Fishing for an Answer

photo ~ Val Van Meier

I was at the Town Hall on voting day and our esteemed moderator, Lew Derby, pointed out the window to the weather vane that sets atop the Brick Schoolhouse. We saw what appears to be a fish. Lew is an avid fly-fisherman, so I had no reason to doubt his observation. Though it must have been there for many years, I had not noticed it before, and Lew had just recently paid attention to it. What was the meaning behind it – how did it figure into the design of the building?  Initial inquiries with the local cognoscenti yielded no information (I even asked Barry Tolman, who went to school there), and as we know, when there is a vacancy of knowledge, theories propagate.

I considered the possibility that the area of the Schoolhouse, and much of the rest of Nelson, was once submerged. This would explain why the initial settlement of Nelson (then Monadnock Number Six, and later Packersfield) occurred at the higher elevation – up where the cemetery is. But further scrutiny showed that this theory didn’t hold water.

Rick Church suggested that there was always something fishy about Thomas Packer’s promise of free town land, so Breed Batchellor (an early settler)  had it placed somewhere (later to be installed on the Schoolhouse) as a rude gesture. The mention of Batchellor then reminds us that he himself became reviled when he took a stand as one of the few supporters of the King. We know from historical accounts that he was run out of town – and we can surmise that his revolutionary persecutors stuck a dead fish on a stick as a means of moving him along without doing mortal harm. In any case, Batchellor eventually moved to Canada, where he fell out of a boat and drowned, so he ultimately was swimming with the fishes.

As history progressed Nelson became a sheep town, and at about the time the Schoolhouse was built, there might have been a movement to install a sheep weather vane. But sheep are notably lacking in aerodynamic qualities, so this idea might not have flown (as it were). In any case, who wants to be downwind of a sheep?

Things became more complicated when someone suggested that maybe perhaps it was a whale instead (it could  possibly be perceived as such). A more logical explanation then emerged. Henry Melville, an important benefactor and resident of the town (who lived in the house up the hill between the village and the cemetery) was a relative of author Herman Melville. He may well have donated the device in honor of Captain Ahab’s nemesis, Moby Dick. Of course everyone knows that Moby Dick was a white whale, but decades of weather may have deteriorated the original sheen of the whale’s representation.

photo ~ Val Van Meier

One particular feature of this weather vane is that the rod on which it is mounted is bent and sets at a slight angle. This could be suggestive of a harpoon, though it also could come from an early effort to make Nelson a tourist mecca by imitating the leaning tower of Pisa.

As it turns out, I learned that fish weather vanes are not really rare – a quick search of the Net comes up full.

So perhaps there be an opportunity here to extend Nelson’s piscean legacy. Truly the current object is quite weathered (as well as the aforementioned bent rod). Might a replacement be made by one of our talented local craftsmen? For now we’ll just put this idea out there, and see which way the wind blows.


By |2022-04-12T14:16:58-04:00March 13, 2022|Articles, Nelson in Common|8 Comments


  1. Jenna March 16, 2022 at 6:58 am - Reply

    Loved this! How fun to speculate 😀

  2. Val March 16, 2022 at 8:35 am - Reply

    Gordon, you have outdone yourself! Interesting angles you have cast and how many more ideas you have spawned! How appropriate that the fish is over a former school!

  3. Jen Pepin March 16, 2022 at 9:31 am - Reply

    Thank you for this whale of a tale Gordon! Or should I call you Ishmael?

  4. Mare-Anne Jarvela March 16, 2022 at 10:02 am - Reply

    In Parke Hardy Struthers book A History of Nelson on page 164 he includes a chapter called The Tale of a Tail. He tells the story about how in the early 1900s Leonard Styles, the parson’s son, used his hickory bow and a arrow to take the tail off the weather vane with fifteen classmates watching “with eyes dilated from excitement”.
    “Fully a hundred times before, Leonard had shot at the same target, and the arrow always missed the mark. Would he miss again? No, that day Nelson had its superman. The arrow sped a straight course; the fish whirled as if striking an imaginary bait, and the upper lobe of its tail fin fell to the ground. Mutilated, the old wooden weather vane still rides the crest of the wave, above the brick schoolhouse.”

  5. Russ Thomas March 16, 2022 at 10:28 am - Reply

    I have a faint memory of Mark Stretch carving a replacement fish for this spot. Mark and Nancy lived next to the church between May Sarton and Kip and Sandy Mackenzie’s times. I have a call in to Mark and await an answer. This would likely have been in the ’70’s. How the fish was installed remains a mystery.

  6. Candyce L Fulford March 16, 2022 at 2:52 pm - Reply

    Lively discussion here. The replies are just as entertaining as the article itself.

  7. Russ Thomas March 16, 2022 at 5:17 pm - Reply

    Mark called me back. Indeed, he remembers Win French asking him to carve a replica weather vane for the old schoolhouse. He copied the old one, using lead in the head and possibly lead eyes. Melanson’s helped with some of the metalwork, and it is possible that there was a lift in town working on the church steeple to help put it in place. Now we need to hear the story of the original fish. Why a fish and when was it made? Mark and Nancy send their best to all who remember them.

  8. John Wengler March 17, 2022 at 10:02 am - Reply

    Fabulous article!!!

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