Old Hampton Tales of Sea and Shore: Hampton Beach As Of Yore, part one

By Thomas Leavitt

Part 5

The Exeter News-Letter, Friday, February 17, 1899

"Hampton Beach As Of Yore", Section 1

I propose in this article to tell what I saw when first I went to Hampton Beach to live in 1838 and for ten years or so after that. With the exception of its five dwelling places and a few stone walls and wooden fences it was nearly as nature made it. At the time, I was carried to old Hampton into the village to live, I was so young that all before that time is a blank to me. From that time till I went to the beach, I had never been out of the village -- had never seen a landscape, the ocean, a forest, a hill or a river, and when I was carried there on a calm, bright day, nature, as it were, burst upon me in all her loveliness. I was led to the point of Boar's Head to look. Let me tell what I saw. There was the ocean with its white fringe stretching along the smooth level beaches as far as the eye could reach, the sand dunes ranged along on either hand, white-faced, fringed with green, some of them as large as a house, the large expanse of marsh with the river, the creeks and the ponds glimmering amidst the green, beyond stretches and clumps of woods, and, rising beyond all, the hills with smokiness between, and far to the north, rising high over the woods, that blue dome they told me was Agamenticus.

As the pleasant days came and went each day brought a new revelation to me, particularly in the varied forms of marine life brought to my knowledge. I peopled the ships that passed by and created the lands they were going to. I had nothing to do but to explore, to gaze, to wonder and be happy. Perhaps the circumstances by which I was surrounded before and when I went there caused me to attribute to the place a beauty which really and intrinsically it did not possess. Be that as it may, yet, after all the years that have elapsed since then, I can truly say that I have never looked upon a scene so beautiful as was Hampton Beach at that time.

There were but three houses on Boar's Head then. They were the one now owned by Lewis P. Nudd, which had the present front, two stores high with a "pitched roof," and a small ell for kitchen, the Boar's Head hotel, 50 feet by 45 feet, or nearly so, three stories high with a "hip roof," and the Leavitt house with a three-story front one thick and an ell two and half stories high. The house of Parker Lamprey next above that of A. W. Gookin then stood on the bank of the sea opposite the stable of the Hampton Beach hotel, and a half a mile below, where now stands the house of Mr. Oliver Nudd, was the cottage of his father, Thomas Nudd. All between Boar's Head and this last-named house was open land, fenced only from the road. In the period of which I am writing, from the 25th of July till September, the marshes teemed with game. Yellow legs, brown backs, grass birds, curlew and peeps -- the latter almost as thick as flies -- stopped and fed there till September. Whole on the beaches were great flocks of sand peeps, so tame that one could walk right up to them and shoot them, when they would fly a little way and then come down again. In the year 1844, I remember my father telling his man-of-all-work one forenoon that there was to be a bird supper that night and that he must get three dozen birds. At about half-past three o'clock in the afternoon Jack and I went to the Glade and sat down. By sunset we were at home with forty yellow-legs. As I acted as retriever to bring in the birds as he shot them, he did not leave his seat till we started for home. At any time except about two hours in the middle of the day a gunner could kill his two or three dozen birds. A bird supper then meant broiled birds, dry toast, fried potato chips, and a bottle of champagne at each plate, and it was served at eleven o'clock at night.

From the middle of August to the middle of September black ducks, gray ducks, teal and dippers frequented the marsh in great number and were easy to get if one understood how. At about the beginning of September sea fowl commenced coasting south, and continued till about the middle of November. Later came the Canada goose. The sea fowl were coasting every day more or less, were quite tame, and large numbers of them were shot every fall off Boar's Head. In the storms which came in October immense flocks of them could be seen sweeping past "the head" all day long, flying close to the sea, just high enough to clear the waves. I think I am safe in saying that, at such times, I have seen flocks a third of a mile long, and I think it would be nearer the truth to say a half a mile long. In the spring, in the latter part of April and first half of May, coots and old-wives would gather in great numbers in the coves on the north side and on the south side of Boar's Head and feed for two or three weeks. I have seen a flock of old-wives gather so until they would cover an acre of the surface of the sea; their soft, sonorous note kept up by so many was music to the car. These feeding birds were never disturbed on their feeding grounds by the Hampton gunners, for there was an unwritten law that none should shoot them except in the morning, off the head as they flew from one cove to the other.

Sometimes as the tide ebbed and uncovered the rocks over which these birds were feeding, some of them would land and feed among the rocks so uncovered. I used to fill my pockets with stones, and making a dish at them, try to knock some of them over. I never succeeded in frightening them enough to make them fly. They would run into the water and dive away from the stones I threw. Down towards the mouth of the river, upon the dry white sand above the reach of the tides, the lonely sand-piper used to build her nest, by sinking a shallow hole in the sand, and lining it with pieces of clam shells(more deftly than any human hand could do it) to keep, the loose sand from falling in.

I stepped along to ask him for what I wanted, and saw my mourners sitting around a table holding cards, with a heap of coin and bills in front of each man. They and the saloon keeper were too much absorbed to notice me. I saw them shove up money to a pile in the centre of the table. Finally all but two ceased doing so. And at length, one of the two said something, and then these two showed their cards, and one took all the money in the pile. I got out and went to Billy Clements, the hostler, to whom I always went to explain to me anything I did not understand, and told him what I had seen. And Billy was stumped too, and stepped over to the saloon to see for himself. He soon came walking out very pensively and seeing my father standing on the piazza went to him and told him what he had seen in the saloon. He said -- One said "I chip," than another said "I pass," and then they all stopped but two. And then they showed their cards. And then one fellow raked down the whole pile and not a card played. That's no kind of a game of cards. What is it, squire? I have reason to suppose that what Billy and I saw was a game of poker, but I don't know.

Judge Levi Woodbury used to drive out from Portsmouth, on pleasant mornings, in a chaise alone. In fact every one drove in chaises in those days. I do not know as I ever saw any covered carriage with four wheels at the beach before 1848. He would drive up, hand his horse to the hostler, and walk through the halls to the south piazza and seat himself at the east side of the door where he would be in nobody's way, and where nobody would disturb him, and sit and look right off on the ocean for the hour and a half or two hours he might stay, then go and call for his horse, pay his scot, and drive away, never speaking to anybody, that I ever saw. Knowing him to be a distinguished man I used to place myself where he did not notice me, and stand and look at him. He had an intellectual looking head, but the feature that impressed me most was his fine thoughtful eye.

Mrs. Isaac O. Barnes, Judge Woodbury's sister, boarded at the Winnicumet two or three seasons all through the summer. Her husband, Mr. Barnes, would come off and on while his wife was boarding there, sometimes he would stay a day, and sometimes a week. He was a fine looking man, tall and large, and was very genial and witty. He made the acquaintance of everybody, even of the children and help.

There would always be a collection of people round his chair on the piazza, and the frequent peals of laughter indicated when Mr. Barnes had reached the point of his story. President Lord, of Dartmouth college, used to come there. If I should mention individually all the well known people that visited Hampton beach in that period I should never get through, so I will name no more individuals. But there was one party of young men, a dozen or fourteen, who came from Nashua to Boar's Head in the season of forty-six (1846) that I must tell about.