IN MEMORIAM: Remembering Marblehead’s ‘codfather’

Raymond C. Abbott, the man responsible for the ubiquitous golden codfish carvings adorning Marblehead homes, was laid to rest on May 23.

His grandson, Derek Abbott, told the Marblehead Current that his grandfather passed away on April 20 after a period of declining health. He was 93.

In the 1990s, Marblehead quickly adopted Abbott’s golden codfish, elevating it to the status of other historic symbols gracing homes, including the majestic golden bald eagle and pineapples.

Raymond Abbott, left, with his grandson, Derek Abbott, was the mastermind behind Marblehead’s distinctive wooden codfish carvings that adorn local homes. COURTESY PHOTO / DEREK ABBOTT

The golden cod adorning the facades of homes pays tribute to Marblehead’s historical connection to the 17th-century fishing trade.

“They symbolize what made the Massachusetts Bay Colony prosper: the cod,” Town Historian Emeritus Bette Hunt told the Marblehead Reporter after a series of golden “codnappings” in September of 2014.

Crafting the golden cod

“The codfish were completely hand-carved from pinewood,” said Derek Abbott. “It was a true family business, with my grandfather carving and my grandmother — his wife, Jean — gold-leafing them.”

Demand for the Abbott Cod has consistently outpaced supply, resulting in a steady backlog of orders, according to Gene Arnould of Arnould Gallery & Framery.

“Ray came to me about 25 to 30 years ago, telling me he thought we could sell them,” Arnould recalled. “I said, ‘It’s not really something we sell, but we’ll give it a shot for a month.’”

He continued, “They’ve been swimming above doorways ever since.”

He revealed that his business has shipped the carvings across the country and around the globe.

Contrary to what one might expect, neither the golden-cod weathervane atop the Old North Church nor the Sacred Cod hanging in the Massachusetts Legislature atop Beacon Hill served as the inspiration for Abbott’s cod.

Instead, Abbott drew inspiration from his childhood growing up on Cradleskid Lane in the Barnegat section of Marblehead.

“What a great place to grow up,” he shared in a short autobiography. “There was a shanty on Fisherman’s Beach, located at Little Harbor, with a codfish weathervane on the roof. I thought that was really neat.”

Abbott only began crafting his codfish after retiring from his career as a traveling steel salesman.

“I thought now that I have time I can create my own codfish weathervane,” Abbott wrote.

He sketched a design, cut out a prototype on the bandsaw and sought feedback from Marblehead fishermen at State Street Wharf.

“It was a beautiful day,” he recalled. “I stuck a few chisels in my pocket.”

As he engaged with the fishermen and began carving, he caught the attention of two passing women.

“They asked if I could make one for them,” Abbott recalled. “That’s how this cod business got started.”

Over the years, he would refine the golden codfish and expand his range of offerings. The codfish, however, always remained the darling among his designs.

A signature Abbott Cod nailed above the entrance to Liberty, Henry and Me on Washington Street. CURRENT PHOTO / WILLIAM J. DOWD

Keeping the Abbott Cod alive

Abbott attended Gerry School, followed by junior high and Marblehead High School. He graduated in 1948. He furthered his education at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture in Amherst.

An active member of the Boston Yacht Club, Abbott competed in sailboat races and served on the race committee. He married Jean Peterson in 1955, and the couple moved to Reed Street in Marblehead the following year before later relocating to Cloutmans Lane and Meadow Lane. They raised two sons.

Derek Abbott, now 35, fondly remembers growing up next to his grandfather’s woodshop.

“I lived next door in his parents’ house on Meadow Lane,” he said. “I would wander over there, hang out, and that’s how I picked up the craft.”

Derek Abbott has inherited the duty of carving the Abbott Cod.

“I do carvings for Gene now — although he handles the gold leafing,” he said.

Derek Abbott described his grandfather as a helpful, approachable man with a keen sense of humor and memorable phrases.

“Whenever you’d tell him to have a good day, he’d respond, ‘If I don’t, it’s my own damn fault,'” Derek Abbott said.

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1 Comment

  • Biff Michaud

    I am saddened by the death of my longtime friend and fellow Boston yacht Club member, Ray. For years, you could find him on the race committee boat keeping an eye on the rules and races…a true sailor at heart. He lived his life with grace and dignity. I want his family to know that I care…Ray was quite a guy!!

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