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A Yankee Notebook

August 5, 2013


DOGTOWN, CAPE ANN, MA – If, during the summer, you get on line and Google-Earth “Dogtown Mass,” the satellite view will focus on a nude, brown smear in the middle of a great patch of green trees. If you back away a little, you’ll see that the green forest is surrounded by a thickly urban environment. Not like Baltimore, say, or downtown Boston, but a solid mass of roads, factories and businesses, and residential areas stretching all the way to the sea on one side and back toward Essex and Beverly on the other.

The brown area is the municipal compost pile for the city of Gloucester. Just beyond it, at the entrance to a wide trail into the woods, is the beginning of Dogtown Commons. And thereon hang many a tale, many a mystery, and many a painting.

If you’d been able to scan this view from space about 9000 years ago, you’d have seen what the first immigrants must have found: a tortured, hilly glacial moraine surrounded by salt water, rising from sea level to about 200 feet, studded with drumlins, bogs, and swamps, and littered almost everywhere with boulder trains and erratics the size of houses. Those first immigrants, the Agawams, did not long survive the exotic diseases introduced by 15th-century Europeans.

Those later arrivals settled by the sea in 1623, named their port after Gloucester in the old country, and set about harvesting the abundant cod just off shore. The Gloucester Fishermen’s Memorial, whose famous bronze statue is familiar to us all, is surrounded by bronze plaques bearing the names of the thousands of Gloucester men known to have been lost at sea.

Port towns were vulnerable to attack from the sea. Some Gloucester residents moved inland, into these uplands now known as Dogtown, when the town opened plots here for settlement in what’s known as “commons”: Each person with a title had equal access to the resources of the land held in common. The abundant forests were subsequently cut down for shipbuilding and firewood, and the cleared land used for farming and pasturage. Dozens of overgrown cellar holes of that vanished community still pock the landscape like the ruins of bejungled Mayan temples, giving Dogtown the aura of an archeological site.

The origin of its name is probably an example of after-the-fact myth-making. The accepted story is that the great number of widows living in the woods – widowed by war or the sea – kept dogs for protection; and that after their deaths, the dogs roamed free and feral, adding a pervasive implicit threat to these hinterlands. That sounds apocryphal. It’s more likely that as the community declined – it’s long been extinct – its inhabitants were considered increasingly marginal and “strange,” and the common American pejorative was applied to them and their neighborhood. By the time the last resident, a former slave named Cornelius Finson, was removed in 1839, half-starved and frostbitten, from the cellar where he lived, Dogtown had become a wilderness of haunted ruins.

The crew and I came here today to film the place and hear some stories about it from its two leading experts: Elyssa East and Ted Tarr. Elyssa is a Manhattan-based writer whose 2009 book, Dogtown – Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town, explores in depth Dogtown’s 300 years of interaction with the town of Gloucester. Ted is a 78-year-old Korean War veteran, a former Rockport selectman, a descendant of one of Cape Ann’s earliest settlers, and a frequent guide for hikers of Dogtown. Elyssa would guide us during the morning, Ted in the afternoon.

Both made singular entrances. When Elyssa climbed out of the car of a friend who’d brought her to the Dogtown parking lot, she was seven months pregnant, but declared herself – in spite of others’ advice – ready for the hike. Ted showed up in a desert-tan Hummer the size of a Sherman tank with a safari platform on the roof, and climbed out as if that were perfectly normal.

Elyssa was originally attracted to Dogtown by the paintings of Marsden Hartley, one of the first American modernists. Hartley had found relief from deep depression by painting the fantastic boulders of Dogtown; Elyssa set out to find them, and fell in love with the mystery of the place. Could a particular landscape, she wondered, affect the consciousness of its inhabitants; or were the inhabitants already people who would be attracted there? We hiked Dogtown Road, the former thoroughfare of the settlement, visiting cellar holes, while Elyssa described who’d lived in the long-vanished tiny houses that once sat atop the piled boulders. I’d seen a few pictures of Dogtown, but they were all taken before the reforestation of the place. What had once been expansive views with huge erratics in the middle distance were now intimate encounters in thick groves of oak and beech.

Elyssa left us before noon, escorted by one of our interns (it’s easy to get lost here, even if you know the place). Ted took over, leading with an upright, almost military step over increasingly rocky paths. We passed a boulder inscribed with the death date of “Jas. Merry,” who went to his pasture to wrestle his bull and did not survive. Ted led us to the Boulder Trail, one of Dogtown’s roads leading through a series of erratics engraved with messages of an inspirational (and vaguely capitalistic) nature. Roger Babson, a local millionaire, professional predictor of market trends, and founder of Babson College, hired unemployed stonemasons during the Great Depression and set them to work carving: INITIATIVE; IF WORK STOPS VALUES DECAY; SPIRITUAL POWER; and the like. I had my photo taken next to INTELLIGENCE. Then we slowly wound our way back to the parking lot, said our goodbys and thanks, and plunged back into the maelstrom of rush-hour Gloucester. But like Elyssa and Ted, I’ve found I can’t get the place out of my mind.

Photo by Willem lange