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Swampscott Fish House

Susan: Hello! This is the Librarians by the Sea podcast, presented by the Swampscott Public Library. Today’s topic will be the Swampscott Fish House. I’m Susan Conner, and today I’m talking with Lou Gallo. Lou Gallo has been an associate of the Swampscott Historical Commission, and I know him better because he’s been the moderator of the Swampscott History Buffs group that has met at the library every month for more years than I can count. Welcome to our podcast – thanks for joining us, Lou!

Lou: Oh, you’re welcome. It’s not that bad!

Susan: I know. This should be a good talk today, I think. Well, let me start with – for those of us that did not grow up near an ocean, can you explain just what is a fish house?

Lou: Well, sure – well, I’ll take a shot at it, anyway. The term “the Fish House” is just a title. Technically, it’s a storage building for fisherman. It is also – I don’t know if it still is, but for many, many, many generations, it was only municipal fish house on the Eastern coast from Maine to the Mexican border. It was built in 1896 – I’ll get into why – and then in 1988 it was put on the National Register of Historic Places because of its uniqueness as a municipal building. A lot of towns have storage houses or fish houses, but they’re privately owned. The reason of the fish houses – in the late 1800s, as people became very successful, especially in the Boston area, they wanted to come to the ocean for vacations: in the hot summers, get out of the city. Several hotels were built in the 1870s and early 1880s, and then after that, people started buying out big chunks of property to build summer homes on Gallloupes Point and Littles Point, you know.

Susan: It’s a beautiful area; definitely a beautiful area there.

Lou: Yeah. But the problem is, coming down along the coast, once you got to, almost to the Lynn-Swampscott line, actually right along there, there were fish shacks all along there. And then once you got over to the other side, all along Fisherman’s Beach, where the parking lot is and even further down, there were literally shacks that they kept the equipment in, sometimes fish – dried fish, which, you haven’t lived till you’ve smelled them.

Susan: Oh, boy.

Lou: So the town decided that – I think from pressure from some of these wealthier people and the owners of the hotels – that they needed to beautify the coast. So they took by eminent domain a lot of these little individual lots and built this fish building, the fish house, with all these lockers, so these people who had these small little shacks, or cottages, if you will, were guaranteed a locker in the building. And it is pretty much the way it is today, which is very, very beautiful, along the coast. So that’s kind of where it all started from, to kind of make the coast more beautiful. Some of the nicer fish cottages that they actually lived in were moved inland along Puritan – it was Orient Street, but now Puritan Road – and down through there. Half a dozen of them still exist. Some have been expanded, but a couple of the really small ones are still there. I’m sure they go for a fortune now.

Susan: They probably do.

Lou: Yeah. But that was why the Fish House was built. Architecturally, they didn’t want to just put up, you know, a block, so they hired this architect from Lynn. I can’t remember his name, but he designed the building – I think it’s thirty-six feet wide, but ninety feet long; I know it’s ninety feet long. The interesting thing is that the color of the Fish House right now is the color of the original Fish House. A few years later, they painted it a light brown. Then the next time it was painted, it was like a milk chocolate brown. And then I remember from my youth it being a darker brown with green doors, and then later with blue doors – I mean, it’s been this whole multiple-use, and cared-for, building. When the Historical Commission, in the ’80s, were getting ready to have it restored and were trying to find the colors, a couple of the doors into the lockers could not be opened all the way because of the paint buildup on them, so we managed to get one of the doors out, and it had like seven layers of paint on it – different colors, two or three inches wide.

Susan: Wow.

Lou: So we were able to trace it all the way back to the original building, which are the colors that it is now.

Susan: Very cool.

Lou: Yeah, it was. For, oh, maybe fifteen years, twenty years, tops, at one time it was painted red – which is what most people remember, because it was in the ’60s or ’70s, and it was red before we changed it to the color that it is now. It didn’t go over that big; people liked it red. That’s around the same time that the pier was built. Anyway, the fishermen used it for storing their gear and stuff. I don’t think that there’s any fishermen left – I think Mr. Grimes was the last of the real fishermen, net fishermen. There’s lobstermen in there now, and recreational boat people now. The last of the fishermen – and when I say fishermen I’m talking about drop lines and nets – they kind of either went up to Gloucester or Newbury, because they now go out to the Grand Banks more than this. When I was a kid you could catch a, sometimes you could catch a haddock knee-deep in water. Now if you caught a haddock out in Nahant Bay, you’d make the front page of The Item, because it’s been so overfished and polluted. So the fishermen have moved out, and there’s a couple of lobstermen still around. And I’ve always made a distinction between the two. So, like I said, they would store gear and stuff like that. Lots of times, the lobster traps would be stacked, because they were wood then, where the parking lot is now. And the dories on the beach. So that’s pretty much what it is and why it is, probably more than any other reason.

Susan: Sure. It’s definitely something unique to Swampscott.

Lou: Yeah. Well, Swampscott was a very small town, and they were only maybe twenty-five, thirty years old from – it was Ward One of Lynn until it separated in 1852 under the influence of some very successful large property owners and beach people, hotel people, so their influence through all of this – breaking away from Lynn, becoming an independent town, and then cleaning up the coastline, if you will, because then you had these enormous hotels and huge summer estates, and people traveling to get to it had to go by all these shacks and drying racks and stuff like that.

Susan: Interesting. Do you know any stories about some of the gentlemen who were actually fishermen at the time? What was it like to be a fisherman in their heyday?

Lou: It was tough. I’m not that old that I can remember; I knew a couple of them by sight and name, but not so much. We have records of – the dory was used along with what they called the pinky, which was kind of a fat two-masted schooner, first, before they became more sleek, and they were the ones they would take out to the sea, and then they’d get in the dories and go out with drop lines fishing. There is one story, I don’t remember the man’s name, but the guy from the other dory saw this giant shark jump into his boat. The boat, the shark, and the fisherman were never seen again, and he may well have been the first recorded death by shark; which is not something you want to be proud of, but I remember that story. I remember, when I was a kid my grandmother would give me Thursday night’s Item and a dollar, and I’d go sit down on the east end of Fisherman’s Beach waiting for one of the fisherman to come in, and I would go get a haddock or whatever the fish was. And they would gut it, clean it, wrap it in the paper, and I’d bring it home, and that was Friday night’s supper.

Susan: Oh, very good!

Lou: One time, this guy cut the head off, and I brought it home, and my grandmother was very upset with me, and said “How do I know it’s fresh?” I said, “It was flapping on the bottom of the boat!”

Susan: That’s pretty fresh!

Lou: Yeah, still pretty fresh. But she wanted it to make a fish chowder or something. But Lucky Williams was a very successful fisherman and a lobsterman for many, many years. Some of the characters that hung around the fish house, I knew they were friendly with my uncle. Some lived in the neighborhood. But the Martins were another big family of fishermen; the Houghtons; and like I said, they were fishermen, then some of them turned to lobsters, especially because the hotels and stuff wanted them. And then over the years that has also changed and become more out to sea and commercialized than individuals. I guess they’re hurting right now. So like I said, the agreement with the town is that they would be professional fishermen. And I remember one time, probably in the ’60s or ’70s, when they were starting to rent them out to individuals for recreation, they wanted to check their taxes to see what their – because a couple of them were oil truck deliverers during the winter, so were they full-time fishermen, or were they part-time fishermen? So who was entitled to – there was a long list of people waiting for a locker, so they were trying to figure out who was eligible first, because the agreement was that full-time fishermen would have first preference. In fact, I don’t think that’s even an issue anymore, because I think – and some of them are shared by two or three people now. So that’s about it.

Susan: Alright, that makes sense. Well, you mentioned one possible first with the shark attack; that’s a little scary. But I understand there are a few other firsts for Swampscott. I’ve heard that there was a gentleman named Ebeneezer Phillips, who was the first person of European background to learn how to dry fish, and then he went on to sell it?

Lou: Yes, indeed. He was very friendly with a bunch of Native Americans who spent the summer here doing exactly that before they went inland to shelter for the winter, and he started doing that, having fishermen do it. I don’t know if he ever did it himself. But eventually, he had a big, big area on Peaches Point in Marblehead, which is a very exclusive neighborhood now, was wide open and nothing around. So they had huge racks of drying fish; I can’t imagine what the smell was like. He built his house halfway up on Greenwood Avenue – if you go up Greenwood Avenue and then take the little curve around, the house is still there. It’s got a house or two in front of it now, but before it had nothing in front of it except sky and ocean, and he could sit on his porch and watch ships coming in and out of Boston Harbor with – he knew when they were due or when they were leaving, so he could keep his eyes tack of it. Eventually he donated the land for the high school on Greenwood Avenue, which is now condos for sale. He became a, he was one of the first millionaires in town. He owned tons and tons of acres and areas of land. And part of his family is the Cook family, which also had the stone quarry. So they were very enormous land barons, if you will, and successful business people. And he was one. Another first was the invention of the lobster trap. I can’t remember his name, Thorndike, I think, or was he the dory – one or the other. But the guy who invented the lobster trap, they kind of laughed at it at first because lobsters were so plentiful. You could literally go down into the rocky areas, like on Whale’s Beach, near Lincoln House Point, any rocky area, and literally pick them up by hand. You didn’t need a trap to catch them. Now you do; you’re lucky if you get any.

Susan: Sure, exactly.

Lou: But he invented the lobster trap, and obviously it took off, and then several generations – not generations, several decades – later, it was improved – more net and less slats. The original ones were trapezoids, because out here in the bay it’s mostly sand, so the round-top ones, which is the most famous ones now, if the current took it, they’d start spinning, and God knows where they’d end up. But the flat ones would sit flat – you know, the bottoms were flatter than the top, and the trapezoid shape. And then of course, the famous Swampscott dory. Every once in a while, we still get a request, mostly from Asia, for plans on how to build a wooden Swampscott dory. The last time I remember has got to be ten or twelve years ago – because, of course, probably everything’s online now, on the computer – but then they weren’t, and we had a request from Taiwan for instructions on how to build a Swampscott dory. Those three things, or two things, in one person, a real first. Maybe the fourth is the unfortunate passing of the fisherman.

Susan: Sure; yeah.

Lou: Yeah. So fishing has been a major, major part of the town. There was a – I forget the term; I remember my uncle telling me it, a thousand years ago – in the morning they’d start on the top of the hill, the fishermen, to get ready to go out, and they’d walk down to whoever’s house on the crew, and knock three times on the window and yell – I can’t remember what they’d yell – to get up and get going, because they wanted to take off, out to sea.

Susan: It’s their signal.

Lou: Yeah, it was a custom that I remember him telling me about. And like I said, the crews – we have information in the library, some books that have records of who, and what they caught, and how much – even in the anniversary, 150th anniversary book, I did a – I don’t even know what you’d call it, but it’s a log of events, and a lot of them in there are, ‘So and so brought in 14,000 pounds of herring’ – not herring, but stripers, or cod, or whatever.

Susan: That was a lot of hard work.

Lou: Oh, very hard. Oh, yeah, absolutely. And the irony of it is that most of the pictures that we have of old fishermen sitting around the Fish House are all dressed in suits with ties.

Susan: They knew the picture was being taken, maybe.

Lou: Evidently. There’s very few of them actually working. We have some – they used to have, when they were fishing, before, when the nets were still – I don’t know if they were cotton – thread, they would bring them in, and then they had these spinning racks that they would stretch the nets out and spin them on it so that they could air dry, because otherwise they’d rot, I guess. And we have pictures of those, of putting them on, and repairing nets. I can remember him. He had this special, it wasn’t really a needle, but to weave and repair nets. And I can remember seeing him sitting on Fisherman’s Beach, repairing his nets or someone’s nets. I always found it fascinating. But like I said, the fishing industry is pretty much gone in Swampscott, other than recreational. Lobstering is even a lot less than it used to be. That’s pretty much where we’re at.

Susan: Yeah. It shows that fishing was a really big part of Swampscott history.

Lou: Oh, absolutely.

Susan: Over time.

Lou: Oh, yeah.

Susan: You touched a little bit on what’s being done with the Fish House today. There’s not as many commercial fisherman, or people around?

Lou: Yeah, I’m not even sure – there’s maybe one or two; I don’t really know. The second floor of the Fish House, which was an enormous open area originally, on the ocean end, which has now got a little wing, it’s now got a balcony out there, it had a big slot – if you see a real old picture of the Fish House, it had a flat edge and this big open – not big open, but a tall, thin opening, and they could drag or pull sails up through there to dry, hang and dry, up on that floor.

Susan: Keep it out of the weather?

Lou: Yeah. That ended with the advent of motorboats. Then it became, I think in 1933, the Yacht Club took over the second floor, and still is there.

Susan: Ok, nice.

Lou: And then the third floor, which is technically, would be considered a widow’s walk, which is where the flagpole is, I think that’s – or it used to be if you go up there; I haven’t seen anybody up there in many, many – actually, it needs to be repaired right now. But like I said, the second floor became the Swampscott Yacht Club, and I think they eventually took over the entire second floor. For a long time they only had a little more than half. So that’s pretty much the way it’s used today.

Susan: Well, it’s certainly nice that it’s a central point for Swampscott residents – you know, the building looks nice, and it’s a community place for the town.

Lou: Yeah. They hold events there and in the parking lot. I don’t know if they have the splash… I forget what they call it.

Susan: The polar bear plunge?

Lou: The polar bear plunge, yeah. The Fourth of July they used to hold a ‘bang and go back’ race, a boat race. They’d all line up; they’d have to go full throttle out until they heard the cannon go off, then turn around and come back as fast as they could. The first one back won the trophy.

Susan: Alright!

Lou: I’m not sure they do that; I don’t think they’ve done that for many, many years; but they did for a long time. It’s kind of funny.

Susan: Very good. Well, thank you. Those are some very stories. We’re all proud of our town, but it’s nice to hear some of these firsts, and things that Swampscott can be known for and be proud of.

Lou: Yeah.

Susan: So I appreciate all the stories.

Lou: Well, I’m glad.

Susan: Yes, it’s worked out very well.

Lou: This is the kind of bull sessions that we have at the History Buffs, and it triggers the memories of a lot of the people who come, and we learn more about different events, you know, as opposed to hard-nosed, boring history. It becomes more fun and interesting. So hopefully, we’ll get back to doing that again. We’ve done it for twenty-three years.

Susan: Well, I hope we’ll continue on, you all. I definitely want to put a shout-out, if anyone else is interested in discussing Swampscott history, it’s a very good group of people that meets on the first Friday of every month at ten o’clock, and we should, as soon as the library is able to open back up to the public, the History Buffs will be right there again on the first Friday at ten. So we’re looking forward to that again.

Lou: Right, and hopefully the historical society is going to start – well, we do have lectures at the library on Saturdays upstairs, and we have a few ideas of people willing to do a program for that. That usually comes with slides and pictures. Again, one of these days, hopefully we will be doing them again.

Susan: Very good. We’re looking forward to that. Well, I will wrap up.

Lou: Well, be well.

Susan: Very good. Take care of yourself. Thank you to the listeners for joining us, and we’ll talk again sometime.

Lou: Anytime. Take care.

Susan: Thank you. Bye!

Lou: Bye!