Mary and Michael Yortson

Location of Interview
Collection Name

The Working Waterfront Festival Community Documentation Project


The Working Waterfront Festival Community  Documentation Project is an ongoing oral history project documenting the history and culture of the commercial fishing industry and other port trades. The project was begun in 2004 in conjunction with the Working Waterfront Festival, an annual, education celebration of commercial fishing culture which takes place in New Bedford, MA. Interviewees have included a wide range of individuals connected to the commercial fishing industry and/or other aspects of the port through work or familial ties. While the majority of interviewees are from the port of New Bedford, the project has also documented numerous individuals  from other ports around the country. Folklorist and    Festival Director Laura Orleans and Community Scholar/Associate Director Kirsten Bendiksen are Project Leaders. The original recordings reside at the National Council for the Traditional Arts in Maryland with listening copies housed at the Festival's New Bedford office.

Date of Interview

Kayleigh Moore
Erin Heacock

Biographical Sketch

The interview conducted on September 25, 2005, features two individuals: Mike Yortson and Mary Yortson Sylvia. Mike Yortson is the son of Mary Yortson Sylvia. Mary was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1911 and had two sons. Mike was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1955 but grew up in New Bedford after his father's death. Mary's family immigrated from St. Michael's in the Azores, and she worked in a doctor's dining room in Providence, where she met her first husband, Manny Cruz. Manny was lost at sea when Mary was 29 years old.

Mike worked in various shipyards and gained skills in welding, metalwork, carpentry, and fiberglass repair. He worked at Fairhaven Marine and later bought into a business called Seven Seas Marine. He also worked at D.N. Kelley Shipyard, where he managed the railways and carpentry jobs. Yortson was involved in the restoration of old schooners, specializing in hull planking replacement. He had an accident that injured his knee and decided to transition to managing a marina at the Seaport Inn. During his time there, he organized fishing tournaments, benefits for the Cancer Society, and tugboat musters, becoming involved in community activities and promoting the harbor. After working at the marina for seven years, Yortson joined West Marine, a company that sells boating supplies. He started as an assistant manager and later became the store manager. West Marine has a no-hassle guarantee and a strong focus on community involvement and environmental responsibility. Each store is connected to the local community and supports local businesses. Yortson's experience and connections in the marine industry allow him to help customers and refer them to other local businesses. He has also worked on boats owned by famous individuals, including Christopher Reeve.

Scope and Content Note
Mary shares a story of getting engaged to Mike’s father during a Valentine's Day blizzard in 1940. They were married in June of the same year, and soon after, Mary became a mother. Tragically, Manny passed away at sea, leaving Mary widowed at the age of 30. Mary discusses her experiences during World War II, working for Carl Beetle and listening to the invasion of Normandy on the radio. Mike talks about his involvement in whaleboat racing in New Bedford and his career in carpentry and shipbuilding. He mentions his work at Edie and Duff Shipyard, building whaleboats for the Whaling City Rowing Club. Mary also worked for Carl Beetle during the war. Mike later became a manager at the West Marine store in New Bedford and shares his experiences in the shipbuilding industry and his accident that led to a career change. Mary mentions that she didn't grow up in a fishing family and talks about her childhood in a neighborhood close to the Portuguese Navy Yard. She reminisces about going to Palmer's Island for picnics and how the families would gather there while the men went scalloping. Mary also mentions her father's barber shop, pool tables, and bowling alley. She recalls the vibrant community in Water Street, where different nationalities lived and got along well. She mentions names like Silverstein, Davidson, and Wilmiaski, who were all part of the close-knit community. They discuss the changes in the neighborhood over time, with many buildings being torn down to make way for the highway. Only a few remnants, like the Orpheum Theater, still exist. Mary talks about the stores and activities that used to be there, such as the theater and dancing. The conversation shifts to Mike's childhood and his adjustment to moving from Providence to New Bedford. Mary mentions how she got Mike involved in various activities to keep him active and engaged after his father's death. They talk about his involvement in the Whaling City Rowing Club and organizing whaleboat races. Mike explains that the boats used were replica whaling boats designed by the Beetle Boat Company, known for the Beetle Cat boats. Mike Yortson also discusses his experience in the marine industry.

The interview touches on various topics, including family history, Portuguese heritage, life in New Bedford, Mary's volunteering activities, and the impact of the fishing industry on the community. The interview concludes with discussions about their relationship as mother and son.




Please Note: The oral histories in this collection are protected by copyright and have been created for educational, research and personal use as described by the Fair Use Doctrine in the U.S. Copyright law. Please reach out to let us know how these interviews are being used in your research, project, exhibit, etc.  The Voices staff can help provide other useful resources related to your inquiry. 

The NOAA mission is to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts, to share that knowledge and information with others, and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources. The Voices Oral History Archives offers public access to a wide range of accounts, including historical materials that are products of their particular times, and may contain offensive language or negative stereotypes.

Voices Oral History Archives does not verify the accuracy of materials submitted to us. The opinions expressed in the interviews are those of the interviewee only. The interviews here have been made available to the public only after the interviewer has confirmed that they have obtained consent.