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New England's Harborside Fish Shacks

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.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

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