From the mid-1700s through the turn of the 20th century, shad fishing was a thriving industry along the Connecticut River. Today, relics such as the Haddam Shad Museum exist to preserve history and regale visitors with the storied past of a beloved fish.
Though it’s a little off the beaten path, this nugget of maritime history is worth the detour. In 1999, Joseph Zaientz—a former dentist and current shad enthusiast—transformed what was once “Maynard’s Shad Shack” into a museum of the same subject matter.
The Haddam Shad Museum refers to itself as “the only museum in the United States dedicated to the preservation of shad fishing history in the Connecticut River Valley.” Inside, the American shad swims through the currents of United States history, including the legend of a miraculous surge at Valley Forge that fed George Washington’s soldiers. (Though this story is well-known enough that it led to the shad’s nickname of “the founding fish,” there are no official records of shad reaching the area at the time.)
Bill Maynard, who ran the now-defunct Maynard’s Shad Shack, was a local fisherman in the 1930s and 1940s. His knives, used to debone the fish, as well as his old cash register, are proudly displayed at the museum. You’ll even find a fish sculpture carved using the museum director’s broken dental tools, made by one of his patients.
Though the industry’s heyday has come to an end, each spring, shad journey from the Atlantic Ocean to spawn in New England’s rivers. The “shad run” remains celebrated, and in Connecticut—where the American shad is the official state fish—the towns of Windsor, Essex, and Saybrook even host annual festivals. During this season, and this season alone, the Haddam Shad Museum opens to the public every Sunday.
The museum is closed for the 2023 season while it is being relocated.
Know Before You Go
The museum is open from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Sundays and by appointment during shad season (mid-April to early June). Call 860-267-0388 for more information. Admission is free.