Topic: New England

New England’s Harborside Fish Shacks

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The World's Most Iconic Fish Shack: "Motif No. 1"

In one form or another, New England’s harborside fish shacks have been sheltering men and their gear over the past five centuries.

It’s a warm spring day in Rockport, Massachusetts, and the lobstermen are working outside down at Pigeon Cove Harbor. Among Rockport’s inlets, Pigeon Cove remains the town’s working waterfront, harboring neither the yacht club nor the shops and art galleries of Rockport proper.

Instead, Pigeon Cove still cradles a gorgeous little chorus line of fish shacks–each a slightly different shape and style, yet blending harmoniously–a miniature street of tiny buildings along the wharf, facing the line of fishing boats tied up there. These are, with one exception, classic fish shacks (or fish houses, as they’re sometimes called), the kind that have dotted the New England coast for as long as we’ve had photographs depicting them–back to at least the mid-19th century.

Thousands of fish shacks were built along the New England shore, built even before Europeans constructed their first permanent settlements and houses. Fish shacks are small, utilitarian buildings built close to the shore–sometimes on the rocks or on pilings at the very edge of the water–where fishermen keep their gear (nets, hooks, buoys) and all their tools and supplies to repair both their boats and their equipment.

And thus, though I can’t prove it, fish shacks of some sort, put up by French fishermen in the first decade of the 17th century, before permanent white settlement, were probably among the first European structures built in North America, even before the settlers here sited their homes on higher ground, safe from the reach of winter storms.

But the waves are gentle on this mild spring day. And we’re here to wander by the shore itself–to look at the fish houses, a dozen or so, along Pigeon Cove Wharf. We’ll stay out of the fishermen’s way–they’re working. And the fish houses themselves, if not the ground they sit on, are private property, and these men don’t need our attention. But we can walk along the miniature street that is Pigeon Cove Wharf, with its long row of fishing boats tied up, bow first, and admire the fish shacks.

As we do, we become connoisseurs of the weathered shingle, of peeling paint, of rust: rust as it flows from an aging stovepipe chimney onto a roof and down a wall, or rust that has so corroded an anchor by the doorway that the metal has begun flaking off, like the multiple layers of an elaborate pastry.

We also become connoisseurs of fish-shack smells. There’s the sweetish odor of aging wood, the bracing smell of salt soaked into old lumber that has dried by the sea; there’s the sharp smell of the paints and chemicals used to finish and preserve wooden boats–though now they’re mostly fiberglass (so you’ll also smell epoxy). And, of course, there’s the most pungent smell of all: fish bait and lobster bait. Redfish, say–oily and starting to reach that really nice stage of deterioration so appealing to lobsters.

And we still love the buoys. Each lobsterman has his own particular colors and pattern, identifying his gear and his territory–and lobstermen are territorial on the bottom of the ocean. In the old days the buoys were made of wood; today they’re Styrofoam, and less decorative.

Pigeon Cove Harbor was once home to the Cape Ann Tool Company, a drop-forge plant. And it was that heavy industrial presence that for years kept the harbor and the village around it a workingman’s place. (Not everyone wanted to listen to a drop-forge hammer eight hours a day.) Pigeon Cove’s fish shacks remain traditional, working fish shacks.

Nearby Rockport Harbor, where gentrification has transformed many of the old structures, nevertheless hosts a large, classic fish shack, painted red, standing alone on a wharf, like a wooden sculpture on a granite plinth. Dubbed “Motif #1” sometime during the last century, it’s undoubtedly the best-known fish shack in the world.

And while the Motif, as it’s called, isn’t alone on Rockport Harbor as a classic fish shack–there are still a few others–at one time there were many more. The great majority of them once stood, cheek by jowl, separated sometimes by just a few feet from one another, on a spit of sand known as Bearskin Neck.

But by the 1920s, with the advent of the automobile, fishermen no longer needed all of their equipment right by the harbor; they could now build and store lobster traps in their backyards, away from the water. And then the artists who came from cities to paint picturesque Rockport Harbor began renting the Bearskin Neck fish shacks as studios and rough summer cottages.

This was also the period–those Depression years–when artists sat their students down to study that handsome red fish shack at the end of Bradley Wharf, and to paint it. Its fame growing with every passing year, the Motif seemed never to change. Of course, that was partly because the town made sure it didn’t. The Motif had become Rockport’s own symbol and trademark, far more valuable as an icon than as a storage unit.

But with the passage of time, the Bearskin Neck fish shacks, now summer cottages, became small houses and art galleries. By the 1970s, as the price of waterfront real estate escalated, those fish shacks, with their tiny footprints, went up, often three stories, as high as they legally could, and were rebuilt into year-round storefronts and dwellings.

What happened to Rockport in the 1970s had already happened elsewhere. When my wife, Edie, and I visited Nantucket on our honeymoon in 1972, we found perfectly constructed little fish-shack-like buildings storing gear for perfectly constructed multimillion-dollar yachts along the wharves of Nantucket Harbor. Just recently I was equally taken aback, but not so disappointed, really, to see on a Gloucester, Massachusetts, wharf–planted where the weathered cedar-shingle and clapboard fish shacks had once stood–what looked suspiciously like those plastic, prefabricated garden toolsheds you can buy to store your lawnmower. Cheaper to buy them than to make them, I’m sure.

My friend Dave Frary, who lobstered on the North Shore of Massachusetts and recently retired to Cape Cod, tells me that in his area he can think of just one old-fashioned fish shack of the kind that we once saw all up and down the New England coast: the kind with weatherbeaten walls of lumber salvaged from other buildings, and with mismatched windows. The point then was shelter, cheap, because those buildings were perilously close to the water, and they got used hard. Fish guts don’t appear as decorative objects in Architectural Digest.

“On the Cape, the old fish shacks are almost all gone,” Dave told me, “because now you have to construct one according to building codes. The foundations, the framing–it all has to be according to code, so the new ones don’t look like the fish shacks you and I remember.”

Right here on Pigeon Cove Wharf, the newest fish shack is proudly built of expensive architectural masonry block. Though modest-looking compared with buildings away from the shore, it’s a veritable castle compared with the old shacks–and just to construct it at all required special exemptions from the town building inspector and a certificate from the conservation commission.

The same mix of fish houses holds true elsewhere in New England. The old ones are grandfathered in, but in some places the new ones look different. In other places, usually farther away from the regulators, the shacks, new or old, look pretty much the same as they always have.

Most fish houses, despite the name, aren’t practical, year-round dwellings. They’re too close to the water. You don’t want to have all your possessions just a few feet from the ocean.

I knew that. My job, just out of college, as Rockport reporter for the Gloucester Daily Times gave me ample opportunity to observe what a storm-driven ocean can do to manmade objects placed too close to the shore. But we were just married, and we needed a home, and we had the opportunity to rebuild a couple of fish shacks into a 405-square-foot house on Rockport Harbor. So we did it, and all was well for a few years.

Then came the February 1978 blizzard, with hurricane-force winds. Edie was alone in the house, sitting quietly reading, when she “heard a splash just outside the front door,” as she later described it. “I opened the door, turned on the light, and there was water splashing over the deck–and all I could see was dark, moving water.”

Edie called the police and asked what she should do. “Get out immediately, as fast as you can,” they told her. She had to jump from the deck to the granite steps leading up to street level, and spent the night with relatives. In the morning, our house, tucked behind those steps, was still there. But the three fish shacks that had stood in front of our place were gone, and the Motif, across the harbor, had been driven half off its wharf and into the water.

We were lucky–lucky enough to know not to tempt fate twice. So we moved inshore, and then eventually followed a job a long way from the ocean. But the house we built is still there.

And perhaps because of all that, I think that fish shacks–the classic fish shacks, full of character and age and hand-me-down lumber–have become the manmade objects that for me represent living near the ocean. They’re the talismans of my connection to “our grey sweet mother,” as James Joyce (paraphrasing Swinburne) calls her–perhaps because the fish shacks are, as we ourselves are, always vulnerable to the ocean, which is not always kind, no matter how close we want to be to her, or how much we need her for life itself.

This beautiful spring morning on Pigeon Cove, Edie and I savor the salt air blowing off Sandy Bay. The sunlight splashes off the water. The harbor is still there. The fish shacks are still there.

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