“She’s the only woman who stayed with me,” Albert Lester says of his mother, Barbara Jean Grace Lester, whom he recently lost. He may not be married, but Lester is not alone. His tight-knit family all lives within blocks of Round Swamp, the farm the Lesters have been running for centuries. Lester is a clammer and quite the collector.
Before Lester inherited it and moved it across the street, his house, a 300-year-old fishing cottage near East Hampton’s town dock on Gann Road, was moved by horse and carriage up Three Mile Harbor Road to his uncle’s property. It’s where he stores his collection of clam rakes that reaches into the hundreds. “Oh, I don’t know. A lot,” he says.
His favorite rake hangs from a rafter near his desk area, or command central. The eagle claw belonged to his grandfather and was made by blacksmith John Fordham in Sag Harbor. Born in Riverhead in 1831, Fordham moved to Sag Harbor when he was 12 to apprentice under Jedediah Conklin. Expertly forging iron eel spears, harpoons, oyster tongs and blubber spades, his pay soon hit $1 a day.
Eventually he bought out Conklin’s shop on Long Wharf and had a dozen men working for him. He married Harriet Sweezy and raised 10 children at their home on the corner of Madison and Union streets.
As a side business he kept the village street-sprinkling wagon filled with water from a water tank behind his shop. For fun, he played Abraham Lincoln in the village dramatic group; a review noted, “while splitting a rail, he overplayed the part and the axe went right through the stage floor!” He most likely made his own prop.
It’s still possible to find farm or fishing equipment signed by Fordham.
Lester’s eagle claw is a typical scratch rake, which is dragged along the bottom of the bay, until it hits a clam. The clammer knows this because the tines will scratch on the clam, producing a high-pitched noise. The eagle claw differs from rakes today because the overall shape is curved like a claw as well as the individual tines. Modern scratch rakes have shorter, straighter tines attached to a semi-enclosed basket, or suitcase, to catch the clams.
Lester once counted 109 clams with his bull rake, which has a heavy basket and a horizontal handle, relieving pressure from the shoulders.
Antiques may be prized for higher-quality steel, but custom-made rakes are the best. Garden tools, such as pitchforks, can easily be converted to catch clams. Thin tines work best to find hard clams in rocky bottoms, and thicker tines suit soft clams in sandy or muddy bottoms. A long wooden or metal handle is used to reach clams in deeper waters. A short handle, or hook, is used for shoreline digging.
Lester’s sister found a brand-new soft clam hook in their mother’s attic after she passed away. “It still has the price tag from True Hardware on it for $2.40,” he says.
For a gallery of photos of Albie Lester’s clam rake collection, click here.