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How Ed Stolarz Built Cofish into a Maritime Innovator

Cofish Made Nets and Foul Weather Gear for the International Fishing Industry

Interview by KEN SIMON

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Edward Stolarz in front of his net making machines.

In 1998, Ken Simon interviewed Edward Stolarz for the SimonPure documentary Connecticut & the Sea. Stolarz owned Cofish International, an East Haddam fishnet manufacturer that had been founded in the late 1880ís.

 Cofishís net-making business finally succumbed to international competition in the late 1970ís. Luckily for Stolarz, he had diversified in the 1950ís, when he started selling foul weather gear to fishermen. This well-timed diversification led to continued success for his company.

After Stolarzís death in 2004, the rights to the Cofish line of gear were sold to a North Carolina company, which continues to distribute it worldwide.

Ken Simon: What does Cofish stand for?

Ed Stolarz: That's an acronym for commercial fishing. The company was known previously as Joseph S. Shane, Incorporated, Before that it was John S. Brooks and we go all the way back to the Squire -- Mr. Squire, who invented the Yankee Gill Net Machine.

Q. How did this company get started in the net making business?

 

Ken Simon: What does Cofish stand for?

Ed Stolarz: That's an acronym for commercial fishing. The company was known previously as Joseph S. Shane, Incorporated, Before that it was John S. Brooks and we go all the way back to the Squire -- Mr. Squire, who invented the Yankee Gill Net Machine.

Q. How did this company get started in the net making business?

A. Wilbur Squire, as I understand, invented or began to invent the Yankee gill net machine in 1872 in the cow pasture across the street. And while he was developing the idea of a Yankee gill net machine rather than the old Zang machines, he made the first machine out of wood to make sure it would work right.

And then he came across the street here in 1883 and put up this building for the sole purpose of manufacturing fish netting. We did not have electricity at that time. If you look at the building it's full of windows so that they could take advantage of daylight. And the machines were put up on the second floor so that they would be less affected by humidity and environmental conditions.

Closeup of knots tied by the Cofish machines.

Q. What is a gill net?

A. A gill net is a net that is used to entangle a fish. As he tries to penetrate the net, the netting gets caught behind his gills and, therefore, the fish cannot go forward or backwards and because it's behind his gills and he can't close the gills, he drowns and that's the way they're harvested. But it's a very particular netting; we would make netting that was to within 1/64th of an inch to the proper size to catch a fish. So it was a very selective way of gathering fish and it wasn't and it wasn't very expensive.

Q. Before Mr. Squire invented a way to machine these nets, how were these nets made?

A. Back in the 1880's, 1890's, 1900's, there were several fish netting factories and many twine factories. And the reason we're talking about the Yankee gill netting machine is that the normal netting --  which were trap nets, purse seines and trawls -- the knots ran this way which were very, very bulky and with the Yankee gill net the knots ran this way so that they could get behind the gills much easier.

And the machines were not only very versatile, they were very fast. We could change a machine in less than one or two hours from one mesh size to another mesh size and depth and the machine could tie 3,000 knots per minute.

The Cofish factory in 1998.

Q. How dominant were East Haddam and Moodus in  the net making industry?

A. East Haddam was the cradle to the fish netting and twine industry. Most of the netting that was made in that period in the United States was made in this area. There was some netting made in Baltimore and some in Philadelphia but we were the big town -- Moodus and East Haddam.

Q. How important was this industry to the economy of the town?

A. Oh, it had a tremendous effect. Just from the point of this particular venture they employed about 25 people per year during the 30ís, 40ís and 50ís. When I took over we got up to 45 and 50 people. And most of our help would be classified as secondary help, housewives and women and so on and so forth. Most of them lived very close to the factory and, therefore, could take care of their family responsibilities as well as making extra money to supplement the family income.

Cofish workers in 1930.

As a matter of fact four of the houses within viewing of this building is where our people lived. Many of them -- of the 25 there were about 8 that never married -- so it was a sole means of support and there were two or three that had been widowed and it was not only a job for them but a way of life. They had a particular sense of dedication to their product and their fellow workers. We had no time clocks. We had very few people on piecework.

Each machine had a production tag stating the machine that the netting was made on, the operator of the machine and then a third place for the inspector of the netting, and this was all disciplined and even I signed the worksheets saying this is how much netting we're sending out and charge them for that, so there was discipline all the way through and there was a lot of pride in what we did.

Q. Was there a lot of competition in town among the net makers for business?

A. Not with us because most of them had moved in the middle or late 30ís to other areas and maybe even sooner.

These spools contained twine or plastic used to make the nets..

Q. So you sold the nets internationally?

A. Yes, we did. Well, right after World War II we sold in Africa and it was interesting because it went over by freighter, then it went by railroad and then by ox cart.

There was such a demand in the revolutionary method of using nylon synthetic netting as compared to the old fashion organic materials because we could have one-third the size and therefore one-third the noise and three times the effectiveness and the nets never rotted.

So in effect, the reason we were able to have an international exposure and demand was because the knot to hold nylon netting in place was invented here and in East Hampton around 1948, '49, in that era. And instead of having to have three nets for a fisherman, now they could have one net. And the reason they had three nets is that they were hanging one to the lines, they were fishing one, and they were repairing the third.

Whereas with the nylon netting you didn't have to dry it or anything, you just put it overboard and fished it and it was much stronger than the others so we didn't have as much fatigue and deterioration. It revolutionized the fish netting industry.

Q. And you made nylon nets here?

A. Yes we did. Some of the first.

Q. So the machines were adaptable to nylon thread?

Machine platens rolled the mesh nets into rolls.

A. We had to change what we call a button. We had to put in an extra half knot to lock the nylon in place because nylon has a memory, it has a high coefficient of elasticity, 27 percent, and when you tied it into a knot eventually it would want to go back to a straight line. So that knot would blossom out and it would slip until we developed ways of overcoming that with the knot and with different chemicals that we used to shrink the knots.

Q. How did you sell these nets?

A. Well, actually, it was a combination of many things. You have to keep in mind that fish netting was a tool for the fisherman and therefore he wanted the best available at the best price. Now, in order to understand what he was getting, personalities became involved. Mr. Shea would travel on the road, Mr. Brooks would travel on the road. And I traveled on the road. And we sat with these fellows, we talked with them, we went fishing with them to understand how they use the nets and what we could do in our production techniques to make the netting better.

A. And we would have a few salesman but basically there was a lot of personal influence in the sale of the netting. And, of course, if they caught fish with your net they said they were good fishermen. If they didn't catch any fish with your net, they said they had a lousy piece of netting.

Q. Why did you close up shop?

A. The price of raw materials manufactured in the United States cost so much more money or as much money as the finished product that we were getting from the Far East and it was just a point of no return. I was working seven days a week and losing money at it. Saturdays and Sundays I'd come in here with my mechanic and we would repair or rebuild these machines because we couldn't afford to build new ones, and all parts were made right here. There was minimum overhead.

Now, the reasons the netting was cheaper from the Far East because it was being supported by their governments and the thing is not that they wanted to sell the netting, they wanted to be in control of food. So they would go around the world and get these orders for three times their capacity and as we came closer to delivery dates they would gladly go up 10 percent on their on their sales price. And then eventually when that was saturated, they just shut off the rest of the world. And the Asians did have the netting and they went out and caught the fish. So there was more to it than just fish netting.

Q. When did you stop making nets?

A. I turned off my machines April 1st, 1979.

Q. Were you the last net maker in town?

A. I was one of the last makers of gill netting in the United States. There was one, only one other left.

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A Moodus Mill Tour

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Red Mill Dam
Water power for the mills.

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Neptune Twine
1898 Check
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A Mill Sales Tool

The world's best twine.

  

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