Pioneers of Menard & Mason Counties
Including Personal Reminiscens of Abraham Lincoln & Peter Cartwright
By T.G. Onstot, 1902

Fish at Salem Dam

Page 195

Away back in the "thirties," before any distilleries were built on the Sangamon river at Springfield or Decatur, and before the sewerage fro those cities was turned into the river; there was an abundance of fish in the stream. In the spring bass, sunfish, catfish, sturgeon, buffalo and suckers would start up the stream and would meet no impediment till they came to the dam at Salem mill. When the river was high they would go above and stock up the river a hundred miles further on. In the fall they would come down and run into the Illinois and Missouri.

At times there was good seining below the mill. I have seen George Spears and Jim Clemens, with Spears' Negro Jim, come down to the mill and seine all night and catch all they wanted. In the spring of the year the fish would crowd up below the mill after the water was shut off the big turbine wheel. They would be so thick that I have gigged many of them by just jabbing the gig in the water.

Among the expert fisherman of that day were Jack Kelso and Riley Hendricks. Jack always fished with a hook and would make a good catch when other people couldn't get a bite. He would put a bait on his hook and then spit on it. Then all the others who were fishing would spit on their bait and would occasionally get a small fish, while Jack would fill his basket with black perch, weighing from two to six pounds, and then with twenty-five pounds of fine fish would walk down to Petersburg and sell them.

Riley Hendricks always gigged his fish. He was an expert at the business. Below the mill, where the water was boiling from the wheel, the fish would be shooting and darting about. Riley, with almost unerring aim, would let the gig fly at a fish and nearly always got it. I saw him strike and get a sturgeon that was five feet long.

But I have not related by fish story. Catfish were plenty in those days. Great big blue catfish. They generally managed to get above the dam in the spring and were crazy to get below in the fall when the water was low. The only way for them to get down was to come through the wheel, which was an upright turbine wooden wheel. The water came through a wooden box about eighteen inches in size, to the wheel. When the gate was raised, and the water turned onto the wheel, some times, the wheel would choke down and stop. The miller would know it was full of fish and would shut off the water and take out the big catfish. At times there would be fifty fish in the wheel. Some would weigh twenty-five pounds and would be bent nearly double to suit the cups on the wheel, and some would be crushed, so tightly were they wedged in the wheel. The fish would all be taken out and thrown in a pile and the neighbors could help themselves. Fish were plenty in those days and I have not stretched my imagination in the above description.

Transcribed by:Brenda Hamilton Johnson



1902 Index

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Illinois Ancestors