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Merchants of Old Cohasset

Lucy E. Treat

From Savor of Salt, edited by Jacqueline M. Dormitzer (Town of Cohasset, Mass., 2006), pp. 106-112).

Lucy Evelyn Treat (1884-1969) was the daughter of the mariner, cooper, and boat builder Nathaniel Treat. She grew up at Sandy Cove, where her father built his boat shop from remnants of the salt works destroyed by the Lighthouse Gale of 1851. She must have heard many stories from seafarers and other oldtimers who frequented Treat’s boatyard. Drawing on her memories, she began to write articles for the Cohasset Cottager when she was about fifty years old. A schooteacher for much of her life, she also served as editor and proofreader on the Committee on Town History that produced volume II of the Narrative History of Cohasset, published in 1956. The four works that follow (and one later on) provide an engaging account of bygone days in Cohasset.

It is an early June morning in old Cohasset, about the middle of the [nineteenth] century. The railroad has not yet come to Cohasset; therefore, transportation is largely by water. Like many another seaport town, the commercial life of Cohasset centers about the harbor. From the head of the Cove this June morning sound the click of the caulker’s mallet and the tap of the cooper’s driver in the coopering shops. Caulkers, carrying their kit and bundle of oakum, are arriving on the wharf. Under the packing sheds the men are already busy salting and packing the early catches of mackerel. A kettle of pitch bubbles merrily on the beach.

Out in the channel Captain George Hall’s packet, the Stranger, is loaded and waiting for the tide to make an early trip to Boston. The pinkey Clio is at anchor and the Essex is lying alongside the wharf. Captain Henry Collier’s smartly sailing vessel, the Sappho, is going out from the harbor in a stiff breeze, bound for Maine for a load of lumber. Along each side of the narrow channel, tall saplings have been driven down into mud to mark the course for incoming and outgoing vessels. Only yesterday an irate skipper remarked, “It’s a devil of a harbor where one has to navigate between a sand bar and a huckleberry bush.”

The merchants of old Cohasset are early abroad. Around the head of the harbor comes a democrat wagon drawn by a sleek, brown horse whose reins are held by one of the town’s leading merchants, Mr. John Bates. Beside him is his neighbor Captain Abraham Tower, who also is riding down to his daily work in his store and on his wharf. A man of rugged worth and grim humor, a man of wide business and shipping interests, Mr. Bates holds a prominent place in the commercial life of Cohasset. He also holds a prominent place in the church life of his community. On Sundays he never fails to don his tall, black beaver hat and attend the church of his choice, which owes much to Deacon Bates’s largesse. The largest fleet of fishing vessels sailing out of Cohasset belongs to Mr. Bates. He is the owner also of several barks and ships engaged in foreign trade. His bark Vesta is in at the wharf, just returned from a profitable Mediterranean voyage.

As Mr. Bates opens the door of his store, the familiar smell of paint, rope, and tar and the clean smell of dry groceries greet him. Barrels of hardtack and clean, white sugar stand behind the counter. A molasses hogshead is always on tap. Several hams, which have sweated from being too closely packed in the barrel, are hung up to dry off. From the rafters are suspended ship lanterns, hanks of cod lines, and fishing gear of all kinds. Up in the loft Mr. Bates keeps a full line of oil clothes, sou’easters, and rubber boots.

All in this store savors of the sea. Everything used in outfitting a vessel is found here. Mr. Bates is a rather brusque man but possesses a keen wit. After receiving recently from one of his captains a rather important message written on a postal card, he gravely presented the skipper on his return a box of writing paper and envelopes. “Here, Captain Cobb,” said Mr. Bates. “Here is something for you. The next time you send me a card, write me a letter.”

On the wharf next to Mr. Bates, Captain Abraham Tower and his sons are carrying on their fishing and lumber business. The Winona and the Omega are both in their berths this morning. At the Gulf Mill the miller Caleb Bailey is taking advantage of the high tide, which is rushing into the river, to grind this morning.

The sound of the broad ax and the maul is heard in the shipbuilding yard of Isaac Hall on the opposite side of the harbor. Such vessels as the Forest Oaks, the Morning Star, and the Katy Hall are being built and launched for their maiden trip. People are early astir at the lower harbor also. Captain Abraham Hall is standing in the doorway of his outfitting store, over which is the figurehead from the wrecked brig the St. John. His brother George, the packet master, is busy on the wharf.

Up at the head of the harbor, in Amos Tilden’s blacksmith shop, the sparks are flying from the anvil as Mr. Tilden deftly shapes a vessel’s keel and hammers out bolts and braces. All the ironwork that goes into the making of a vessel is wrought here at the forge. This shop is a favorite gathering place for the men this June day, for in this long building there is plenty of room. No one need step on another’s toes or get in his neighbor’s way.

Nearby in his little shop, Samuel Bates, the tinsmith, is hammering a stovepipe. A shining array of tin pails, recently completed, adorns one wall of the store. Bright tin pans piled on a counter are another evidence of this tinsmith’s craft.

The merchants of Cohasset center are as busy this June morning as are the skippers and outfitters on wharves at the harbor. In his specials store, opposite the Unitarian church, Calvin Merriam is measuring off calico for a Cohasset housewife. His brother-in-law James Nichols is filling out grocery orders for waiting customers. The Hingham and Cohasset packets brought in a large shipment of goods this morning for the dry goods merchants.

The morning mail has just come in. At Charles Gross’s grocery store the letters are neatly stacked in between the brass hooks on the mail barrel arrangement. This barrel stands on the counter and revolves, and its letters are protected from handling by too inquisitive people by a glass shield in front of the barrel.

Some schoolchildren from the center Primary are buying new slates and slate pencils from the kind-hearted, bespectacled gentleman Newcomb Bates, who serves the reading public of Cohasset. In his little shop one finds almanacs, magazines and newspapers, quill pens, and ruled writing paper.

Tapping, tapping at his cobbler’s bench sits Thomas Beal in his small shop under the Stoddard hill. In a few weeks he will lay aside his shoemaker’s apron to don oil clothes for a few months of summer fishing.

A bright, gilded sign over a store door farther down Cove Street announces that this is the shop of Philander Bates, Men’s, Women’s, Boys’, Misses’, and Children’s Boots, Shoes, and Rubbers. Also manufacturer of boots and shoes to measure.

A new line of summer calicos, muslins, and bolts of cotton cloth have been received at the store of the Stetson Brothers, Morgan and Elisha, on Summer Street. Cohasset housewives like to trade at this store because it is spick and span, meticulously neat, like the owner, and no loafers are tolerated here. Only a few men of the neighborhood have stopped for a moment on the long piazza to discuss the approaching Fourth of July celebration.

In the Beechwood part of Cohasset also, people are early abroad this June morning. Trade is brisk in the store of Aaron and John Pratt. This is a real country store, crowded full of groceries, farming tools, salt fish, and dry goods. Aaron is busy making out a legal document for a neighbor, for he bears the title of Squire Pratt, and as a lawyer and justice of the peace he is a busy man.

Merchants, skippers, outfitters, and shipbuilders, these are the men of initiative and business acumen who are providing work for the majority of Cohasset citizens. Through patience, honesty, and hard work they are accumulating moderate wealth and leading satisfactory lives.

It is the evening of the same June day. The ship chandlers’ stores are locked and shuttered. Activity has ceased on the wharves. Only in Captain Alexander Prouty’s general store at the head of the harbor, the men of the neighborhood are gathered, smoking and rehearsing the doings of the day. On Cove Bridge the tailor is working late at his press board. Under the counter he keeps a jug of rum, tied up in a pant leg, for thirsty customers. One by one the men in the stores drift homeward. Captain Prouty comes forth, turns the key in the lock, and puts up the shutters. The lights on the vessels at anchor in Sutton Rock Hole are twinkling brightly. Overhead the moon rides high in the sky, and the quiet of a June night falls on the stores and wharves of old Cohasset.

It is another June morning about forty years later in Cohasset. The Civil War has taken its toll of Cohasset’s manhood. The merchants of yesterday have made the final reckoning and closed their books. At the harbor only the spikes and stonework of the busy wharves of a generation ago are standing.

A few of yesterday’s younger merchants or their sons are still in business, but most of the town’s commercial life is carried on by a new generation of shopkeepers. At the Tower Wharf, the sons Abraham and [Newcomb] are carrying on a coal, lumber, and grocery business. In the building opposite the newly built Osgood School, the old shoemaker Benjamin Morse, wearing a leather apron, sits at his cobbler’s bench repairing shoes. Out in the main store Deacon Philander Bates is still in the shoe business. This morning he is arranging, in orderly sequence on his shelf, the boxes of shoes from a recently arrived case from Bacheldor and Lincoln, wholesale shoe dealers. Over by the candy counter, two youngsters are giving serious thought to the weighty problem of getting the most possible for their money. Five pennies will buy fifty jellybeans, measured out generously by Mr. Bates in a little brown bean pot, or an assortment of licorice sticks, boss chewers, and [cinnamon balls], spicily sweet.

After the children are in school, Deacon Bates sits down at his desk in the corner to make up his accounts and sign some town orders. He has not only been engaged in business all these years, but he has also served Cohasset well as representative and as selectman. This evening in his back shop, a few of his friends and some of the “old timers” will gather to discuss town affairs and enjoy the story telling and wit of one or two of the old, retired captains.

Thomas Beal’s shoe shop is still standing under the hill, but it is son Billy who is selling harnesses and making shoes. Billy used to be a ship’s carver in Boston. On one side of the shop wall is a sample of his art, a carving of the Medusa’s head. What a fascinating object this is for the schoolchildren as they glance in passing through the open door! A brogan shoe nearly two feet long, made as an advertisement by “General” Grant, a local character who worked for Billy one winter, serves as a craftsman’s sign.

Gross and Nichols’s store is well filled this morning with customers. A few liveried coachmen from Jerusalem Road are consulting the order lists of their mistresses. The summer residents have come to Cohasset, and in answer to new demands Gross and Nichols are selling new goods and doing a thriving business. The post office has long ago been transferred to St. John’s store, opposite Depot Court.

Allen Bates, son of the old tinsmith at the harbor, is carrying on a successful plumbing business, with the aid of his two sons, in his store opposite the old town pump.

The hammers are ringing on the anvil in the blacksmith’s shop at the Cove, but it is Charles Tilden, son of Amos, who is fashioning the iron on the forge today. In the back shop, Mr. Denithorne, the wheelwright, is getting out the frame of an express wagon. Outside, a couple of men are pushing a carriage up the run to the paint shop above. In the rear of this upper shop, Samuel Tower is upholstering a carriage while his son Clarence is stuffing leather cushions with dried seaweed. These seaweed-stuffed cushions have become a very marketable article.

The fish-packing sheds at the harbor are gone, and fishing vessels are no longer tied up at the wharf. Instead, trim catboats and pleasure craft are being built in Arthur Higgins’s boat shop at the head of the Cove. New days have brought in new ways and new industries. The commercial life of Cohasset has lost its early savor of salt.

From Lucy E. Treat, “Merchants of Old Cohasset,” Cohasset Cottager, January 13, 1939.