Bernard A. Drew: Troubles plagued the fish commish



Usually there are good cross-the-border relations between Massachusetts and Connecticut. Though one unusual issue arose in 1893 over the actions of Richard E. Follett, a member of the Connecticut Fish Commission.

Being a fish commissioner mostly required attendance at meetings. Follett, who hailed from Meriden, had a day job. He tended the fish hatchery of Charles Barnum of Lime Rock, a section of Salisbury. Barnum was one of the prominent ironmaking Barnums, and in a few years would become a Connecticut state senator.


Follett got in deep water in August 1893 when he and his helper Michael McDonough were spotted trying to net some 300 trout in Lee Brook (today called Willard Brook) in Sheffield, not far from the Shays’ Rebellion marker. Netting was taboo. Charges were filed.

More than 100 people crowded into a small courtroom in Great Barrington in February 1894 to hear testimony about and by the two men, who had taken the living fish away in cans.

Mary Morrison said she owned the land from which Follett and McDonough had fished. She said Follett had the previous July sought to lease use of the land from her. She told him it was leased to someone else.

"Follett then said that the stream would not be worth much when he got through with it," reported the New Haven Register for Feb. 10, 1894. "Follett and an assistant held the net between the banks of the river while McDonough drove along the team which carried the cans. The fish were taken to the hatchery established by Follett and others on the Spurr farm [now Berkshire School] last year."

Follett’s lawyer, H.C. Joyner, said the men were propagating and tending fish that belonged to Barnum. Follett, McDonough and James Davis testified "they had discovered a fungus growth on the trout in their hatchery. In order to save their fish and have them recuperate they let them into the Lee Brook about Sept. 1. They made an effort to recover them with a net, but only secured 150 of their fish. While the fish were in the Lee Brook they were fed daily on chopped liver."

Barnum’s fish were intended to restock Connecticut streams. But Follett’s fellow Connecticut Fish Commission members censured him for his unorthodox and illegal actions.

Sheffielders were already chafing at the stream having been posted a few years earlier, "the result of which the best trout brook in town is closed to the public. Someone will have a bonanza in a few years," the Berkshire Courier said July 8, 1885.

Follett was found guilty and was fined. He appealed. The New York Times for Feb. 7, 1895, said a higher court upheld the fine, simply by the fact of the defendant’s own testimony about the taking of 60 fish. "On this basis he might have been fined $36,000," the newspaper said, noting the maximum levy allowed per fish.

Awaiting the outcome of his court troubles, Follett had other fish to fry. Romantic fish. While staying at the Conway boarding house in Sheffield, he’d fallen in love with the hotelkeeper’s 15-year-old daughter, May. Conway House was the then-name for the Hotel Miller, situated next to the stone store and railroad depot in Sheffield Center. It was operated by James E. Conway.

Alerted by May’s mother, Follett and the young woman eloped in April 1894.

"Follett has been attentive to the girl some time and her mother favored the match, while Conway objected. Last week Mrs. Conway left for New York with May, and later Follett followed them. Saturday evening Follett and May were married," the Register said May 2, 1894. "Mr. Conway is nearly broken-hearted and will sell his hotel and all other property at auction and leave Sheffield."


Follett’s term as fish commissioner ended. In 1897, however, he was still in pursuit of $829.50 for "hatching and taking care of fish eggs from February 12, 1893, to January 26, 1894, and $118.42 as balance of unpaid salary for services as Fish Commissioner," according to a Register story March 6, 1897.

I haven’t found what happened to Follett after that.

But interestingly, young Charles Little of Sheffield in March 1900 took a 2-pound 9-ounce brook trout in Willard Brook. Was it an offspring of the Follett fiasco?

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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