R.A. Ribb Company: Pride & Purpose
Maybe you should give yourself more time for clamming…How could you let your permit lapse again?! It’s un-Cape Coddy to live here and not hold a current shellfish license… You bought a fishing rod fourteen years ago when you moved up from New York and the price tag is still on it.
I’m in my truck having a full-blown conversation with myself in the parking lot of the Sports Port on West Main Street in Hyannis. Another florist walks through the front door of the funeral parlor, which happens to be framed in the center of my rear view mirror. “Maybe this is the time to start thinking about fishing…and renewing that license…give yourself more time on the water.”
I had walked into the fishing store several times during the wait. Bill Howard was the man behind the counter—a nice enough guy, but I was beginning to feel uneasy spending so much time in the store without buying anything. At one awkward moment, Bill noticed me staring at the fishing lures—brightly colored and speckled with sparkles and shimmering fuzzy things. I didn’t know how long I was standing there half mesmerized when he asked, “Do a lot of fishin’ do ya?” I answered simply, “no” and realized that was my cue to return back to the truck, so I bought a pair of $4 oyster gloves and walked out.
Greta was a no-show. While another florist drove up to the funeral parlor, I decided that after 45 minutes it was time to move on. It wasn’t Greta’s fault. She didn’t know I was waiting for her. Nor did she know that I knew she’d be delivering rakes that morning. I found that out when I called the R.A. Ribb Company just an hour before, but that’s what can happen when you don’t plan ahead, so I’d have to make a more organized effort to meet her. I had no idea that shellfishing rakes were being handmade on Cape Cod and I wanted to know more about her family’s business. On the way home I made peace with myself about the dusty fishing rod and found it peculiar that I’d rather dedicate what little free time I have to observing shellfishing rakes being made, rather than renewing my shellfishing license.
The R.A. Ribb Company is housed in an old blacksmith shop at the end of a cul-de-sac, a stone’s throw from the Highway 6 Harwich/Chatham exit, but tucked away enough to make you feel like you’re in the middle of a state park. The driveway is bumpy and full of deep water from the night’s storm, and I immediately assumed that it was maintained in such a way to suggest “You’re not on the highway anymore, Jack, slow down and enjoy the quiet.”
The shop, which has expanded in size to accommodate massive, antique rake making machines over the years, has been the home to the Ribb Company since 1978. Walking into it is like stepping out of a time machine. Greta came out from her backroom florist shop—a successful side career she calls The Floral Factory—zig-zagged around a shower of bright orange welding sparks, and introduced herself.
A youthful, spirited 34-year-old, Greta Ribb, with her long brown hair and dreggy, rolled up jeans, knows her way around the machine shop. She welded her first rake at eight years of age and hasn’t spent a lot of time away from the smoke and sparks since. Her sister Kersti, just two years her junior, can also build a shellfishing rake with the precision of a surgeon, but spends her time working in other endeavors. Their mother, Maggie, runs the show delivering rakes, picking up materials, answering the phones and managing the office.
Things took off for the Ribbs back in 1983 when Ron Ribb, Maggie’s husband and father to the two girls, heard that another shellfishing rake manufacturer in Port Jefferson on Long Island was going out of business. Ron purchased his hydraulic presses and metal benders and the like, and expanded an already successful commercial shellfish rake business into something bigger.
“Besides the commercial rakes, which are pretty much made in a few different styles, Dad wanted to make more recreational rakes. At the time, the only non-commercial rakes he was manufacturing were these little scratchers.” She pointed to a small rake that looked more like a gardening tool, if not for the long handle.
“With the addition of these other machines he could create custom rakes for casual clammers, families, kids—and that means different shapes, styles and sizes. The current Cape Cod favorite is a turtleback basket, which is a smaller, lighter and more shallow basket for kids or adults with less stamina.”
On the flip side, the Ribb team was recently asked to make a custom rake with a basket just shy of four feet long.
“I have a picture of it on my phone!” a voice yelled out from behind another giant, metal machine. It’s the “new kid”, as Greta calls him, Domonick Bachand of Harwich. Dom joined the R.A. Ribb Company just over two years ago and, when not welding, bending, cutting and pressing, spends his weekends slicing and julienning as a prep cook at Vers Restaurant in Chatham. Dom is as overjoyed when I inform him that Vers will be this issue’s “Last Bite” as he is of the team’s monstrous rake.
According to the photo, it is indeed the King Kong of shellfishing rakes and an engineering feat. Dom, Greta and mom Maggie all lean in for another look, all sharing the same proud expression like they were looking at a baby photo, which, in retrospect, they were.
“That rake was so heavy without any clams in it!” Greta said playfully, “I can’t imagine what it’ll weigh when he hits a sweet spot and fills it up!” Off in the corner Grant Grenier, also of Harwich, was creating more sparks and more smoke, and the thick smell of burning metal filled the air. “Grant started here with my husband,” Maggie informed me, “He’s been with us for over 15 years—that man knows how to make the highest quality rake in the world.”
Half way across the factory floor, far enough from the heat but positioned strategically where she could see all the coming and goings, slept Grant’s black lab, April. Those comings and goings are mostly from the Ribb team, but sometimes a commercial shellfisherman might swing by to purchase a rake, drop one off for a fix or just share a “crazy idea”, as Greta put it. “We love a challenge—custom sizes, longer teeth—if someone can think it up, most likely we can do it.”
Ron Ribb, the man who started it all, made high quality his calling card. Ribb’s rakes were, as they are today, produced with a grand sense of pride and purpose. All the metals used are made in the USA and the wooden handles are always cut from strong Northern Ash sourced from Maine, Ohio or Indiana. The massive machines used to assist in the making of the baskets mostly date back to the 1920s and 1930s and are strategically positioned throughout the small backyard factory. Most are still in use, while a few are retirees from the early days of the R.A. Ribb Company and are honored by the family for a “job well done”.
In 1996, Ron Ribb passed away, leaving his wife and daughters, then 13 and 15. Maggie, who was working in a frame shop and playing the organ in church (she still plays at St. David’s Episcopal Church in South Yarmouth), had a tough decision to make, and she rose to the challenge, learning the business and working alongside Grant and the rest of the crew.
Recently widowed with two teenage girls, Maggie had a rough go at it, and when serious staff health issues practically brought production to a halt, Maggie decided that it was all too much and the company would have to close. But a knock at the door changed all that.
“John Linnell came to the shop for a visit. John is one of the original bullrakers and a great man.” A warm smile comes over Maggie’s face. “He urged me not to give up. He told me that Cape Cod needed Ribb rakes to continue. Ribb is one of only five recreational in-house shellfish rake makers in the country and the only one forging hand made rakes, in-house, on Cape Cod.” Maggie paused, then looks up at me. “That turned me around. They’d have no place else to go. We did it for those guys.”
“Those guys," who now also consist of many gals, certainly appreciate and support the Ribb family, and the Ribbs, in turn, give back to their community. Now making an average of ten recreational and seven commercial shellfishing rake styles, as well as custom rakes, Maggie, Greta and the team donate or offer greatly economized rakes to groups like the Barnstable Association for Recreational Shellfishing (BARS) for their various community-based projects and the Wampanoag summer programs for kids.
Greta, who loves to talk about her family’s business, also donates her time for lectures based on her craft and the history of shellfishing equipment. Upon leaving, I paused in front of a gargantuan punch press that stood guard next to the entrance door. It seemed to measure at least 14-feet high—old and retired and caked with dust and hunks of grease from baskets past—its sole purpose reduced to a leaning post for out-going rakes awaiting delivery. I had to smile at the manufacturer’s name that was cast in bold, steel letters: Bliss. At the base of the machine Dom was crouched down, carefully putting the final touch on the newly built rakes: a small, American flag fastened just under a branding that read R.A. Ribb Company. With that, I decided my next stop was to go get that license renewed.
R.A. Ribb Company
508-432-6974 / ribbrakes.com
R.A. Ribb shellfishing rakes are available at:
Buzzard’s Bay – Red Top Sporting Goods
Chatham – Cape Fishermen’s Supply
Eastham – Blackbeard’s Bait & Tackle
Falmouth – Eastman’s Sport and Tackle
Hyannis – The Sports Port
Martha’s Vineyard – Coop’s Bait & Tackle, Dick’s Bait & Tackle
Nantucket – Tugboat Tim’s, Brant Point Marine
Sandwich – Sandwich Ship Supply
Yarmouth – Riverview Bait & Tackle
Tom Dott is co-owner of the Lamb and Lion Inn on Cape Cod. Previously, Tom and his partner Ali Pitcher owned and operated a 4-diamond Relais and Chateaux property in New York’s Hudson Valley, which featured a menu dedicated to all things local. Tom is an Elvis impersonator, has received three national Eddy writing awards and is two-time runner up. As an Elvis impersonator he remains awardless. Tom’s articles can be read at ediblecommunties.com/capecod.