Superstorm Sandy may have washed away the last vestiges of the Doxsee family’s century-and-a-half old Long Island fishing and seafood-processing operation. But Robert Doxsee Jr. is determined that the pioneering work done by him and three generations of his ancestors won’t be forgotten.
The Doxsees have been legends in the Long Island maritime community since the Civil War. But when the 2012 tropical storm wrecked the company’s dock and processing shed on the shore of Point Lookout, it severed the family connection to working on the water.
So while Bob Doxsee continues to live in a spacious home on what was once company land on the south side of Reynolds Channel, he never sets foot on a boat.
But at 85, Doxsee is hardly inactive. He has been stepping up his schedule of lectures at museums and libraries around the region to keep the family’s seafood story alive.
That story begins in 1865. James Harvey Doxsee was running his family’s Islip farm, which included a cannery that processed corn, tomatoes and other vegetables. Family lore has it – but Bob Doxsee doubts it – that two men whose names have been lost rented a cannery from James Harvey on the Great South Bay waterfront in Islip and attempted to can seafood.
“They failed and couldn’t preserve it,” Doxsee said. “Their cans would go bad.” So James H. and brother-in-law Selah Whitman took over the operation after a year. “He had some help and it took some time but he solved the problem of the spoilage. He was a pioneer in that respect.”
And so J.H. Doxsee & Sons became the first Long Island company to can hard-shell clams and bottle clam juice. In 1872, the firm also began to can what it dubbed “American Lunch Fish;” that was bunker bait fish processed to compete with sardines after James Harvey figured out a way to make the bones dissolve. While the Islip cannery closed in 1905, two historical markers commemorate it near the town dock.
James’ oldest son, Henry, set up an operation in Ocracoke, N.C., in 1900, when the Great South Bay harvests dwindled. That branch of Doxsees stayed there about a decade before Henry’s son James Harvey II moved farther south to Marco Island, Florida. Canning their continued until 1948. The southern branch of the family business was sold several times. What’s left is now part of the Bumblebee line, which sometimes includes Doxsee clam juice produced at facilities in Cape May, New Jersey.
While Henry went south, another of James H.’s sons, John C., created Deep Sea Fish Company and began setting fish traps from a fishing camp where the Fire Island Coast Guard station is now situated. The company published brochures that claimed that clam juice would cure indigestion, dyspepsia, disordered stomach, constipation and hangovers and provided recipes for its use.
John relocated the operation to Meadow Island in the bay near Jones Inlet in 1919. His sons, Robert L. (Bob Doxsee Jr.’s father) and Spencer, transferred the business to Reynolds Channel in Point Lookout in 1933. They renamed it Bright Eye Fish Company because bright eyes are the hallmark of fresh fish. Their traps off Jones Beach and Point Lookout caught albacore, bonito, mackerel, butterfish, porgies, bluefish, fluke and squid.
When the Doxsees arrived, there was no community of Point Lookout. They set up a tent and then built a little cottage and the dock. The processing plant came later. The operation included an in-water aquarium in Reynolds Channel. “We had sharks in there, a great big sea turtle, stingrays,” Bob recalled.
With a business dependent on Mother Nature, setbacks were inevitable. The great hurricane of 1938 and another in 1944 destroyed the family’s fish traps. A month before the second storm, the company had begun to shift to dredging for surf clams – used primarily for fried clam strips — while also netting finfish. But after the second hurricane, the Doxsees gave up on traps entirely and switched exclusively to dredging for clams.
At first, the clams were raked out of the bottom by steel “dry” dredges. Later the company switched to hydraulic dredges. “We started out with Briggs & Stratton motors and little tiny pumps,” Bob recalled.
During World War II – the peak era for the business – the company owned five boats while buying catch from 17 independents fishermen. Doxsee employed about 100 – half on the boats and the rest shucking clams and packaging them at the processing facility in Point Lookout.
Initially the clams shucked in Point Lookout were shipped to the F.H. Snow Canning Co. in Maine. About 1960, Doxsee began shipping frozen chopped clams packed in half-gallon milk cartons all around the country.
Bob’s father, Robert L. Doxsee, who served as mayor of Freeport in the late 1940s and died in 1967, turned over what was then called Long Island Sea Clam Company to his son about 1960.
Bob had grown up with the company. He spent time around the boats and processing plant “as far back as I can remember. When I was too little to help, I would hang over the rail and watch the fish swimming around.” As he matured, “I did everything” on the boats and in the plant. He went to work full-time for the company after high school.
Mother Nature delivered another setback in 1975 when a line squall sank a company boat called Doxsee Girls and its crew of four men was lost off the Virginia coast. “That’s painful,” Bob said, calling it the worst incident in the company’s history “by far.”
The surf clams that arrived at the Point Lookout processing plant were heated in a steamer until the shells opened and their bellies fell out. Then the shells were dumped into a concentrated brine solution that made all the remaining meat rise to the surface. In the early years of this century, the daily catch processed could be up to 400 bushels, which would yield up to 7,000 pounds of clam meat. That would be quickly processed into a variety of clam products shipped out in cardboard milk cartons bearing a logo proclaiming their Long Island origin.
The factory, decorated with cannonballs and other artifacts dredged up by the boats and old photographs of Doxsee workers, also had a unique retail sideline. Customers could help themselves to packages of clams from two freezers in the lobby with payment through a slot in the wall on the honor system.
In 2008, with catches and profitability diminishing, Bob made a dramatic change: he ended the wholesale operation and demolished the processing plant. He did, however, continue to sell frozen products retail out of a shed next door.
Closing the main plant, Bob said, was the result of several factors. “It was time. I was old. The plant was old. The business was no longer viable.” Increased regulations to protect the marine life that was left was part of the equation. “We need regulations,” he said, although he has not always been happy with the regulators.
He sold the firm’s remaining two boats — the 75-foot Day Star and 58-foot Bright Eye IV— in 2010 and then bought shucked clams from other processors.
Doxsee Sea Clam Company continued in that reduced format for two years until Sandy. “My dock was totally destroyed, but I didn’t it need anymore” because he had sold his boats, Bob said. “I was so lucky.” But he wasn’t as lucky with the small processing shed; it was knocked off its foundation and had to be demolished. That was the final act of the Doxsee family business.
Nancy Solomon, executive director of Port Washington-based Long Island Traditions, which chronicles and preserves maritime history, said “the history of harvesting shellfish by European settlers can be traced to the Doxsee family, among many other settling families. James H. Doxsee was perhaps one of the first to recognize that clamming could be become a major industry for Long Islanders, creating hundreds of jobs. Bob is looked upon as one of the last authorities on western Long Island’s fishing heritage, and the last of a generation that saw fishing as a way of life, rather than a job.”
The company had owned 360 feet of shoreline but Bob in 2004 built a large pale green shingled house on part of it that he shares with his wife of 60 years, Pat. It’s decorated tastefully. The only indications of the family business are a painting of one of the Doxsee boats and a framed poster of James Henry on the walls of Bob’s third-floor office.
The couple’s two daughters, now in their 50s, worked for the seafood operation part-time. Beth lives in Vancouver where she retired after serving as captain of tall ships including the Hudson River sloop Clearwater and Corwith Cramer. Jennifer lives in Long Beach and runs a marketing firm. She has two sons.
After Sandy, Bob sold the remaining property. Four other houses have been built and a fifth is pending.
“I never really had time” for recreational fishing or boating when he was working six and a half days a week, Doxsee said in his gravelly voice whose severity is offset by flashes of wry humor. And now that he has the time to relax on the water, he’s just not interested after being tied to the sea for so long.
But Doxee has increasingly enjoyed talking publicly about that maritime life and the history of his family. He’s been presenting PowerPoint lectures at libraries and museums including Mystic Seaport in Connecticut “for quite some time. But it’s only been the last few years that I’ve got serious about it.
“It’s Long Island history and I enjoy it,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with not letting the brain cells wither.”