Hampton Beach "Motif No. 1"

(The Hampton Beach Fish Houses)

By Willard de Lue -- XIV

The Boston Globe

Monday, August 25, 1952

{In some cases, illustrations have been added that
do not appear in the original newspaper articles.}
HAMPTON (NORTH) BEACH -- There is no modern seawall along the lower end of the north beach, above the Great Boars Head. The only barrier to the Winter's hammering surf is a high mound of gravel and small stones heaped up behind the sands.

"And in the Spring," said a cottager, "half of it is out in the road in front of the houses. Then they come in with steam shovels and bulldozers and pile it all back in place again.

"Sometime," said he, "we'll have a seawall here. You'll find one up the beach. When they got it built that far, the money gave out . . . and then came the war, and we're still waiting."

This stony rampart is heaped up so high that it bars all view of the beach and the ocean. So, walking along behind it and supposing it to be a natural formation, I concluded that the hidden shore must be a stony one indeed. Yet, when I scrambled to the barrier's top (where cottagers have set out their benches so that they get a look at the sea once in a while) I discovered that a fine sandy crescent shore runs north to a low point of land at Plaice Cove.

This north beach Hampton is a beach of cottages. It has no great boardwalk to stroll upon, no bandstand, no array of shops.

Up the shore a way I did find its seawall . . . and soon I was walking on top of it (which doubtless is not to be recommended) and again was walking beside it in a space set apart for pedestrians. The tide was too high for beach-walking, which is something to be indulged in only when the flat, sea-packed lower sands are exposed.

Near the north end of the long shore a Coast Guard Station stands at a point where High Street runs in from the shore to the inland village.

And, just beyond the Coast Guard place, a few old fish-houses rest on the dunes along a protected bight. At that place the Hampton Beach story begins.

* * *

Here came Hamptoners of early times and built rude shacks to hold their small boats and their fishing gear. They were farmers mostly in Summer, and fishermen in Winter. This bit of beach was made to order for them.

Just to the north of it, a rocky point runs out . . . and ledges extend from it into the sea, to make a sort of breakwater. Behind the point and ledges there is a somewhat sheltered mooring place for the whaleboats. A few small craft were riding at anchor there today, and dories were hauled up on the beach in front of the fishhouses, just as others had been hauled up in the past 300 years.

Leavitt's at North Beach
Leavitt's, built on "Nut Island"
at North Beach in 1800.

How early the fishhouses were on the beach, I do not know. But it was only in 1800 that the first dwelling house anywhere on the Hampton shore was built on a little hummock among the marshes -- Nut Island, it was called -- just behind the fish houses. In 1802, the house was bought by Moses Leavitt, who was a tailor in the village; and he came here to live with his wife and children.

The fisheries at that time were busy ones. Doubtless there were flakes (the drying racks) spread around on the dunes and on the neighboring point of land (where now is the cottage community of Plaice Cove) so that the split fish could be spread out and sun-cured in the Summer months.

In the Winter, when the fisheries were at their busiest, there wasn't such a need for drying. Often the catch would be frozen when the boats came in after a night of hand-lining off the Isles of Shoals. Dressed and frozen again, they were ready for the fish-buyers who came here even from northern Vermont and Canada.

Moses Leavitt and his wife began to take boarders -- putting up the Vermont and Canadian traders while they were buying fish and loading them on their big six-horse wagons for the long journey home.

Before long, the Summer vacationers found the place. A new and bigger house was built, and Moses Leavitt's son Amos developed the business, as his sons and grandsons did after him. Leavitt's boarding house, which gave the Hampton Summer resort its start, was a famous vacation place for more than a century.

The old house -- "the big white house on a knoll behind the beach" -- is still there, across from the Coast Guard station and the fish houses, with a great elm standing sentry in front of it. But it is no longer a Leavitt place (it was sold two or three years ago) and it is no longer a big white house but a big red one.

And the fish houses are no longer fish houses in the usual meaning of the word. They are lobster houses, as a young man who was putting together some lobster traps at a one-time Palmer fish house told me. There is no general fishing done on the beach today [1952].

The old Palmer fish house is newly sheathed and painted and it looks younger than its age. Another is occupied as a cottage. But the others have an authentic weathered look about them. Indeed, the little beach seems much as it does in a photograph of 60 years ago when Leavitts and Godfreys and other old Hampton families were represented there.

Fish Houses at North Beach
The fish houses, and, at center, the old home of William Moulton, a fishmonger.
Later owned by Reverend Erasmus Eldridge, a minister of the First Congregational
Church, the house was later purchased by Amos Leavitt and rented for a number of
summers to Old Town, Maine, Indians who lived there and sold sweet grass baskets,
giving the place the name, "The Indian House." Frank Leavitt eventually inherited
the building and had it torn down about 1922, replacing it with a shop
that eventually became the Mace fish market.
By Peter E. Randall; Chapter 8 -- Part 2.)

At that time and until the early 1900's, a very ancient dwelling house stood where there is now a new white cottage up the shore. It was an old Palmer home, or "the Indian house," as folks called it. Tradition was that one of the last of the Indians of the area had lived in it.

And I was told also that the town is now trying to force the lobstermen to get their houses off the old beach, and that it is questioning the validity of the land titles.

"What does the town want to do . . . build cottages?" I asked, supposing that it had an eye out for new taxable properties.

"They want to make a parking lot," I was told.

A parking lot! A parking lot on one of the beaches historic sites!

I don't want to get into any local battle; but if I were a Hamptoner, I think I'd vote to force the lobstermen to keep the old buildings there; to keep them looking their age -- old and weatherbeaten, and to restore those that have been modernized. And I'd vote that they must keep boats on the beach and their traps and gear strewn around.

For this is the only spot with an old-time look that I have seen on a New Hampshire beach. Here are perhaps the last of the fish-houses that once were everywhere. It is a place an artist could find something in. It could be Hampton's "Motif No. 1."