The Other Cape

PrintPrintEmailEmailCape Cod and Cape Ann—two seashore vacation draws not far from Boston —might appear to be siblings. But in truth the two Massachusetts capes are as different as mustard and custard. South of the city, Cape Cod thrusts seaward from the mainland as a 75-mile arm, flexed and brawny, with Provincetown for a fist. North of it, Cape Ann is hardly more than a snub nose poking into the Atlantic. Cape Cod is pitch pines, swelling dunes, generous beaches; Cape Ann is rock, oak, more rock, and a million tidal estuaries, home to egrets, spawning fish, and, in the days of Prohibition, bootleggers too. Many of its beaches show up on road maps—Good Harbor, Pavilion, Half Moon—but just as many anonymously await discovery by anyone willing to risk a stubbed toe along a stony path through woods or fields.

Cape Ann locals call their home, with not an ounce of regret, “the other Cape.” They live amid 300 years of hardscrabble history, much of it still in evidence. To everyone’s satisfaction, that history shows no signs of being layered over by strip malls, theme parks, or designer outlets.

Route 127 meanders absent-mindedly around Cape Ann. Turn off to the left or right and you risk a No Outlet sign—if you’re lucky. Otherwise, with no warning, the blacktop just peters out, and your car noses down with a sigh into sand, dune grass, and bayberry. In this part of the world it’s not the land but the sea that predominates. Its vapor salts your eyelashes and, sharp and briny, heady as rum, fills your lungs. On Cape Ann, anywhere on Cape Ann, you see, smell, or hear the ocean. There seems, in fact, to be no inland at all, just lots of ragged, rocky coastline.

The novelist John Updike, a Pennsylvanian self-transplanted to the Massachusetts coast, wrote, “One New England town looks much like another—white spire, green common, struggling little downtown—but they are different from one another, and their citizens know the difference.” Was he alluding to Cape Ann’s quartet of towns, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Gloucester, Rockport, and Essex? Though they lie within a Sunday stroll of one another, they remain as distinct as buttons in a child’s counting game: Yachtsman, Fisherman, Artist, Boatman.

Manchester’s slightly pretentious by-the-Sea was officially added in 1990, supposedly to distinguish it from the 30 other Manchesters scattered across the country from Maine to California. In 1630 the ship Arbella, out of Cowes, England, carried the charter for the Massachusetts Bay Colony across the sea to Manchester. This was a first. All previous charters had been kept in England on the assumption that the safety of such valuable documents could not be assured in the wilderness. The arrival of the charter conferred on Manchester a standing that endures to this day, reflected in the town’s tidy streets and unmistakable air of civility. For all the talk of summer tourism, Manchester’s 5,600 or so residents tend to stand aloof. The center of town is handsome but brief, with no slack cut for Ramadas or Marriotts. You’ll even search in vain for a bed-and-breakfast. On the other hand, the town meeting scrupulously fills the offices of Fence Viewers, Pound Keeper, Measurers of Wood and Bark, and Field Drivers every year, just as it has for more than two centuries.

In the beginning, Manchester made its living from fishing; after the American Revolution, furniture making became the main business. By the 1860s, the town had some 160 expert cabinetmakers. They developed and perfected the art of wood veneering, but unfortunately no one thought to patent the process, and in a very few years it had been copied around the world. Superb examples of this work can still be found in a handful of Cape Ann homes as well as in Trask House, the museum and nerve center for the Manchester Historical Society.

 

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the railroad reached Manchester and gave the town a whole new identity as a stylish summer colony. Word spread to the nation’s capital, and soon half the diplomatic corps was fleeing the brutal Potomac summer for the tonic breezes of Manchester. In 1871 Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, the great-grandson of the third President, bought a dramatically beautiful piece of Manchester’s ocean-front and built the first of a succession of family summer homes. Today, the beauty of that property, with its beach, forest, and wetlands, has been assured by the establishment in 1992 of the Coolidge Reservation. It is open to the public but only on a very limited basis and with strict rules about parking, picnicking, and ocean swimming.

Captain Dusty’s Ice Cream, in a yellow shoebox of a building on Beach Street, and the lovely expanse of Singing Beach just a bit farther along are definitely more welcoming. But drive past the old slate-roofed, shingle or stone summer residences, half-hidden in the woodlands off Old Neck Road and along the leafy lanes that wander beachward, and you’ll see that privacy is a most treasured attribute. DON’T ENTER, DEAD END , and PRIVATE WAY read the neatly lettered signs tacked to tree trunks, nailed to stakes, hung on fence rails. Driveway mailboxes bear neither name nor number: The mailman knows who’s who; so do the people who live here.