As if frozen in time, 13 small cottages perch on the water’s edge of Merchant’s Island. In today’s Wi-Fi world, there is no better way to downshift than to sit on the docks of this 36-acre sanctuary near Gloucester, Massachusetts. We took a short boat ride in our friend’s Boston Wailer across the Annisquam River and stepped off to another century.
In 1849, Simian Merchant set off with countless others on boats, crossing the Isthmus of Panama to land in California for the big gold rush. He opened a hardware store to supply necessities like picks and shovels to the men seeking their fortunes, and in doing so, Merchant amassed his own small fortune. When he returned, Simian purchased the island that he adored as a child from the Pierce family in 1865.
On the island, Merchant raised cows and chickens on the large fields that had been logged of their original oak trees. Some of the huge logs are still present on the island today. He built small cottages for turkey and duck hunters to rent out. The funds helped keep the island going. Not soon after the initial cottages were built, the hunter’s wives decided that the cottages needed a little more space so they too could enjoy the island. Additions were added and the island became a summer retreat for families.
Today, the acres of big fields are mostly grown in with new trees, and the island is held in a trust to the six decedents of Merchant and their children. Rent is a modest $3600 per year, with residents expected to do some simple maintenance like painting on their cottages in exchange for their payment. As you might imagine, these cottage leases are passed down through families, so don’t plan on running across a seasonal listing on Craigslist. Openings are rare.
Each cottage is about the same size, featuring a small kitchen, living room and one to two sleeping areas. Kitchens boast simple propane powered stoves. Bathroom facilities are provided by the wooden outhouse, located a short walk from most of the cottages. They all have a small deck where families enjoy spending a lazy summer afternoon.
Families play cards, swim, and go for boat rides along Wingaersheek and Cranes beach. The children explore the tree house and run barefoot through the flats at low tide collecting clamshells. People can be seen actually talking to each other. In my mind, there is no better place to unwind.
We unloaded our lobsters and clams for an old-time clambake. The four foot wide, rock-lined fire pit, which the guys started around noon, had been burning for a few hours already on the shore. The tides were scheduled to come in just after dusk, perfect timing to put out any lingering coals. It was late August, so the greenhead populations (flies that live in the nearby marshes and give a pretty painful bite) were pretty much gone for the season.
We gathered about 20lbs of rockweed, a native seaweed. As we lined the rocks with a thin layer of seaweed, the tiny air pockets made a crackling noise on the 400 F fire. The air filled with steam.
We placed a dozen lobsters and about eight pounds of clams over the seaweed, then covered the creatures with another layer of seaweed. Finally, we covered the entire fire pit with a damp canvas tarp and anchored it down on all sides with some sand.
After about 45 minutes of roasting, we started checking on the doneness of our lobsters and clams. When they were all bright red, we pulled them from the fire and placed them across a table lined with newspaper and scattered with bowls of sliced lemons, small jars of melted butter, and a handful of lobster crackers.
Old-fashioned oil lamps and the fading summer sun provided light. Fish chowder, a green salad, and roasted veggies rounded out the meal.
We put out the fire with a bucket of seawater and dug in to our feast. We finished with just enough moonlight to clean up and tuck in.
Places like Merchant’s Island are rare and vanishing. It’s a true gem to be cherished by those lucky enough to steward it.
More stories, and full directions on how to host a clambake can be found in The Homegrown Paleo Cookbook: Over 100 Delicious, Gluten-Free, Farm-to-Table Recipes and a Complete Guide to Growing Your Own Healthy Food.