Okay, when I left off last time, I said that Rockport was now a major tourist town. I mentioned that we went there a lot during the time we lived in Massachussets, and to a certain extent, going there in 2022 was (like the trip to Amherst) an attempt to recapture a little of our past. And (also like trip to Amherst) I was a little afraid that it was going to be a bust.
But, the only way to find out if or how the town had changed, and whether we would still like it, was to actually walk it. So...we set out. Parking is always an issue in Rockport, but we got lucky and found a space near Atlantic Ave., which is to say near the southern side of the little harbor. We then headed along Mount Pleasant past various shops and inns. Finally, we came to...
What’s that? you say. So glad you asked, I answer. Bearskin Neck is a rocky promontory ...a smallish peninsula...that juts out of the shore and forms the northern edge of the harbor. It isn’t huge...you can walk from end to end quite easily...but it is fascinating. It’s had several roles in its time. During the granite boom, it was where ships might pick up their cargoes of stone.(1)
During the War of 1812, there was a fort here. It was manned by local soldiers known “Sea Fencibles.” According to one story I’ve heard, the British landed men and took the fort easily...but the townspeople picked up rocks and used their stockings as slings to pound the invaders back into the ...er...stone age. (2)
After the Brits had made their exit, Bearskin Neck was gradually covered with fishing shacks and other structures...many of which were then taken over by proverbially starving artists when the town became an art colony--and, yes, one of the shacks became Motif No. 1, which I mentioned before.
Then, as Rockport became a serious tourist destination, the former shacks began a remarkable transition...going from shanties to retail, some of it rather fancy, indeed.
It is probably our personal favorite area of Rockport. Oh, don’t get me wrong. There are some other marvelous sections of the town, and there a good many excellent shops, hotels, and restaurants elsewhere (we were particularly fond of the neighborhoods along Mt. Pleasant, Broadway, and Main). But, as a rule, we tended to focus on the Neck. The architecture is funky, the businesses mostly small and locally owned, and you can see an enormous amount in a very short time and in a small space.
Oh, I should mention...the name. Why Bearskin Neck? Honestly, no one seems to know. The “Neck” part is obvious. It’s just another word for peninsula. But where does the skin of a bear get into it?
The answer I’ve seen online -- and on a local historical marker-- is that an early settler, Ebenezer Babson, was attacked by a bear near the Neck. In proper Dan’l Boone fashion, he killed it with just his knife. He then skinned the animal and left the pelt on the Neck as a trophy for all to see. From then on, the Neck was the bear skin neck.(3)
The historical marker on the Neck which offers one explanation of the Neck’s name--i.e., that it was the result of the heroic battle between Ebenezer Babson and, well, a bear. Who knows? It might even be true. Maybe.
I think the term, “Uh...yeah. Maybe” springs to mind here. (Have you ever tried to fight a bear? Much less skin one?) But, it could be true. You never can tell. Though...still... I have heard other stories. One of them goes that the unfortunate bear got caught in a freak wave while fishing down by the Neck...drowned...and was then skinned by a passerby.
Whatever. The Ebenezer story is the most dramatic. So let’s just go with that one.
Anyway, today, Bearskin Neck is a wonderful and wonderfully bewildering maze of shops, art galleries, and restaurants. You can get everything here from inexpensive t-shirts and “New England” (made in China) souvenirs to designer clothing to rather costly paintings, sculptures, prints, photography, and so on.(4)
And so, on that particular morning, we came to a halt just at the edge of the Neck. We hadn’t been there in years. The question, of course, was had things changed...and if so, for better or worse, or both. And, well, we were a little worried. We’ve seen a lot of places...shops and shopping districts...that have begun as something magical, but then were forced by economics or customer demand to become something all too leaden and plain. (There was that shop we knew at the beach on South Padre that was full of art and wonder...but became, in the span of a year, just another purveyor of beer-can cozys and t-shirts equipped with crude slogans about flatulence or fellatio. But that’s a story for another day...)
Anyway, we hesitated...but then, we squared our shoulders, took a breath, and headed out.
We needed to know the new Neck...one way or another.
More to come.
The second photo here, once again, has nothing to do with the story, but I thought it was fun. Shortly after we got back from New England, we threw ourselves into the campaign for Beto O'Rourke, who lost. But we gave it our best shot. This is a selfie of the two of us at our first Beto organizational meeting. (We’ll do it next time, Beto old boy!)
1. Again, Bearskin Neck has its own Wikipedia page and I use it for my primary source here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bearskin_Neck
2. For more on the Sea Fencibles and the Rocks In Socks battle, see the Bearskin Neck Wikipedia piece, and also Angela Kryhul’s amusing and well-written page on the subject, here: https://kryhul.com/2012/12/28/a-war-of-1812-tale-thatll-knock-your-socks-off/. Whether or not the townsfolk really used their stockings as slings remains controversial, but, as always, it makes a great story.
3. For more on the story of the bear and the formidable Mr. Babson, see “The Legend of the Bear and the Sign,” by Paul St. Germain on the Cape Ann Museum site, here: https://www.capeannmuseum.org/legend-bear-and-sign/.
4. Potential visitors to Rockport and Bearskin Neck can check out the Bearskin Neck (dot) Net site here: http://bearskinneck.net/. It contains a great deal of information and also some lovely photos of the area.
5. This actually happened to me. My parents had a beach house on South Padre Island, which is just at the very southernmost tip of the state of Texas. One year, we went to visit them, and during an excursion across the bridge to the mainland, we stumbled across a little shop just on the other side of the causeway that was really intriguing. It offer an eclectic selection of goods, ranging from new and used books, works by local artists and craftspeople (most placed on consignment by the creators themselves), and various antiques. Or, if not exactly antiques, then at least older goods that were interesting and fun, like vintage irons and tools.
We came back a year later, and it was completely remade. The books, artworks, and antiques had all gone away...replaced by beach towels, paddle boards, beer hats, and racks of swimsuits and t-shirts. In other words, it had become a generic beach shop of the sort you find in places where Spring Break is its own season, and where what’s considered a witty purchase is a pair of men’s underwear, extra wide, with ...across the behind...the slogan “world’s largest source of natural gas.”
I was startled and actually asked a clerk about the transformation. He shrugged. “The co-op? Went out of business. They couldn’t make a profit,” he explained. “And you do?” I asked. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “We get crowds in here every day.”
I sighed. I understand about marketing and serving customers. And yet...and yet...
Sometimes I wish for something a little more.
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