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CAPE COD FOLKS
A Village Sign
IT was densely dark when I arrived at Yarmouth one October evening. Viewed from the platform of the railway station the world about was a void of inky gloom.
“If you’re lookin’ for the town,” said a man at my elbow, “you’ll find it over in that direction;” and he pointed with his finger. “You follow the road and turn to the right when you’ve gone half a mile or so, and that’ll take you straight into the village.”
“But I don’t see any road,” said I.
“Well, it goes around the corner of that little shed over thar that the light from the depot shines on.”
“And how far is it to a hotel?”
“We ain’t got no hotel in this place; but Mr. Sutton, two houses beyond the post-office, he keeps people, and I guess he’ll take you in all right.”
I trudged off along the vague highway, and at length reached the town street, a narrow thoroughfare solidly overarched by trees. Dwellings were numerous on either side, and lights glowed through curtained windows. How snug those silent houses looked; and how cheerless seemed the outer darkness and the empty street to the homeless stranger! I lost no time in hunting up Mr. Sutton’s, and the shelter he granted brought a very welcome sense of relief.
When I explored Yarmouth the next day I found it the most attenuated town I had ever seen. The houses nearly all elbowed each other for a distance of two or three miles close along a single slender roadway. Very few dwellings ventured aside from this double column. Apparently no other situation was orthodox, and I suppose the familes which lived off from this one street must have sacrificed their social standing in so doing.
Yarmouth was settled in 1639 and is the oldest town on the Cape. Its inhabitants in the past have been famous seafaring folk, and fifty years ago almost every other house was the domicile of a retired sea-captain, and in the days of the sailing vessels the Yarmouth men voyaged the world over. A certain class of them went before the mast, but the majority were ship’s officers. A goodly number of the latter amassed wealth in the India and China trade. This wealth has descended in many instances still intact to the generation of to-day, and accounts for the town’s air of easygoing comfort. Fortunes, however, arc no more drawn from the old source, and at present the ambitious youth who aspires to riches turns his eyes cityward. The sea has ceased to promise a bonanza. Even the local fishing industry is wholly dead, though it is only a few decades since the town had quite a mackerel fleet; hut the little craft are all gone now, and nothing remains of the old wharves save some straggling lines of black and broken piles reaching out across the broad marshes that lie between the long street and the salt water.
These marshes are of rather more economic importance to modern Yarmouth than the sea itself; for grass and rank sedges cover them and furnish a considerable proportion of the hay that is harvested. I liked to loiter on their wet levels and watch the men swing their scythes. I noticed that they left untouched the coarse grass that grew on the strips of sand. “That’s beach grass,” said one of the mowers with whom I talked. “The stock won’t eat that, nor any other creatures won’t eat it that I know of except skunks. Thar’s plenty of them chaps along the shore on these ma’shes, and me ‘n’ my dog kitch a lot of ‘em here every winter.”
The route back to the town from the marsh on which this skunk hunter was at work led across a low ridge of stony pasture-land where the blackberry vines displayed their ruddy autumn foliage and brightened the earth like flashes of flame. A most beautiful little lane threaded along the crest of the ridge. It was only
Anchoring his Haystacks
about a dozen feet broad and was hemmed in by stone walls overgrown with hushes, among which rose an occasional tree. The paths trodden by the cows’ hoofs in the turf of the lane wandered irregularly along, avoiding obstructions, and, as a rule, following the line of the least resistance. There was, however, now and then, a deflection, which the cattle had made purposely toward the thickest of the bordering brush, intent on crowding up against the twigs to rid themselves of flies. How shadowy and protected and pastoral the lane was! I envied the boys who drove the cows and thus had the chances to make a daily renewed acquaintance with its arboreal seclusion.
Not far from where the lane emerged on the village street stood a dwelling that I looked at with interest every time I passed. It was a low and primitive structure, and behind it was a little barn surmounted by a swordfish weather vane. Swordfish or ships, I observed, were the favorite vanes everywhere for Cape Cod outbuildings. The attraction of this home, with its curious air of repose under the shadowing trees, grew until one day I ventured into the yard. Near the barn a gray-bearded ancient had just hitched a venerable horse into a wagon, and was preparing to grease the vehicle’s wheels. I spoke with him, and after some preliminaries said, “It appears to me you have about the oldest house in town.”
He gave me a sudden look of surprise out of the corner of his eyes, the purport of which I did not at the moment understand, and then went on with his work. “Ye-ye-yes,” he replied, in his hasty, stammering way; for his thoughts seemed to start ahead of his tongue and the latter gained control with difficulty. “Ye-ye-yes, he is old, but he’s a good hoss yit!”
“Oh, I didn’t say horse,” I remarked quickly. “I was speaking of your house.”
“My h-h-h-h-house, hm-m-m! That — that’s one of the old settlers. Must be two hundred year old; and do you see that pear tree thar with the piece of zinc nailed over the bad place in the trunk, and the iron bands around up where the branches begin, so’t they won’t split off? I s’pose that pear tree’s as old as the house.”
“What kind is it?”
“It-it-it-it’s wha-what we call the old-fashioned button pear. Uncle Peter Thacher that had this place years ago used to pick up the pears and sell ‘em to the boys for a cent apiece. They ain’t much larger’n wa’nuts. They’re kind of a mealy kind of a pear, you know — very good when they first drop off, but they rot pretty quick.”
The man had finished applying the wheel grease now, and he clambered into the wagon and drove off, while I walked on. I passed entirely through the village into a half-wild region beyond, where much of the land was covered by a dense pine wood. There were occasional farm clearings; but I noticed that the houses of this outlying district were generally vacant. Opposite one of the deserted homes was a corn-field that attracted my attention because the tops of the corn stalks had been cut off and carted away, and the ears left on the stubs to ripen. This was a common way of treating corn years ago, but is seldom seen now. Here and there in the field were scarecrows—sometimes an old coat and hat hoisted on a stake; sometimes a pole with a fluttering rag at the top, and, suspended a little lower down on the same pole, a couple of rusty tin cans that rattled together dubiously in the breeze. As I was leaning over the roadside wall contemplating this corn-field a man came along and accosted me, and I improved the opportunity to ask him why so many of the houses of the neighborhood were unoccupied.
An Autumn Corn Field
The tops of the stalks have been cut off for fodder
“Wal,” said he, “people don’t like to live outside o’ the villages nowadays. Sence the fishin’ give out, the young folks all go off to get work, and they settle somewhar else, and the old folks move into the towns. In this house across the road, though, an old woman lived, and she died thar two years ago. She was kind o’ queer, and some say she wa’n’t a woman at all. She wore women’s clothes, but she had a beard and shaved every mornin’, and her hair was cut short, and she carried on the farm and did the work just like a man.”
My acquaintance spit meditatively and then inquired, “Have you seen Hog Island?”
“No,” I responded.
“You’d ought to. It ain’t fur from tother end of Yarmouth village. You go down the lane along the crick thar and ask the way of Jimmy Holton that lives by the bridge. He’ll tell you. It ain’t really an island, but a bunch o’ trees in a little ma’sh, and they grow so’t if you see ‘em from the right place they look just like a hog — snout, tail, and all.”
The man had in his hand a large scoop with a row of long wooden teeth projecting from its base. This is the kind of implement used in gathering most of the Cape Cod cranberries, and the man was on his way to a berry patch he cultivated in a boggy hollow, not far distant. I accompanied him and found his wife and children on their knees, each armed with a scoop with which they were industriously scratching through the low mat of vines. Where they had not yet picked, the little vines were twinkled all over with ripe berries — genuine autumn fruit, waxen-skinned, ruddy-hued, and acid to the tongue — as if the atmospheric tartness and coolness had helped the sun to dye and flavor them.
The bog was not at all wild. In preparing it for cranberry culture, it had been thoroughly tamed.
A Cranberry Picker
Brush and stumps had been cleared off and the turf removed. Then it had been levelled and coated with a layer of sand. It was encompassed and more or less cut across by ditches; and, in the process of clearing, steep banks had been heaved up around the borders.
Harvest on a Cranberry Bog
“Cranberries are a great thing for the Cape,” said my friend. “They’re the best crop we have, but it’s only late years we’ve gone into ‘em. When I was a boy, the only cranberries we used to have was a little sort that growed in the bogs wild; and we never thought nothin’ o’ dreanin’ the ma’shes and goin’ into the business the way we do now.
“My bog ain’t fust class. A man’s got to put a lot o’ work into raisin’ cranberries to do the thing just right, and when you only got a small bog you kind o’ neglectify it. There’s one bog about a mile from here that’s got sixteen acres in it, and they’re always tendin’ to it in one way and another the year around. They keep it clear of weeds, and if there’s any sign of firebug they steep tobacco and spray the vines. If there’s a dry spell they rise the water, though that don’t do as much good as it might. You c’n water a plant all you want to, but waterin’ won’t take the place o’ rain.
“Pretty soon after we finish pickin’ we flood the bogs and they stay flooded all winter, if the mushrats don’t dig through the banks. The water keeps the plants from freezin’ and seems to kind o’ fertilize them at the same time. The ponds make grand skatin’ places. They freeze over solid — no weak spots — and they ain’t deep enough to be dangerous, even if you was to break through.”
This man’s statement as to the importance of cranberry culture to the dwellers on the Cape was in nowise exaggerated. When I continued my journeyings later to the far end of the peninsula I saw reclaimed berry bogs innumerable. There was scarcely a swampy depression anywhere but that had been ditched and diked and the body of it laid off as smooth as a floor and planted to cranberries. The pickers were hard at work — only two or three of them on some bogs, on others a motley score or more. It seemed as if the task engaged the entire population irrespective of age and sex; and the picking scenes were greatly brightened by the presence of the women in their calico gowns and sunbonnets or broad-brimmed straw hats. Often the bogs were far enough from home, so that the workers carried their dinners and made the labor an all-day picnic, though I thought the crouching position must grow rather wearisome after a time.
Aside from the fertile and productive bogs the aspect of the Cape was apt to be monotonous and sombre. The cultivated fields appeared meagre and unthrifty, the pastures were thin-grassed and growing up to brush, and, more predominant than anything else in the landscape, were the great tracts of scrubby woodland, covered with dwarfed pines and oaks, often fire-ravaged, and never a tree in them of respectable size. Ponds and lakes were frequent. So were the inlets from the sea with their borderings of salt marsh; indeed, the raggedness of the shore line was suggestive of a constant struggle between the ocean and the continent for the possession of this slender outreach of the New England coast. The buffeting of the fierce sea winds was evident in the upheave of the sand dunes and the landward tilt of the exposed trees — trees that had a very human look of fear, and seemed to be trying to flee from the persecuting gales, but to be retarded by laggard feet.
At the jumping-off tip of the Cape is Provincetown, snugged along the shore, with steep protecting hills at its back. It is a town that has an ancient old-world look due to its narrow streets, with houses and stores and little shops crowded close along the walks. It is a fishy place, odorous of the sea, and the waterside is lined with gray fish-shanties and storehouses. Many spindle-legged wharves reach out across the beach, and there are dories and small sailing-craft in and about the harbor, and always a number of schooners, and occasionally a larger vessel.
The inhabitants love the sea or else are involuntarily fascinated by it. They delight to loiter on the wharves and beach, and to sit and look out on old ocean’s wrinkled surface and contemplate its hazy mystery. One would fancy they thought it replete with beneficent possibilities, and that they were willing lingerers dreamily expecting something fortunate or fateful would heave into view from beyond the dim horizon. The children seek the beach as assiduously as their elders. It is their playground, their newspaper. They poke about the wharves strewn with barrels and boxes, spars, chains, ropes, anchors, etc.; they find treasures in the litter that gathers on the sands; they dig clams on the mud-flats; they race and tumble, and they learn all that is going on in the shipping.
The most exciting event while I was in town was an unexpected catch of squids in the harbor. Squids are the favorite bait of the cod fishermen, but at Provincetown there is rarely a chance to get this bait so late in the year. The squids sought the deepest portion of the hay, and a little fleet of small boats collected above and captured them by the barrelful. One midday I stood watching the boats from a wharf. Two men who had come onto the wharf soon after I did were regarding the scene from near by. “It’s queer how them squids hang in that deep hole thar,” said one of the men.
“They bring a good price for cod bait, I believe,” said I.
“Yes, Willie Scott, that lives next door to me, he made seven dollars this morning and has gone out ag’in. I’ll bet his eyes are full of squid juice this minute. The squids don’t trouble much that way, but they’ll flip up a smeller (that’s what we call their arms) and give you a dose once in a while, spite of all you can do. It makes your eyes sting, but the sting don’t last long.”
“How large are these squids?” I asked.
“Oh, they’re small — not much more’n a foot and a half, smelters and all.”
The other man now spoke. He was short and dark, had rings in his ears, and his accent was decidedly foreign. “Cap’n Benson,” said he, to his companion, “I seen the butt end of a squid smeller big as this barrel what I’m settin’ on.”
Cap’n Benson puffed a few times judiciously at his pipe. “Yes,” he acknowledged presently, “there’s a good many kinds of squids, and they do kitch ‘em large enough so one’ll last a cod schooner for bait a whole v’yage. We only get a little kind here.”
Looking over the Cod Lines
The wharf we were on was nearly covered with racks on which a great quantity of salted codfish had been spread to dry, and Cap’n Benson informed me there was plenty more fish awaiting curing in the hold of a slender-masted vessel that lay alongside the wharf.
“She’s a Grand-Banker — this schooner is that brought these fish,” he continued. “We ain’t got but six Grand-Bankers now, and only fifteen fresh fishermen. The fresh fishermen, you know, don’t go farther’n the Georges and the West Banks. Forty years ago we had two hundred fishing schooners owned here, and we had sixty-seven whale ships where now we got only three. Provincetown is played out. This mornin’ me and this man with me didn’t have but one hour’s work, and we won’t have over two hours this afternoon. How you goin’ to make a livin’ at twenty cents an hour with things goin’ on that way? Forty years ago you couldn’t get enough men at three dollars and a half a day.”
The man with the ear-rings had picked up a piece of shell and was attempting to drop it from the height of his shoulder through a crack in the wharf. He failed to accomplish his purpose though he tried again and again.
“Mr. Klunn, if you want to drop that shell through thar, just mention the minister,” advised Cap’n Benson.
He had hardly spoken when Mr. Klunn let the shell fall, and it slipped straight through the crack. “I godfrey!” exclaimed the Cap’n, “I did it for you. I never known that to fail. When I been whaling, and we was cutting up the whale, you couldn’t sometimes strike a j’int. You’d try and try and you couldn’t strike it, and then you’d stop and say ‘Minister!’ and it was done already — you’d hit the j’int right off.”
“I seen a whale heave up a shark the half as big as a dory,” remarked Mr. Klunn, after a pause.
“To be sure,” the Cap’n commented. “How-somever, there’s people say a whale can’t take in nothin’ bigger’n a man’s hand; but my idea is that’s after he’s been eatin’ and had all he wanted.”
“By gosh! a whale got a swallow so big enough, if he hongry, he swallow a man easy,” Mr. Munn declared. “Some peoples ain’t believe about Jonah, but they believe if they seen as much whales that I have.”
“I’m thinkin’ about them squids,” Cap’n Benson said, as he shook his pipe free from ashes and slipped it into the pocket of his jacket. “I guess when the tide comes in to-night, I’ll haul out my boat and see if I can’t get some of ‘em.”
“I ain’t had no boat since the big storm,” observed the man with car-rings.
“What storm was that?” I inquired.
“It was when the Portland went down, in November, 1899,” explained Cap’n Benson. “We had an awful time — wharves smashed, boat-houses carried off, and vessels wrecked. It begun to blow in the night. Fust thing I knowed of, it was my chimley comin’ down.”
“I was sick that time,” said the ear-ring man. “The doctor had to give me morphine pills. I was in the bed two, three days, and I lose one hundred and eighty-seven dollar by the storm. You remember that schooner, Cap’n Benson, what the two old mens was drownded on?”
“Oh, I remember — washed overboard out here in the harbor, and the wind took the schooner bang up ag’in a wharf, and the cap’n, he made a jump and landed all right, and he never stopped to look behind to see what become of his vessel nor nobody. He run up into the town and he took the next train for California.”
“Yas, that’s true,” Mr. Klunn affirmed.
Later, while stopping over night at a Truro farmhouse, a few miles back on the Cape, I heard more of the great storm. “Thar was three days of it,” said my landlady, “startin’ on Saturday. It thundered and lightened on Sunday, and it snowed Monday. Everythin’ that wa’n’t good ‘n’ strong was plowed down. It blowed the shed off the end of our house, and it blowed a window in upstairs, and it blowed the saddle boards off the roof and some o’ the shingles. We had the highest tide we’ve ever had, and there was places where the sea-water come across the roads. Monday the bodies begun to he washed ashore from the Portland, and they kep’ comin’ in for two weeks.”
Truro is a scattered little country place. Its homes dot every protected hollow. The only buildings that seemed independent of the smiting of the winter blasts were the town hall and the Baptist, Methodist, and Catholic churches. These stood in a group on the barest, bleakest hilltop. The churchyards were thickset with graves, and among the stones grew little tangles of sumachs and other bushes, but the sandy height had not a single tree.
AN OLD WHARF
On this hill, years ago, stood still another public institution — a windmill. “It sot high up thar, so’t it was in sight all over town,” said my landlady. “You could see the miller puttin’ the sails on the arms, and then when they got to turnin’ we’d know which way the wind blowed. But some days there wouldn’t be no wind, and the sails might hang there and not turn the whole day long. We used to raise this yaller Injun corn then, a good deal more’n we do now on the Cape, and we raised rye, and we’d take the grain to the windmill to grind. You can’t buy no such corn meal or rye meal now as we used to get from that old mill. We e’t hasty-pudding them days, and it used to be so nice! and we had Johnny-cake, and hasty-pudding bread that was made by putting some of the hasty-pudding into flour and mixing ‘em up into dough together.”
Public Buildings on the Hilltop
Of the churches on the bill the Catholic was the newest. It was a little shed of a building with a gilt cross surmounting the front gable. The attendants were chiefly Portuguese, the nationality which at present constitutes the great majority of the coast fisher-folk. Most of the fishing is done in rowboats, and the fish are caught in nets fastened to lines of stakes offshore. These fish-traps, as they are called, are visited daily. The crew of a rowboat usually consists of a “Cap’n,” who is pretty sure to be a Yankee, and seven men who are likely to be all Portuguese. Truro had four rowboats thus manned. They started out at three in the morning and returned anywhere from noon to eight in the evening.
“It’s hard work,” explained my landlady, “and the Yankee men don’t take up fishin’, late years, the way they did. I reckon they c’n make more money farmin’.”
A Cape Cod Roadway
I wondered at this. The sandy soil did not look productive, and yet the houses as a rule were painted and in good repair, and conveyed a pleasing impression of prosperity The people with whom I talked seemed to be satisfied. “We git good crops,” said a farmer I questioned about agricultural affairs. “We c’n raise most all kinds o’ vegetables in the hollers, and good grass, too, though our heaviest crops o’ grass we git off’n the mashes. The cows like salt hay fully as well as they do fresh hay, and they like sedge best of all, because it’s sweet; but you have to be careful about feedin’ ‘em too much of that or the milk’ll taste. Of course we got plenty o’ pasture on the higher ground and plenty o’ timber sich as ‘tis. The trees don’t flourish, though, and you won’t find many that are much bigger’n your leg. This is a great country for wild berries — blueberries, blackberries, and huckleberries. Our Portuguese here — land I they git half their livin’ in the woods. Besides berries there’s beach plums and wild cherries. But the cherries we don’t use for common eatin’. We put ‘em up in molasses, and they kind o’ work and are good to take for the stomach and the like o’ that.”
I climbed over the hills round about Truro and tramped the sandy, deeply rutted roads faithfully. It was weary work to one used to solid earth. Such lagging progress! I could never get a good grip with my feet, and slipped a little backward every time I took a step forward. Except along the watercourses nature’s growths never attained the least exuberance. The grass on the slopes and uplands was very thin, and with the waning of the season much of it had become wispy and withered. It was mingled with goldenrod and asters that hugged the earth on such short, stunted stems as to be hardly recognizable.
The landscape as viewed from a height had a curiously unstable look. Its form had not been moulded by attrition, but the soil had been blown into vast billows that had the appearance of a troubled sea whose waves were on the point of advancing and overwhelming the habitations and all the green growing things in the vales. Some of the dunes really do advance, and the state has been obliged to make appropriations and devise means for checking their depredations. The work has chiefly been accomplished with the aid of beach grass. This has an affiliation for sand, and you can stick one of its coarse, wiry tufts in anywhere and it will grow. It only needs to be methodically planted, and the shifting dunes are fast bound and the winds assail them in vain.
Some of the characteristics of this beach grass seemed also to be characteristics of the people of the Cape. They have the same hardiness and endurance, and, like the beach grass, have adapted themselves to their environment and thrive where most would fail. \With its omnipresent sand and dwarf woods, the Cape, as I saw it at the fag end of the year, appeared rather dreary, but the prosperous look of the homes was very cheering. These are nearly all owned free from debt, and that nightmare of the agriculturists in so many parts of New England — a mortgage — is happily almost unknown among the Cape Cod folks.
The Mowers on the Marshes