Seafreeze Atlantic as “…almost a floating hotel. That ship had everything. They even had curtains.” He went on to say, “We had ten toilets, suites for the skipper and engineers, bed sheets, pillowcases—all the food you could eat—always more than enough. We had movie projectors and a barrel of films. They even had bathmats.”10 When the Seafreeze Atlantic set out, they would be at sea for 40–50 days at a time. John, who made every other trip, missed the last one.

While a crew member of the Seafreeze Atlantic, my grandfather was on board February 28, 1969, when the Seafreeze collided with the coast guard vessel Yakutat while docking in New Bedford as the crew was preparing for her maiden voyage.11 The Seafreeze Atlantic’s last voyage was in February 1971.12

After his time on the Seafreeze Atlantic, my grandfather retired and became a “snowbird” in the winters. During the summers, John would work for the Yankee Fleet in Gloucester cooking in the snack bar and would do overnight fishing trips on the Yankee Captain. The Yankee Fleet led fishing excursions to Stellwagen Bank, Jeffreys Landing, and Tillies Bank for deep sea fishing.

In the late 1970s, my grandfather turned in his sea legs and became the cook at the Patio Restaurant on Lexington Avenue, Magnolia. He remained the cook there until his “second” retirement. If you ask people today who went to the Patio, they will remember him and his cooking skills.

Why Gloucester? I can surmise that during my grandfather’s days at sea on various schooners out of Newfoundland, he met sailors out of Gloucester. It may have had something to do with his friendship with Howard Blackburn. Although Howard Blackburn died in 1932, my grandfather told us of his friendship with him. We never asked how he became friends with Blackburn. Whatever reason he came to Gloucester, my grandfather and grandmother sponsored many relatives who also settled in Gloucester, and today, four generations of us still call Gloucester home.

From my grandfather’s early days as a doryman at twelve years old in Newfoundland to running rum during Prohibition and facing pirates yielding machine guns and having the rum stolen, to his stories of collisions at sea, he certainly had a story to tell. After his wife and children, John’s greatest loves were the ocean and Gloucester.

  1. Gloucester Daily Times, 4/27/1989, “How will we remember them?” by Joseph Garland
  2. Fairview Historical Society Articles Archives, 3/1/2023, “The Prohibition Era and Rum Running,” by Devonna Edwards. Fairfax, Halifax, Nova Scotia Historical Society, https://fairviewhistoricalsociety.ca
  3. Ship captains were sometimes tied to the wheel during severe storms in an attempt to steer the ship with-out getting washed overboard
  4. Saltwire, 03/26/2021, “Interactive Timeline: The History of the Bluenose, 100 Years After Launch” by Paul Schneidereit, https://www.saltwire.com
  5. Tourism Nova Scotia, Canada, accessed June 1, 2023, “Bluenose II” https://www.novascotia.com/trip-ideas/stories/bluenose-ii
  6. Marine Safety Information United States Coast Guard, Merlin O’Neil, https://www.dco.uscg.mil/ Portals/9/DCO%20Documents/5p/CG-5PC/INV/docs/documents/MSIB-10-20_Novel_COVID-19_ Drug-Testing_Requirements.pdf?ver=2020-03-27-144839-417
  7. New York Times, 6/21/1952, “CRASH SINKS BOAT; HERO CAPTAIN LOST; Skipper Leaps Into Sea Lest He Crowd Dory After Trawler, Tanker Collide–12 Saved”, Page 10
  8. Gloucester Daily Times, 4/22/1989, “A Reunion Aboard Adventure” by Richard Salit, Page 1
  9. Ibid
  10. Gloucester Daily Times, 1/4/1980, “Remember the Seafreeze? The Factory Ship May Make a Come-back” by Bill Cahill
  11. Defence Media, “Yakutat, 1948 (WHEC 380),” United States Coast Guard, https://www.history.uscg.mil/Browse-by-Topic/Assets/Water/All/Article/2199141/yakutat-1948-whec-380/A
  12. Gloucester Daily Times, 1/4/1980, “Remember the Seafreeze? The Factory Ship May Make a Comeback” by Bill Cahill

Additional Sources

Family oral history; interviews with family members

Bluenose II, Nova Scotia Communities, Culture and Heritage, 2023,https://bluenose.novascotia.ca/about

“The Graveyard of Ships,”Techno Ocean: Massachusetts Wrecks, Thunder Chold, 2007,http://thethunderchild.com/TechnoOcean/Wrecks/UnitedStates/Massachusetts.html

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Danielle O’Connor has lived in Gloucester her entire life and she raised her family here. She was an ELA teacher who taught at the former St. Ann School in Gloucester, and St. Mary School and The Saints Academy in Beverly.

AUTHOR’S ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

My deep love of my grandparents and the love they had for Gloucester inspired me to share the story of mygrandfather. A special thanks to my aunts, Judith Neves and France Smiledge, my mother, Sherrill Beaulieu,who kept many newspaper articles written about my grandfather, and my cousin Norman Neves who not onlyshared stories I didn’t fully know, but also shared with our grandfather a great love of fishing and the ocean.

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