Fisherman Mike Russo examined a decades-old clamming rake he had brought from the garage into the kitchen. His soot-colored cat George sniffed it warily.
“I paid a lot of bills with that sum’ bitch,” he said with a grin.
Russo said the first rake he bought, he tore the teeth right off when he went quahogging. Ron Ribb took one look at that rake, then at burly Russo, and said he’d fix the problem. He built a new rake that matched the way Russo caught his clams.
Now, close to 30 years later, Russo still goes shellfishing in Orleans and Eastham and still goes to R.A. Ribb Co.
“I have always used Ribb gear,” he said.
On a quiet cul-de-sac in East Harwich, Maggie Ribb flips through a smudged notebook filled with notes and drawings about various shellfishing rakes that her husband Ron made, and that she and her daughters have contributed to as well. They detail a history of handcrafting that extends back more than 40 years.
Behind and beside her, two men transform steel into clam rakes. A masked Shaun Hennion uses a welder and spacer to make the tines beautiful and practical. Grant Grenier, a former Navy welder, bends and smooths tines into a basket shape nearby.
By the door are some ready-to-ship Ribb Rakes, known internationally for their meticulous craftsmanship. Attached to each is a handwritten thank you note from Maggie Ribb.
Sometimes Maggie, her hair straight as iron, is tempted to say it’s all just business.
But it’s not.
“It’s personal,” she admits.
The business began in 1975 when folks saw the rakes that Maggie’s husband Ron, a philosophy major turned shellfisherman, made for himself, and asked if he could make a few more for them. He said sure.
“He did love shellfishing. If that ever came back to what it was he would have closed these doors and gone back out,” Maggie says.
In the beginning, they made three styles of commercial rakes, but after Ron talked to fishermen from Maine to Florida he bought a line of fixtures that broadened the kinds of rakes they could create.
The business was doing well because Ron was meticulous and adept at matching rake to owner. But in 1996 Ron passed away. Maggie had serious doubts about continuing the business.
Then John Linnell, a clammer and long-time customer, came through the door.
“‘You are going to keep going with this,’” Maggie remembers him saying. “‘If you don’t who are the guys going to go to?’”
Maggie, who is trained as an organist and still plays, talked it over with her daughters, then 13 and 15, and they decided to continue.
“I wouldn’t do anything else,” Maggie says. “I love hearing why people fish. Everyone has a story.” And, she says, commercial clammers rely on the business.
“They need the gear to make money and live,” she says. “Keeping that legacy alive was very important to us.”
R.A. Ribb has grown over the years. Maggie has seen competitors on Long Island and in Rhode Island, but they have not survived.
“We’re just slammed with orders,” she says.
She and her daughters, particularly Greta, began branching into different styles of holiday rakes which are now immensely popular. Her other daughter, Kersti, has gotten more involved lately as Greta has two businesses of her own.
There are 19 styles of rakes for various applications, all built from scratch, all starting with steel.
“We weld everything here, we put on the edge ourselves,” Maggie says. “And we take great pride in that.”
Recreational shellfisherman Richard Banks has half a dozen, and counts on Ribb perfectionism.
“If the shellfish are in the rack I know they’re legal (sized),” he says. “I don’t have to worry about it.”
Maggie says about half their customers are recreational, half commercial. And like Ron when he began, she listens to what the commercial shellfishermen want and need.
“You help them out. Get stuff done as fast as you can,” Ribb says. “You can’t make what you think they should have; if they say they want something you make that. There’s no room for discussion.”
Doreen Leggett is the community journalist for the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. Her work appears monthly. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was excerpted from the Fishermen’s Alliance e-magazine, capecodfishermen.org.