If you’re a long-time resident of Plymouth, you almost certainly remember Mayflower Seafoods on the Plymouth waterfront. For me the restaurant evokes both fond memories of a now deceased business and some not-so-fond childhood memories of being forced to eat fish, whether I wanted to or not.

My parents were cafeteria Catholics; they picked what they wanted to adhere to. And one of the tenets of their belief was observing Lent, which meant, for me, a Friday trip with my mother after school to Mayflower Seafoods for the required fish dinner.

My grandfather, William Pavesi (1901-1959), was friends with Mayflower Seafoods owner Gordon Howland (1913-1993), so of course we couldn’t shop anywhere else for seafood. Bill also worked for Gordon at one point in his life. I never knew how Bill and Gordon came to be friends, but it’s no surprise; my grandfather was a jack of all trades and his career included boat building, fine furniture making, painting, photography, musician for the Plymouth Philharmonic Orchestra, liquor sales, and carpentry.

Perhaps he met Gordon through his father and uncle, Carrold and Ashton Howland. Carrold and Ashton were famed Plymouth architects and homebuilders at the beginning of the 20th century. Regardless of how they knew each other, their friendship was the anguish of my childhood during Lent.

When mom would get fish on Fridays, it was almost always Gordon that would wait on her (and my grandmother). As a result, it was not uncommon for Gordon to give my mom the best piece of haddock or cod, add a few more scallops after the slip was printed or sometimes “forget” to charge my mother. As I got older, my response was usually the same:

“I’m not eating that.”

Fast forward to the present and I am converting my grandfather’s color slides to digital images. Among them is a photo of Mayflower Seafoods and Marine supply from the 1950s. I posted the photo on Facebook and it went viral among Plymouth folks.

One of the responses was from Rachel Dunbar, Gordon Howland’s granddaughter. A series of conversations ensued, and we planned to get together for coffee to finally meet in person. In addition, Karen Howland, Gordon’s daughter, and Karen Rogers, a former employee of Mayflower Seafoods, joined us for over an hour of conversation that ended all too quickly. But in that short time, I learned much about Gordon’s life.

Gordon began working alongside his father and uncle in the building trades. A fall off of a roof ended his building career, along with his potential future as a professional violinist (he was not unhappy to see both end). Turning to the sea, and rekindling the lobstering skills he had learned as a six-year-old from Russ Harlow, Gordon entered the maritime world. He served as a sea captain for the United Fruit Company and led vessels to France, South America and the Pacific.

It’s little weathered, but the boat is still atop the building that is now home to Tavern on the Wharf. Credit: (Photo by Mark Pothier)

After World War II, Gordon had the idea for Mayflower Seafoods, securing a location at the foot of South Park Avenue at the rotary and began his legendary business. The business included a fish market that was open to the public as well as a wholesale fish business that delivered to restaurants.  Accompanied by his wife, Madeline, Gordon began supplying fish and lobsters to restaurants on the South Shore and Cape Cod. Madeline would take orders off a crude answering machine at 4 a.m. Trucks would be loaded and be on the road before dawn.

 Cue my grandfather. I knew he had worked for Gordon but up until now his role was a mystery to me. Karen Howland told me he most likely had driven one of the trucks. Completing the circle, my mom told me that he spent lots of time working on the Cape for Gordon.

A thriving business meant expansion. The first expansion was a building adjacent to the fish market, towards the Town pier. Mayflower Marine was launched to provide all things marine to commercial fishermen and amateur anglers. And in the early 1960s the restaurant was born along Water Street. Gordon created one of the first self-service restaurants in the area. You would place your order at a counter and were given a number. When the food was ready your number was called and you retrieved your food. Commonplace today, it was a new concept for Plymouth. The main feature in the restaurant was a large wooden barrel resting in a cradle on its side in the middle of the space. Diners were able to get drinking water provided from a deep artesian well piped into the barrel. Much to my annoyance, my younger brother made numerous trips to the barrel. I thought he was supposed to behave as if we were out to a fancy dinner. I then became an annoyance to my parents when they chose to linger with cigarettes and coffee.

As the business grew, Gordon moved out of the marine supply business and relocated the fish market to the bigger space. The old fish market was converted to a waitress-style eatery named the Seaport Room. The memories of the porthole windows and the leather covered half-round banquettes still linger.

The former home of the Mayflower Seafoods complex. Credit: (Photo by Mark Pothier)

The local Mayflower Seafoods was a part of my childhood. What I didn’t know was that the Howlands were building it into a far-reaching business. In the 1970s and ’80s, lobsters were being shipped nationwide and globally. Delta Airlines became the carrier of the products. A second location was opened in Maine. The family introduced the Lobster Festival weekend on the Plymouth waterfront. 

But by the end of the 1980s business models changed and consumer tastes shifted. The business was put up for sale and by the early ’90s everything had been sold. After 50 years, a landmark business in Plymouth was shuttered.

Although the business was gone, Gordon Howland’s legacy in Plymouth was firmly cemented. In addition to his business, Howland’s philanthropic endeavors also made a mark in Plymouth.  Publicly, Howland spoke before Congress in the 1950s about dangerous conditions on the Town Wharf and pushed for federal funds for its repair. In the 1970s he donated a large swath of land for the YMCA/PCRC pool on State Road adjacent to the Davis curve.

Privately, he was quick to contribute to local charities, but insisted that his donation remain anonymous. Countless baseball teams, historic societies, and charities around Plymouth benefitted from Gordon’s generosity. His last gift was the donation of his brain to help future researchers help develop a cure for his fatal condition of Pick’s disease, a type of frontotemporal dementia. His donation is now helping patients like Bruce Willis.

“But the boat, Bill? What about the boat on the roof?” Everybody asked Gordon that question. It was certainly a topic that came up during my conservation with Gordon’s family. Many stories abound: the fisherman was modeled after certain folks, he had multiple names, and on and on. The truth is the boat and the fisherman were a simple advertising gimmick. The fisherman didn’t have a name. The biggest argument was over what name to put on the engine at the back of the dory. Mayflower Marine sold both Johnson and Mercury motors. In the end, one side was painted with Johnson, the other with Mercury.

I can’t help but stop and think of my mom, Gordon Howland, and everything Mayflower Seafoods when I drive by Tavern on the Wharf, which now operates out of the building (with the boat on the roof).The business may be gone and my distaste for seafood is (mostly) gone, too, but my memories of those days of Lenten Friday meals never will be.

Bill Fornaciari, a lifelong resident of Plymouth, is the owner of BF Architects in Plymouth. His firm specializes in residential work and historic preservation. Have a comment, question or idea for this column? Email Bill at billfornaciari@gmail.com.

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