They can be seen on clear days while driving the shore road between Hampton and Rye, New Hampshire. I am talking about, of course, the nine islands that comprise the Isle of Shoals. Discovered about 1614 and originally named by explorer Captain John Smith, by the middle 1600s at least 600 people resided on Appledore and Smutynose Islands.
Today they are mostly a tourist attraction, with ferry boat service operating out of Portsmouth and Rye Harbors. Residence is confined to summer conferences hosted under the auspices the Star Island Corporation, and the Marine Life Laboratory, jointly run by Cornell and the University of New Hampshire. Vacation packages are also available for those who seek an environment reminiscent of the early 1900s. Meals are communal and you won’t find a television in your room. In the 21st century you can play at being hearty on this rocky and isolated terrain; the real lives of former full-time islanders were a different story.
The biggest settlement was on Star Island, where fishermen and their families moved from other shoals islands to escape being taxed by the Maine authorities, (half of them fall in New Hampshire, the others in Maine). The village of Gosport remained a successful fishing settlement for a long time. Fish were plentiful but life was primitive compared to modern standards, with much drinking and brawling among the men and early old age among the women. Imagine the damp and often stormy winters endured without central heat or insulation.
During the Revolutionary War they were ordered to evacuate to shore and many did so, but with their disassembled homes in tow. Some of these resurrected buildings still line the shore from Ipswich, Massachusetts to York, Maine. Gosport never regained its vitality after this, and by the time Light Keeper Thomas Laighton and his soon-to-be famous daughter Celia arrived in 1839, there were but fourteen families left.
The Laightons stood in marked contrast to the fishing villagers. Thomas Laighton had brought his Harvard educated friend Levi Thaxter along as Celia’s tutor, and she later married him at age 16. Celia kept a journal that is still widely available today, and became New Hampshire’s most famous poet. Her wildflower garden became immortalized by painter Childe Hassam, one of the many famous artists and literati who visited her home on Appledore. Another of Hassam’s well-known paintings, “Boston Common at Twilight” adorned the entry hall wall of the home I grew up in.
Increased interest and visits to the islands led Laighton and Levi Thaxter to build a huge hotel on Appledore. It was extremely successful and was followed in 1873 by construction of a competing hotel, The Oceanic, on neighboring Star Island. The Oceanic burned down and was rebuilt. By then the Isles of Shoals was clearly established as a tourist attraction. The brutal ax murder of two immigrant domestics that same year on Smuttynose Island, which lies between Appledore and Star, brought national and lasting attention to the Shoals. The “Smuttynose Murders” were the subject of The Weight of Water, a fictionalized account by popular novelist Anita Shreve (Little, Brown & Co., 1997), later made into the movie of the same title starring Sean Penn and Sarah Polley, and remain a major local fascination. Thomas Laighton loved the island life so much that he never left, but the remaining fourteen fishing families dispersed, unhappily, to shore. Mainland residents found their language nearly unintelligible; their village and life had been so insular as to foster a dialect. And they were not happy ashore. One fisherman feared he would “go nuts” if he could not return to island life.
I can understand that. It permeates your consciousness, especially if it gets you when you’re young. A framed copy of a corny poem by Rachael Field hung on a bedroom wall in the island cottage where I spent summers: “If once you have slept on an island you’ll never be quite the same…” However sing-song and sentimental this poem may be, it is true. I slept in one of the two bedrooms facing directly east. Although the roof and railing of its porch had blown off during the hurricane, I always slept with the porch door open. I could hear and smell the ocean 500 or so feet below the sloping lot on which the cottage stood. Sometimes fog rolled in and enveloped my room. I didn’t care.
To this day I have to have open windows in all weather. The island cottage colony experience was a privilege in my youth and a burden later on when I had to lug diapers, bottles and baby food off the ferry and up the hill. You see, there was no electricity, one small country store, the mail came by ferry each day, and, way before cell phones, there was only one public telephone line to the mainland. Until the underground cable got cut sometime in the 1960’s, that is. After that, communication with the mainland 5 miles away depended on a ship-to-shore radio. So, like New Hampshire’s Isle of Shoals residents of the 1800s, we read by kerosene lamplight, did laundry by hand, pumped well-water for drinking and installed rain barrels for our other water needs. Everything you had there was brought by boat: every board for fixing the porch, every nail and every gallon of paint was carried or wheel-barrowed to its destination.
It was an ideal family spot; dogs and children could not get lost on its 55 acres or run over by cars, as the only vehicles were a couple jeeps owned by the lighthouse station. The penny candy counter at the general store was the only way children could spend allowances. Young and old alike went around all day in swim suits or other minimal and basic attire. My mother remarked that you’d never know the neighbor next door was a millionaire as she “dressed in rags”. On chance meetings during the winter months we’d often fail to recognize our island neighbors in their business (city) clothes.
Paradise has its cost. Although you can trust everyone and keep your doors unlocked, you have to carry a constant genealogical map in your mind, for everyone is related to everyone else. I still have relatives residing there, some of whom I’m speaking to and some not. And like the Gosport fishermen, there’s the pernicious alcoholism of not just the obvious few, but also of those who successfully maintain a basic level of intoxication and never show a truly sober side. So if you’re not dealing with an actual known alcoholic, you are most certainly dealing with a son, daughter, sister, brother, husband, wife, son or daughter-in-law of one and their respective inherited problems. The friendly camaraderie of “we’ll all in this together” is strained by that plus other issues that arise. As a friend who still owns property there said recently, “In the beginning of the summer everyone is smiling and saying hello. By the end (of summer) they’re all mad at each other”.
Island life can also be dangerous. It was there that, at age 7, my family lived through Hurricane Carol, losing three quarters of the roof, two second story porches and 15 windows. My much older sister’s two toddlers and I were sequestered under the dining room table. I remember the carpets in the living room floating 6 inches off the floor, the main cross beam of the house holding up the second and third floors swaying, and my father, mother, sister and brother bracing themselves against the four big east windows every time a 120 mph gust came. I guess they figured that if these big windows went, so would the house. We did evacuate, but after the worst of the storm had passed. We crouched as we made out way down the hill as bricks and pieces of other cottages sped by us in the air. When we reached the bottom of the hill we sat against a porch wall of a vacant house. Eventually, a neighbor invited us all into her home. My parents had not passed papers on the heavily damaged cottage and were awarded a substantial discount to make repairs. My fragile sister had one of her many breakdowns later that fall.
Ultimately the restrictions of island life left me feeling deprived of the “normal” summers enjoyed by my city friends. I had no experience of honky-tonk destinations such as Old Orchard Beach, Maine, Coney Island, New York, Nantasket or Revere beaches of Massachusetts. It wasn’t until my middle thirties, separated from both my husband and the island, that I found the latter. I reveled in it. “You mean I can actually buy a sandwich and a soda on the beach?” I marveled to myself. In good weather I drove the 5 miles to Revere almost every day, with or without my two children. The first nice day this spring I did the same.
More than fifty years later, I still feel edgy when the wind picks up. Although I cherish the appreciation of nature’s beauty and wildness gained by island life, in my adult life I have traded kerosene and gas lamps, propane tanks, well water and rain barrels for what the British call “mod cons”. No more toting’ and hauling’ all my belongings and foodstuffs from car to pier to boat and then from boat to pier to cottage for this gal. I won’t even step off the tour boat that goes from Rye Harbor to Star Island. I did 20 years of traipsing around paths and rocks. My hearty days have passed – I’ll park my car next to the door that is steps from the elevator that whisks me to my third story condo, thank you. I am not afraid of hurricanes because I know I’ll be on land. In my present seacoast accommodation I have the best of both worlds – the ever lively commercial strip of Hampton Beach (see http://www.Hamptonbeach.com) and the quieter side of life in my Seabrook condo just a mile away. From my balcony I can see both the fireworks in Hampton and the wind making the expanse of marsh grass below move in undulating waves. And if I lean forward and crane my neck a bit, I can even see a bit of open ocean. It is enough.
For more information about Star and the Isles of Shoals, including how to get there, see http://www.starisland.org
MarJean Hillman, B.A., M.A., MLS, has been a summer resident of the New Hampshire seacoast since 1995. Her Seabrook Beach condo is available for rent at http://www.shoreclubrental.com