About Wetherbee

H.D. Wetherbee came to Block Island during the Summer of 1948.  He was 46 and an established artist living in New York's Greenwich Village.  His principal talent was cutting silhouettes free-hand for newspapers, in department stores and at state fairs.  He also painted murals, seascapes and portraits.


While on Block Island, Wetherbee created more then forty paintings and murals at the Highview Hotel depicting Island Life and swordfishing during the late 1940s.  Wetherbee's Block Island, published by GaelForce Press, is about those paintings.  The book and reproductions of Wetherbee's Block Island artwork are available from GaelForce Press.


Wetherbee was born in Lowell, Mass., on June 11, 1902.  He was a true Yankee: his ancestors were descendants of John Wetherbee who emigrated from England around 1675 and died in Stowe, Mass, in 1711.


Wetherbee graduated from Durfee High School in Fall River Mass. in 1920 and spent two years at Williams College and one year at Harvard.


Holden Durfee Wetherbee, 1902-1976

Wetherbee was a member of the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park in lower Manhattan and the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit where he was a frequent exhibitor.  He was also a member of the Newport Art Association  and the Provincetown Art Association where he exhibited his painting and silhouettes.


Wetherbee died in Greenwich Village on March 4, 1976 at age 73.  The Wonder Ring - A Fantasy in Silhouette, a wordless children's tale told entirely with silhouettes cut by Wetherbee, was published two years after he died.  In 2000, the Art Association of Newport published Newportraits comprising portraits of Newport's rich and famous including a series of five silhouettes cut by Wetherbee in 1930.   The Providence Sunday Journal, in August of the same year published a series of Wetherbee silhouettes of Newport Summer residents.


About Swordfishing

In the 1600s, Block Island was occupied by approximately a thousand Manissean Indians. They called the Island "Manisses" which means "Little God's Island." The Manisseans lived off the land and took from the sea; they opened the Great Salt Pond to the ocean so they could sail their canoes through the breach to catch fish.  In 1636, the Massachusetts Bay Colony took the Island from the Manisseans to punish them for killing an English trader, Captain John Oldham.  A 1658 land grant of the Island by the Bay Colony was sold in 1660 to sixteen colonialists who settled the Island.  In April, 1661 Thomas Terry sailed with a group of settlers from Taunton, Massachusetts for Block Island.  They landed at Cow Cove and swam their cattle ashore.  The Settlers' Rock Monument at the North End of Block Island marks the location where they landed.  In 1663 Roger Williams and John Clark obtained a charter for Rhode Island, which included Block Island, from Charles II and the Island was incorporated in 1672 as the Town of New Shoreham.


Tristram Dodge, a fisherman who emigrated from England to Newfoundland, is listed as one of eighteen Block Island land owners in 1664.  Legend has it that he and the native Manissean fishermen showed the early Island settlers, mostly farmers, how to fish.  They soon learned to catch cod, pollock, mackerel, striped bass, tautog and other species with nets, baited hooks and artificial lures.

 
By the 1800s, and perhaps earlier, swordfish was recognized as an important food fish and a commercial fishery grew up along the Northeast Coast using a different technique, one borrowed from the whaling fleets - harpooning.


Swordfish are large, migratory billfish with a streamlined body, a long flattened swordlike bill four or more feet in length and an aggressive reputation. 


Before deep drifting long lines of baited hooks replaced harpooning in the late 1950s, resulting in a catch of younger, smaller fish, harpooned  swordfish averaged between 200 and 300 pounds in weight with some exceeding 600 and even 700 pounds.  The world record swordfish weighed 1182 pounds and was caught off Chilean Coast with rod and reel in 1953.  From 1965 to 1980, the SUJO based in Snug Harbor, RI, caught twenty-three swordfish trolling with rod and reel generally South of the Island.  A 392 pound swordfish was taken on rod and reel off Nantucket in 1976.  Swordfish are rarely  


Swordfish migrate up and down the Continental Shelf following the warm water of the Gulf Stream.  To feed, they chase migrating bait fish into the colder waters of Block Island Sound and elsewhere.  During the 1930s, bait fish such as mackerel and menhaden were plentiful around Block Island, and so were swordfish; at times they could be seen finning off of Crescent Beach.


Heavy feeding in colder water is thought to induce a lethargic stupor causing  swordfish to wallow in the warmer surface water while digesting their food.  This exposes the fish’s dorsal and upper tail fins which can be spotted by lookouts on boats roaming the fishing grounds.  Half-napping swordfish were fairly oblivious to boat noise and were relatively easy prey for harpoon boats.


Because swordfish were abundant and the fishing grounds close by, it was natural for a swordfishing fleet to build up on Block Island.  Before the Great 1938 Hurricane, there were about a hundred harpoon boats, often called “stick boats,” fishing for swordfish from Block Island.  When Wetherbee came to the Island in 1948, the fleet, greatly damaged and destroyed in 1938, had been repaired and rebuilt and eventually reached about sixty in number.  Wetherbee captured and preserved in his paintings an era of Block Island swordfishing that would fade away by the end of the 1950s. 


"A Tale of Two Artists" by Lisa Stiepock of the Block Island Times
"The wonders of Wetherbee" by Robert Whitcomb of the Providence Journal