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A port of call for Gloucester’s fishing memories

Alphonse Millefoglie discusses the model his father built of his fishing vessel, the Maria & Al, to longtime Gloucester fishing family members John and Marie Testaverde during the opening of the Cape Ann Museum exhibit.Laurie Swope for The Boston Globe

GLOUCESTER — For Nina Goodick, life has never strayed far from the water’s edge. She has lived in this harbor town her whole life. One of her great-grandfathers came to Gloucester from Portugal to work in the fishing industry. Another came from Sicily.

For them and so many others, the fishing vessel was part of the family.

“In my family’s homes and my friends’ families’ homes, there was always a painting of the boat on the wall,” she says. “It was what supported us, sustained us, and took care of us. And we took care of it.”

This summer, the boats of Gloucester’s fishing families have a new port of call. Through mid-September, the Cape Ann Museum is featuring the paintings, ship models, photographs, and other memorabilia of nearly 50 local fishing families in a special exhibition honoring “The Legacy of the Family-Owned Fishing Vessel.”

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On a prompt from museum director Oliver Barker, the institution spent part of the pandemic brainstorming new ways to celebrate the local community. It was Goodick who came up with the idea to commemorate family fishing vessels: Since 2016, she has been a member of the museum’s board of directors.

Her own family has lent several artworks to the exhibit, which opened in late June during St. Peter’s Fiesta, the traditional festival named for the patron saint of fishermen. On display is a large-scale model of the Midnight Sun, a commercial fishing vessel owned by her uncle, Tom Testaverde.

Goodick’s family also contributed a classic painting of a lone fisherman weathering a storm in a dory loaded down with the day’s catch. The painting, by Armand Sindoni, may be familiar to some Cape Ann residents: It was commissioned for the cover of “Memoirs of a Gloucester Fisherman,” written in 1987 by Goodick’s grandfather, Rosario “Salve” Testaverde.

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Goodick says she’s thrilled for the families whose artworks will be on display.

“How nice to have their paintings on a wall in the museum! We are a pretty tight-knit community. I’m just really happy to see this come together.”

From left, longtime Gloucester fishing family members John Testaverde, Marie Testaverde, and Nina Goodick, wander the opening of the Cape Ann Museum exhibit "The Legacy of the Family-Owned Fishing Vessel." Laurie Swope for The Boston Globe

Barker, who took over the director’s position in 2019, says he was inspired by the success of an earlier exhibit at the museum. For that, photographer Jim Hooper shot multi-generational portraits of the families that still make up Gloucester’s “Working Waterfront.” At the time, it was the most successful exhibition in the museum’s nearly 150-year history, attracting over 13,000 visitors.

“Portraits of a Working Waterfront” remains on display, and the museum’s permanent collection features an abundance of artifacts from Cape Ann’s rich maritime heritage. The museum recently took possession of a massive gift from the Gloucester Daily Times, a trove of more than a million photos, many of which document the industry that built the city. At the new exhibit, patrons can sit down in a sound booth and record family stories for the museum’s oral archives.

The museum’s commitment to the local community and its fishing lore is a critical part of preserving the collective memory, says Alphonse Millefoglie. His father, Alfonso, built a scale model of his fishing vessel, the Maria & Al, after the ship went down in an engine fire in the early 1980s.

“He built it from scratch,” explains Millefoglie, an architectural engineer who has served for years on the St. Peter’s Fiesta Committee. A few days after the accident, his father went down to the basement to begin work on his scale model of the boat, which he built from memory. He spent 18 months, 12 hours a day, on the project.

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“He had everything burnt into his mind, every last detail. He knew the boat inside and out,” says Millefoglie, who got to spend some precious time with his father during those months. “It was the only way he could cope with what had happened.”

At 60, Millefoglie can recall “when there were 400 boats in the harbor, jumping from boat to boat, knowing all the captains.” That era is gone, he says, but the museum’s work with the fishing community keeps the memory alive.

“Storms Rage, Gloucester Endures” read the huge banners the museum hung in its courtyard during the pandemic. Once America’s busiest seaport, the harbor is now home to about 75 family-owned vessels, a fraction of its heyday.

Yet the dwindling industry “still informs the cultural identity of this place,” says Barker, a native Australian who came to Gloucester by way of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

For the exhibit, Mary Lou Balbo lent the museum a painting of her late husband’s boat, the Hunter. Her father gave the couple the painting as a wedding gift, she says. A jeweler, he traded a ring for it.

As it happened, the artist Elsio San Giacomo had painted the Hunter in Gloucester Harbor long before Danny Balbo and his father bought the boat.

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“It was our only painting,” says Mary Lou. “It had a wonderful place in our home.”

Memorializing the industry is important work, she says.

“We don’t want anybody to forget,” says Balbo. For the opening of the exhibition, she ordered a floral arrangement designed to replicate her husband’s trawler.

E-mail James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.

Mary Lou Balbo lent the Cape Ann Museum a painting of her late husband's boat, the Hunter, by the artist Elsio San Giacomo.
Mary Lou Balboa stands next to a painting of her husband's boat, the Hunter, during the opening of the Cape Ann Museum exhibit.Laurie Swope for The Boston Globe