Gathering Seaweed

Chapter 15 -- Part 3

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Another unique farming activity was harvesting marsh hay, a subject covered in detail in the chapter on the tidal marshes. Although most farmers had little reason to journey nearer to the beach than the marsh, the seashore did provide one important farm necessity -- seaweed, which was used to fertilize corn. As early as 1757, the town passed an ordinance against taking seaweed from the beach after dark, perhaps to give everyone an equal chance to harvest it. Apparently the most abundant source of seaweed was at North Beach in the vicinity of the fish houses, a place where even today after storms the water is sometimes filled with floating algae, much to the disgust of swimmers.

By 1892, the News-Letter sadly reported, "Farmers have hauled more seaweed than usual this winter. A good coating of this kelp is sure to make a good crop of corn ... But the interest in farming has sadly decreased within our memory of a half century, but more especially in the present generation and recent years." Seaweed harvesting, which apparently ended about 1945, was an important part of the prosecution's argument in the fish-house case of the 1950s. Lawyers for the Town sought to demonstrate the fact that the land was owned by the Town by having farmers testify how they freely crossed the land en route to the beach to get seaweed.

In November 1955, 75-year-old Henry Hobbs of Hampton was called to testify. In remembering events of the old days, Hobbs recalled, "I was on a farm.. .and went there [to the fish houses] day after day hauling seaweed, which was a great thing in those days. All the farmers hauled seaweed. Then again, we used to keep boarders in the home, and we went down practically every day for fresh fish." Hobbs and his family used a "seaweed wagon," which they drove between the fish houses onto the beach. Sometimes they would drive the horse and wagon into the water to let the seaweed collect around them, then they loaded the wagon. At other times, the seaweed was raked into piles, each pile belonging to whoever raked it up. Because the seaweed was wet and heavy, the farmers, with sometimes a dozen teams working at once, would haul their seaweed up off the beach and dump it behind the fish houses. Then they would return to the beach for more seaweed. "Sometimes if we were trying to get ahead of the other fellow, as everybody was, you might haul all the afternoon, have twenty or thirty loads up there" on the ground behind the fish houses, Hobbs explained. Once off the sand, the horses could haul heavier loads and the wagons were then reloaded for the trip to the farm. "We'd get it home as soon as we could," Hobbs said. "Unfortunately sometimes it laid there too long" and rotted, making a strong smell, but "I never heard a complaint from the fishermen in my life .... As far as the seaweed went, it interfered with their operations and they were glad to get rid of it . . . they weren't the type of people that were finicky. They had troubles enough of their own. They wanted to live and let live, I guess," Hobbs concluded.

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