SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

April 16, 2013

Essex County Chronicles: Swan's work offers a look at Rockport's past

Essex County Chronicles
Jim McAllister

---- — Every once in a while, one happens upon an author-historian who possesses the ability to capture not only the important events and developments of an area but also its charm and color. I recently rediscovered Marshall Swan, the beloved Rockport historian, while hunting down a fact or two in his “Town on Sandy Bay.” In just two short chapters, covering roughly the years 1890-1915, Swan dishes out enough charming morsels for an entire book. What follows is a tiny sampling of what the author offers, most of which he culled from various Cape Ann newspapers and periodicals from that period.

The fall months of October and November, writes Swan, saw every hunting enthusiast in the region heading to the local woods or shore loaded and ready to go. Some were apparently pretty decent shots: In just one day in 1890, a Dr. Maguire of Pigeon Cove “brought down seventy-six birds,” although the author fails to say if any or all were pigeons. Less than a month later, Forrest Batchelder offed a skunk a day on six consecutive days, creating, according to a local paper, “havoc in the skunk line in our neighborhood.”

Another outdoor activity popular with local men in this era came under fire in the local press. One newspaper condemned the “roughness” that seemed to be the main purpose for playing in the recent (1905) Bay View-Pigeon Cove pigskin classic. The editorial expressed the fervent hope that the next meeting between the two teams would erase “the stigma which the last contest placed on it.”

One last item in the “boys will be boys” department relates to the organization of the La Tosca Club by a group of young Rockport men. The club, headquartered in Lowe’s Building in Dock Square, was not named after the famed Puccini opera but a then-popular play by Victorien Sardou “described as a prolonged orgy of lust and crime.” Swan notes that few townspeople were aware of the source of the group’s “very pretty name.”

While women had made great strides for gender equality in recent decades, the battle was still being fought in 1895. At one “spirited public session” held in the town, Alice York argued that as women shared “a right to the gallows, jail and tax list” with men, they were entitled to many benefits, as well. In his rebuttal to York and her allies, reports Swan, Pastor Dolloff made the point that “women already had more privileges than they could use.” One can easily imagine the reaction of the women present to that statement.

A number of other entries in these chapters of “Town on Sandy Bay” relate to the ongoing development of Rockport’s tourism industry at the turn of the century. New inns and smaller tourist hotels seemed to crop up every season, and each had its own promotional strategy. The female proprietor of the New Oakdene smartly advertised her inn as the “ideal summer home, especially restful for brain workers.” Talk about niche marketing.

The town’s beaches came under great scrutiny during this period, as they were becoming increasingly popular with tourists. Restrictions against dumping in local waters were enacted, and the problem of open drains was tackled by the Board of Health. What apparently was viewed as another source of beach “pollution” was also addressed by the town, which posted signs announcing that “Nude bathers will be prosecuted if detected.”

The Rockport shoreline also attracted entrepreneurs of an unusual stripe in the late 1890s. In the spring and summer of 1898, the Cape Ann Advertiser kept area residents abreast of developments at the Halibut Point operation, which was attempting to “obtain gold from salt-water.” By August, the plan was going full tilt, but apparently little became of it. Swan concludes his coverage of this brief saga by noting that “the only gold that Halibut Point produced was goldenrod and ragweed.”

The arrival of the age of the automobile, which was in its infancy in the early decades of the 20th century, was a boom to the town’s tourism industry but also brought a few new problems to Rockport. “Animals were no longer safe,” Swann writes, and in 1911, it was reported that Dr. J.J. Egan’s brand-new Cadillac was stolen by joy-riders and found wrecked in Lanesville.

Another early local automobile owner was sent to jail for running down a young girl. The judge handling the case would not be the last of his profession to opine that, “Rum and gasoline are not a good mixture.”

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Salem historian Jim McAllister writes a regular column for The Salem News.