By John Hirtle, Beach News Staff
Beach News, Thursday, September 8, 2005
[The following article is courtesy of Beach News]
[Beach News File Photo by John Hirtle • www.ElseWhenStudio.com]
The Seacoast region is edged with sprawling expanses of salt marshes, where fresh water drains into the sea. During the summer, they are filled with bright green grass, which dies and dries into shades of yellow hay.
When the first colonists arrived on the Seacoast, they put this natural resource to work for them right away. Salt marsh hay was cut and harvested as feed for cattle and livestock. But harvesting in the swampy soft soil of the salt marsh is tricky work, and it had to be done by hand.
Attempts were made to drain the salt marshes and make access easier by cutting channels into the soft peat, with little effect. The solution that was finally hit on was the 'straddle’. A circle of posts were put out in the salt marsh, and on top of them, the salt marsh hay would be stacked. Just high enough to stay out of the incoming tide, these unique haystacks once dotted the salt marshes of the region. Today, only one stands to show how it was done near the Seacoast Science Center on Route 1A. Many of the posts remain though, long abandoned and forgotten in the tall marsh hay.
Harvesting and drying the salt marsh hay is one thing though; getting it out of those almost inaccessible areas was another challenge.
Horses wore special wide wooden shoes over their hooves to keep them from sinking into the spongy wet soil. But a horse and heavy wagon could only haul so much. More often, boats such as the gundalow were used.
The gundalow was a local watercraft unique to the region. Little more than a barge with a lateen sail, this vessel would be floated into the salt marshes at high tide. As the tide went out, the gundalow would come to rest on the muddy bottom of the channel, where it would be loaded with salt marsh hay and any other produce going to market. Then when the tide came back in, it would be refloated, and set sail for where the cargo was due.
So the salt marshes were used for agricultural purposes for the better part of three hundred years.
In the 1930’s and 40’s as mechanization of farming spread, the practice of harvesting salt marsh hay slowly vanished, as did the gundalow. For a time, the salt marshes were in danger of vanishing to developers.
It gradually became apparent that salt marshes were more than useless hay fields. They act as a sponge, absorbing and filtering rainwater.
They are a nursery of sorts, protecting baby fish before they depart for the open sea. Insects such as mosquitoes which swarm out of the marshes provide food for both birds and bats. A large number of birds also dwell in or on the edge of the salt marshes either all year long, or as they migrate from north to south.
Like most wetlands today, the Seacoast’s salt marshes are protected, providing a safe haven for wildlife, a buffer against storms, and an area where boaters such as kayakers can explore this overlooked corner of the Seacoast.
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