Seeing Red

The Irish mossers’ poet, Cyrus B. Tucker

By John Galluzzo

The ebb and flow of summer visitors along the coast of the South Shore in the early 1900s was as predictable as the tides. Local newspapers reported on every movement, and from Memorial Day to Labor Day they rarely covered much more. Big city politicians brought their families south from Boston to stay in rented cottages and captains of industry constructed their own. The truly rich built on the sturdy rock of Cohasset. The somewhat rich took up places with less permanence on the sandy Hull and Scituate shores. Together, they whiled away the sunny months in the cool ocean breezes, escaping the heat and noise of the more urbanized areas of greater Boston.

The beauty of owning a summer home, large or small, was that it could be opened at any time. If the weather proved agreeable to allow those fresh breezes into a home without heat – most summer homes were not so equipped at the time, save for fireplaces – then it was possible to jumpstart the season. On May 5, 1916, for example, the Scituate Light reported that “The Kingsbury family are at their summer home at the Sandhills for a few weeks.”

Mowry S. Kingsbury had fallen in love with Scituate nearly two decades earlier. In 1899, the paymaster of Framingham’s Dennison Manufacturing Company boarded a southbound steamer in Boston. When it arrived in Scituate Harbor – the home of the Old Oaken Bucket, what remained of Scituate Lighthouse and so much more – Kingsbury stepped onto the pier and looked down the curve of Jericho Beach. There, Irish mossers had laid out their recent hauls and he was enraptured.

Irish moss is a red algae that grows on rocks along the coast of Massachusetts, the only one of 80 in the world that has a heavy water buildup that can be extracted for use in the manufacture of numerous products that need thickening agents. If you see “carrageen” on a product label, you’re seeing Irish moss in use. During the late 1800s, Scituate harvested more Irish moss than any other community. Men rowed off the coastline two hours before low tide, reached down with their rakes and dragged it up into their dories, returning four hours later to begin the drying process. The town’s beaches were quilted with moss as it dried, turning from purple to yellowish-white, giving the Scituate coastline a multi-hued appearance each summer.

Kingsbury spent the day watching the process, and became inspired. He returned home to Wellesley Hills and took up his pen to write a poem. In time, he would build a cottage on Jericho Road, the perfect place to watch the mossers at work. It was here that he brought his family in 1916, and it was here that he captured the beauty of the summer in Scituate, in his book of poetry Scituate moss; verses of the south shore of Massachusetts Bay, under the nom de plume Cyrus B. Tucker in 1927.

When the harbor tide is ebbing, and the water’s running low,
When black rocks, uncovered, glisten in the sun,
Then I see the Scituate mossers going down to get their boats,
And I know for them the day’s work has begun.

They haul in their waiting dories, toss the moorin’ lines inside,
Old dudeens are filled, good plug begins to burn,
Then the jug of fresh-drawn water is safely stowed aboard,
And the moss rake with the handle o’er the stern.

I watch them pullin’ steady, see the rippling wakes behind,
Hear the oars and thole pins knock with every stroke,
Hear the scraps of song and laughter as they row some side by side,
See above each head a little cloud of smoke.

When the spars are leaning west’ard, and the tide is running in,
Again I hear the oars and thole pins bump,
And I see them pulling home’ard with the dories sitting low,
Heaped above the gunnels one big mossy lump.

Years and years men have been going, pulling, raking, bleaching moss,
Years and years beds have been spread along the shore,
Every dory has a history, every tub and every creel.
Every shanty with its old, gray sagging door.

Ocean gazing had long been a pastime in the region and, with hotels and verandas built specifically for that purpose in the second half of the 1800s, even drove the economies of these small towns for a brief period in history. Kingsbury, through his poems, captured the soul of a South Shore summer, romantically detailing what so many watched from their porches for months on end.

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