Story and photos by Bo Zaunders

Gloucester Warf

Gloucester Glimpses

Friends of ours had invited my wife and me to a three-night stay in Gloucester, MA. They were housesitting for an old friend whose seafront home was well equipped and spacious enough to accommodate several guests.

We accepted, and, having arrived, we embarked on a number of excursions in what prides itself for being the oldest fishing port in America. Amazed at its rich history, I was particularly struck by all the anecdotal stories I learned about.

Closing in on its 400th birthday, Gloucester has experienced numerous immigrant waves. In the early 1600s the English already knew there was an abundance of codfish in the waters of the area. Soon Irish and Scandinavians began occupying its shores and, in the 1840s, Portuguese fishermen, particularly from the Azores, arrived in large numbers. Then, during the great Italian wave of immigrants to the United States in the early twentieth century, fishermen from Sicily learned of Gloucester’s thriving fishing industry and, by 1930, made up the second-largest group of immigrants in Gloucester.

Gloucester Fisheman's Memorial

Their Sicilian heritage is now very much part of city life. In the mid-twenties a Sicilian named Salvatore Favazza commissioned a sculpture of a fisherman, which now every June is carried around on a platform during the annual St. Peter’s Festival. The festival includes nine days of prayer, traditional Sicilian songs, rowing contests, prayers for fishermen, fireworks and, most famously, a pole-walking contest.

So what’s pole walking? A forty-foot pole, the thickness of an old schooner mast, has been extended from a high offshore platform and covered with grease. The challenge is to walk to the end of it and grab a flag. Most contestants just quickly fall into the sea below, but every now and then someone succeeds. Flag in hand he drops into the water and becomes a hero - not just for the day but for years to come.

To quote Mark Kurlansky who wrote a book about Gloucester, “…to be a successful pole walker a contestant must be tremendously brave, extremely agile, and extraordinarily drunk.”

Walking around we saw the fisherman sculpture, better known as the Fishermen Memorial. We also, in the midst of Colonial revival style architecture and Cape Ann Shingle-style homes, unexpectedly, ran into of all things a medieval castle. Constructed in the 1920s, it was the home and laboratory of John Hayes Hammond Jr., an inventor and pioneer in the study of remote control. Ostensibly a wedding present to his wife who couldn’t care less about medieval architecture, it now operates as a museum displaying Hammond’s collection of Roman, medieval and Renaissance artifacts.

The museum was closed, presumably because of COVID or because it was still early in the season, the first days of March.  We would have visited, if only to have a peek at its large pipe organ with 10,000 pipes.

Fitz Henry Lane

Fishermen apart, artists and writers have kept coming to Gloucester for a long time. Winslow Homer in the late 19th century captured its harbor in brilliant colors. Before him there was Fitz Henry Lane whose maritime depictions stand alone in detail and accuracy. Much later, Edward Hopper, intrigued by the city’s architecture, painted many of its ornate houses, one of which caught the attention of Alfred Hitchcock, and became the model for the Bates Motel in the film Psycho.

Waterfront by Anthony Thieme

Then there are the paintings by Anthony Thieme, yet another artist fascinated by life in Gloucester.

As for writers, it was here Rudyard Kipling, after hearing stories about its fishing fleet, embarked on “Captains Courageous.” Gloucester was the adopted hometown of the 20th century poet Charles Olson, and the place where the poet Vincent Ferrini lived and worked for 59 years (often quoted for noting that “Women will change America because the women have balls and the men don’t”).

T. S. Eliot's house in Gloucester

This brings us to T. S. Eliot, a central figure in 20th century poetry. As a child, growing up in America, he spent every summer in his father’s vacation home, a 5,611- square - foot shingle cottage in Gloucester, which, in 2015, was acquired by the T.S. Eliot Foundation. Open from April to October, the place now functions as a Writer’s Retreat, for poets, essayists, and playwrights. The house had been upgraded and freshly repainted and is a haven for those writers invited to stay there. We understand it’s all paid for by royalties from “Cats,” a musical based on Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” - which had nearly nine thousand performances in London and more than six thousand on Broadway.

Rockport Port Buildings

One of our walks took us to the granite wharf of Rockport, the town bordering Gloucester to the northeast and situated on the very tip of the Cape Ann peninsula. Here we saw an unlikely celebrity, a red fishing shack known as #1. A symbol of New England maritime life, it has been painted by the local artists so many times that it has become known as the most painted building in the United States. It has been featured on a postage stamp, on a Kentucky Bourbon bottle, and, back in the 1960s, appeared in a Winston cigarette ad.

Seeing it, I had a hard time understanding how it could have become so extraordinarily famous.

Gloucester Lobster Dinner

One disadvantage with visiting Gloucester so early in the year was not being able to enjoy some of its seafood restaurants. Practically all of them were closed. Still, thanks our friends’ cooking skills we didn’t suffer. Appropriately, a lavish lobster dinner was served on our first night there.

Onto Gloucester w. Blackburn

An interesting overview of Gloucester and its immediate neighborhood was given when, at the end of our stay, we visited the Cape Ann Museum. Fine art, oil and watercolor paintings extended into several rooms, a special section was dedicated to printed textiles, and then there was the Fishing, Trade & Granite room featuring tools, artifacts, models, and even full-size vessels. It also displayed historic photographs, one of which showed Howard Blackburn, a Gloucester character if there ever was one.

As a young fisherman in 1883, he and his crewmate ran into a blistering snowstorm in their open dory. A devastating five-day ordeal followed. His comrade froze to death and he himself lost all his fingers to frostbite. Back in Gloucesterno and no longer able to fish, he was helped by sympathetic townspeople to get started as a businessman. As such he soon prospered but was not satisfied, yearning for some great adventure. So, in 1901, without fingers, he single-handedly sailed in a 26-foot Gloucester fishing sloop all the way to Portugal, making the trip in 39 days.

Enduring and indomitable – a Gloucester man through and through.




© May 2022 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.


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