Small Fish House a Whale of an Issue

Rebuilt Structure Subject of Two Town Meeting Articles

By Patrick Cronin

Seacoast Sunday, March 2, 2008

[The following article is courtesy of Seacoast Sunday and Seacoast Online.]
Dave Cropper kneels inside his renovated commercial fish shack.
[Photo by Scott Yates]

HAMPTON -- All Dave Cropper wanted to do was restore a fish house in Ruth G. Stimson [Seashore] Park that his great grandfather used to fish in with 'Bull' Doggett back in the 1940s.

The Hampton resident and owner of the Cinnamon Rainbows surf shop purchased the house at the request of Barbara Doggett in 2003.

"She called me up and asked if I would be interested in taking it over," said Cropper.

Doggett worried about its deteriorating condition, and figured that since his shop was across the street he might be interested in preserving its legacy.

"I thought it would be a cool project to take on, especially since my great grandfather used to fish there," said Cropper.

But when he tore down the weathered structure because it could not be salvaged and rebuilt a replica in its place, it resurrected an old battle in town. Several residents argued the historic structure was lost forever and that Cropper didn't even have the right to own the fish house because he was not a commercial fisherman.

And now voters in March will decide whether his replica fish house will be able to remain on town property.

Dave Cropper stands outside his renovated commercial fish shack in
Ruth G. Stimson Seashore Park in Hampton.
[Photo by Scott Yates]

A controversy resurrected

Peter Curtis' grandfather owned a fish house at the same area but was forced to tear it down by the town. He said the Doggett Fish House was one of 13 fish houses that stood along North Beach from 1805 to 1950. The houses were originally used to house the gear of commercial fishermen. But over the years, Curtis said, some of the houses were converted into summer cottages, much to the anger of some residents in town.

"To say it was jealousy would be more correct than anything," said Curtis.

The dispute took center stage at a 1950 Town Meeting where residents voted the houses were on town property and had to be removed within six months unless they were used for fishing purposes. That vote made its way into the courts only to be resolved in 1959 by a state Supreme Court ruling which basically backed up the original vote of the town.

Only two houses -- one owned by Doggett and another owned by Harold Mace -- were allowed to stay because they were still being used for fishing. All the others were torn down and the wood was used for a big bonfire on the beach.

"It was hard because my family was there for 40 to 50 years," said Curtis. "It was almost like a death because they used that fish house and had a lot of fun times down there."

Destroy the fish house

Curtis said he had no choice but to stand up for his family and ask selectmen to force Cropper to tear down the fish house.

"The court ruling is clear," said Curtis. "And if they allow the building to remain, what stops other families who lost their fish houses from coming forward to rebuild what they originally had?"

Karen Current also came forward because her father owned two fish houses that were torn down.

"I actually lived in the fish house," said Current. "When the whole thing went to the court battle, it was crushing because there was nothing we could do."

Selectmen agreed something had to be done. But instead of forcing Cropper to tear down the fish house they decided to let voters make the decision at the March 11 election.

Save the fish house

Cropper said he had no idea he was not allowed to own the fish house because he wasn't a commercial fisherman.

The first time he heard about the case was when Judy Curtis, the wife of Peter, wrote a letter to the editor that appeared in Hampton Union.

"I feel bad for the Curtises," said Cropper. "I think the people who lived in the fish houses back in the day were wronged by the town. But I feel like I've been put in the middle of all this."

Cropper said he did everything he was supposed to do to get the project off the ground, including meeting with the town and getting all necessary permits. The one mistake he did make, however, was that he demolished the structure without getting a demolition permit from the Heritage Commission.

But commissioners have since given their blessing by voting that they are in favor of allowing the replica fish shack to remain on town property.

Heritage Commission member Fred Rice said the new fish house should stay intact because it represents an important part of Hampton's history. The fish houses were once a symbol of the town's thriving fishing industry.

"If he had come to us at that time and said he was going to demolish the old fish house, he would have gotten a no," said Rice. "But since he's already done it, and even though it's not exact, it does preserve the flavor of it."

Voters to decide

There will be two warrant articles going before voters on March 11 to clear up the controversy regarding Cropper's fish house.

The first one, sponsored by selectmen, asks the town to purchase the structure from Cropper.

"I want the town to own it," said Cropper. "I would like to see it become a fishing museum or something."

But just in case voters don't want to spend $20,000 for the fish house, Cropper said he put forth another warrant article. The article would allow him to retain ownership of the fish house even though he's not a commercial fisherman. Upon his death, he would donate it to the town.

Curtis said he could live with the town purchasing it, but does not want to see Cropper own it.

Current would like to see the replica fish house removed.

Despite the controversy, Cropper says, "I have no regrets about restoring the fish house. My grandfather fished in that shack and I wanted it to be there for future generations."