YEAT – Port Culture


Newburyport has for such a small city an amazingly unique ‘culture’.      As much as we are increasingly inundated with Greater Boston commuter residents and are in contact with visitors year-round; if you want to know the inner workings of this community, the terms used by the locals need to be understood and defined.    For example, it’s easy for someone in Haverhill to know if you are an outsider.     The stranger will pronounce the city, HAY ver-HILL.     A local would say ‘HA-verill’.

If you want to know what’s going on in Newburyport and not be gawked at as an outsider, you need to know the correct words and how to pronounce and define them correctly.    As H. L. Mencken said, “Define, define, define”.     You can’t carry on a conversation if the other guy has an entirely different meaning in the words.       Period.

So, here are some terms that are important to know in Newburyport and on this site:

Back-Bay. Very confusing for many as this neighborhood does not face a ‘bay’ but the Common Pasture and the Route One traffic circle toward the South. This neighborhood is west of State Street and south of Pond Street. Its streets lead down to the traffic circle.

Bossy Gillis.    He was known for hating the class system that was so much a part of early 20th-century Newburyport.   He was a cocky punk who fought with the City Council and the Mayor to build his gas stations.    He even punched the mayor in the mouth when he could not get a permit for his business.     Bossy served six two-year terms as Mayor between 1927 and 1960.   In between, when he was not running for Mayor, he ended up in jail twice and often was arrested for various offenses.  He was famous for running City Hall from his gas station in Market Square.    When the city began to suffer economically, he had little interest in doing anything about it.    By 1960, whether it was his direct fault or not, the city was in financial ruins.   The New York Times grouped him with the most corrupt mayors in the country.    But there was no controlling him and the voters would vote him out and then back in office again and again!    Inexplicably, there are many in the city who still admire him today!     

Caldwells.    At one time, there were 60 distilleries in Newburyport pumping out rum aged in oak barrels.      These butterscotch-smelling concoctions were a principle part of the Triangle Trade.     Over a time, only one remained and became known nation-wide.   The warehouses used to be where the Waters Edge Condominiums exist today and O’Leary’s Liquors exists in the same building where the Federal Government would levy taxes against the molasses kegs as they came into port.

Carpetbaggers.      These are newcomers who have recently moved to the City and want to participate in the community and in politics.     The natives and the townies get very upset when these visitors come in without any consideration of our city culture and our history and then have the nerve to want to change things.      The irony is that many have a clearer vision on what the City needs than the longtime residents.  This further infuriates the natives.   A carpetbagger was a post-Civil War term reflecting newcomers who often had large briefcases made of heavy carpet.      They would move into desolated southern communities offering to help when their real motive was to defraud the locals.

Children of the Now .     These are people who see the walkable, safe streets, the quaint shops and the nearness of the ecology and picture a place where they can live.     In whatever brief visit they had taken to fall in love with the community they now picture that visit as a lifestyle.      Sitting soaking up the atmosphere in the outdoor cafes, hanging about the boardwalk and sitting conversing with their friends in the coffee shops and restaurants; a better term would be perpetual tourists. Hey don’t know anything about the culture and traditions of Newburyport and worse, they don’t want to know.     They don’t know the history behind the town and tragically, they don’t want to know it either.       With no interest in local politics, they could care less about the City or the Community; unless of course, it affects their immediate house.   And since everything is about the senses they are experiencing now, they could care less about the future. Since they have no inkling what makes us a uniquely lovely place, they are shocked and upset when they find out the Historical Commission may have a say about their attempts to ‘suburbanize’ the old structures.       They become angry when volunteer boards have the nerve to interfere with their attempts to ‘modernize’ their homes.       It’s all right to try to preserve the city just don’t do anything that affects them.

Clipper City .      The clipper ship was ‘invented’ here by Donald McKay.    Newburyport was never a nesting place for the great ships though many were built here.     They would launch from our shipyards and then be outfitted and sent to their home ports in Boston and New York.     Even Donald McKay, who loved our City, ended up building the majority of them in East Boston.      Our port was often filled with ‘packet’ ships, slower moving vessels that had larger, deeper more-profitable holds.       We had a scaled-down museum version of a clipper ship on our docks in the early days of the HUD/NRA but at that time, our port facilities were in ruins, our boardwalk was non-existent; consequently, the winter ice on the river severely damaged it.     Alas. if we had it now!

Common Pasture.    This was low-lying lands that abutted surrounding communities and farms.     Being close to the water table and mostly composed of marshes, they were often reserved for cattle grazing or pastures for harvesting of barley and hay.       Newburyport has one of the largest preserved common pastures in the Commonwealth.     It’s continued protection allows farms to prosper, the very feel of our community to be preserved and helps conserve our watershed (water supply) and wildlife.

Corner-office.      In Newburyport, the room immediately to the right of the front door of City Hall traditionally houses the Mayor’s office and staff.      The corner of this historic building then is always the location for the Executive.

Cushing.  Fame is fleeting and history tends to hide the negatives of a political leader.     Both are true of Caleb Cushing.    One of the most famous people in the United States who’s impact affected two wars, author of two treaties with foreign governments which are still in effect today and was the first Mayor of Newburyport.     He was also the most hated of people in the country by abolitionists and by unionists.     A Democrat who sympathized with the South and was an enthusiastic supporter of the Dred Scott Decision classifying blacks as not eligible to the rights of the U.S. Constitution.   Powerful in Boston and Washington, his impact is felt even today.   He would vote against a measure and then, in a breathtaking turn, vote for it.      He was fervently patriotic financing his own participation in the Mexican-American War and yet actively working with the Confederation during the Civil War and supporting McClellan against Lincoln.     His maddening inconsistencies in political alliances would roughly compare him to the political stances of present-day rogue politicians like Senator John McCain and John Kerry.     If you want to know who was primarily responsible for the enactment of the ‘Curse’, just say, “Cushing”.

Dark-Sider.      The Dark Side believe that Newburyport’s future lies in industry and not in eco- and heritage tourism.   Therefore, they see no value in aesthetics.     They do not understand equity and care nothing for raising property values – to them it’s only an excuse to raise taxes.      Bringing in buildings that do not fit Newburyport is okay with them – we must build, build, build.   To them, industry and the act of construction means we must build to raise more tax revenue.    To them, open space is wasted space and quality of life is but one thing to them…having a job.     They do not value the old buildings and would love to sweep them away for new – a Dark Sider feels a deep shame that was generated by years of having an inability to replace old houses with the latest “modern” building of the moment.     To live in an old house means you are poor and socially inadequate.    New means you can afford the best materials and the latest fashion.    This explains why Dark Siders see no value in local historic districts or understand the value of preserving past architecture.

Frog Pond.      This is the pond at the bottom of the basin at Bartlett Mall.      In its center is the swan fountain and on its perimeter is the Superior Court House.      To the southwest is Old Hill Cemetery.       The basin was formed by a piece of a glacier that remained, was covered over and eventually melted causing this deep depression.     Aside from its sheer beauty, the pond is often the home of lily-pads and bull frogs.      Presently, the pond is largely devoid of frogs because the water has developed into a favorite roosting place for birds.

LHD.     Abbreviation for local historic district.     Established by the process outlined in M.G.L. 40C, this Commonwealth certified, local community established ordinance protects the exterior of the historic buildings and establishes a design review process for any requested changes or renovations.     Design Review is considered a dirty word to a ‘Dark Sider’.

Light-Sider.    Idealists who tend to be light on cash and a little light on practicality, too.      Most Light Siders recognize the problems that beset Newburyport and with flashes of insight and a genuine love of the city seek to resolve and enrich the community.       Artists, conservationists, environmentalists and a wide range of philanthropists fill their ranks – to them it is their duty to sustain Newburyport’s quality of life and to care for the people, to conserve and maintain our environment, water supplies, our historic buildings and our open spaces filled with wildlife.   To them the value of the historic homes of Newburyport will only increase property values and enrich the overall neighborhoods.      These are the dedicated souls, rich and poor, who work for years on their homes making them shining examples of historic preservation.   These are the volunteers that assist and help our struggling schools.    These are the ones who slave away in non-profit endeavors.    Many, with great talent, explode into creativity and do great work on the social scene; helping the poor, caring for the sick and participating in many poorly-funded non-profits seeking to make a change.      Light Siders though are rather naïve and push for open government, lofty ideals, open processes and honorable politicians.     Unfortunately, when they encounter ‘reality’, they tend to burnout and fall into despair and cynicism.

Lord Timothy Dexter.   Born in Malden and a leather maker, he was largely illiterate, but this did not stop him from being an incredibly shrewd entrepreneur in business.     He would speculate in the oddest endeavors which would turn into wild profits.   His incredibly good luck caused him to accumulate great wealth.    Unfortunately, he could not buy fame and social acceptance and went full-blown into unfortunate endeavors to accomplish it.    He assembled statues around his home and acquired ‘Lord’ (His wife’s maiden name) and fancied himself royalty.    His most outlandish act was to hold a funeral for himself and when his wife did not sufficiently weep for him, he beat her savagely as his funeral guests feasted in the mansion.    

Mall.  Pronounced ‘mahl’     It is named after the famous Pall Mall street in the City of Westminster, London and runs parallel to The Mall on St. James’s street.     The street is a major thoroughfare in London, and a section of the regional road. The name of the street is derived from “pall mall” a mallet-and-ball game that was played there during the 17th century.      It was referenced here because at one time, the Newburyport Bartlett Mall was a busy place with court proceedings, a school and a windmill for grain.   Even the Powder House was once located there and a long rope walk for the process of creating lines for the ships.    In all likelihood, the game was played here also.

Maudslay.    The important thing is not to get confused between the two names of Maudslay and Moseley.      They are definitely not interchangeable.     After 1635, the pine woods on the ridge of the right bank of the Merrimack had been cleared in favor of homesteads. “Country Lane” (High Street) led from Newbury to Bradford Road (Storey Street). The remaining forest between Bradford Road and the river was then called the “Upper Woods”.    This area was purchased and became the early 20th century estate of Frederick Strong Moseley.    Moseley is a variant of Maudesley or Maudesleigh, an ancient English name.     The estate officially was named Maudesleigh.  Maudslay is also a town in England.     

Merrimac.     The Algonguin tribes were called Pawtucket or Pentucket and were also called Merrimac though the name was more closely associated with a village rather than a group.    It means “swift water place” and is not to be confused by the term, Merrimack which refers to the river.    

Merrimack.    An Algonquin Indian word for the river which means “deep fishing”.       Though it is debated, the Indians may have been influenced by Gaelic, “mor-riomach” which means “of great depth”.       

Moseley.     Not to be confused with Maudslay.     Charles William Moseley was a very prominent citizen in Newburyport and a stock exchange holder in Boston.    Because he largely lived here, he participated in assisting the Anna Jaques Hospital and the Newburyport Public Library.    Moseley Park , once called Jackman Pines was donated by his will along with a trust fund to the City.

NAID, Naiders.    Pioneered when the City was in economic ruins in the late fifties and sixties, using a pool of money raised by citizen donations, an industrial park was established to restore an industrial base in the City.      Its success has been largely overshadowed by the pre-eminence of eco- and heritage tourism that has helped restore economic health and restoration to the downtown businesses and homes of the historic district.      What has been left after they sold off their last property and disbanded has been a group of local industrialists who often struggle to keep their prominence and dream alive in Newburyport. Their Foundation still works to benefit the community even today.

Newburyport.      Newbury was named for a land-locked city in England.      There will never be  another Newbury Port in Great Britain.     Though there are many Amesbury’s, Salisbury’s and Newbury’s in the United States, there are no corresponding Newburyport’s.   If it wasn’t for the Curse, the smallest city in Massachusetts would be internationally famous because of all the great history that has occurred here.

Newburyport Historic District.    An area that has been designated by the Department of the Interior as an historic area significant to the Nation’s Heritage.    It has the potential to generate revenue via preservation easements, tax credits and paves the way for Federal aid if any of it is owned by the Federal Government.     There is no present mechanism to protect this area except a demolition-delay ordinance which usually results in the home being demolished after a year!     According to Mass Historic, already 700 plus homes have been lost to demolition or by gutting since the establishment of the district in 1984!     Current plans to stop this destruction of our most precious asset has been largely abandoned though hope prevails through many organizations with the premier being the Newburyport Preservation Trust. They largely use education and political advocacy to mitigate the destruction of the historic downtown and neighborhoods. 

Newburyport Walk.     It is a peculiar irony that in a walking city, we have unwalkable sidewalks but there it is.     Any visitor will be wise to follow the locals’ lead as they stroll down the middle of our streets.     Either that or suffer twisted ankles and skinned knees.     Whether school children, parents with baby carriages or just an individual wishing to arrive downtown, the road is the preferred choice.      

NHD.     Abbreviation for the National Register of Historic Place’s Newburyport Historic District.   

North End.     Contrary to popular opinion, the North End does not extend all the way to the Chain Bridge.     It is supplanted much closer to town by the original small community of Belleville.      Most of it lies between Green Street on the east to Oakland Street on the west and from south to north, High Street to Merrimac Street. And no, the neighborhood isn’t north but west.

NRA.      This abbreviation has caused some visitors to panic especially if they are pacifists.     The NRA stands for the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority.      Established as independent of the City by HUD, their job is to develop the portions of the downtown that were taken by eminent domain.     Theoretically, the NRA will dissolve as a body, once the last piece of property has been developed.      Current estimates are this will happen in 2055…or later.

Parker.     Newbury was settled in 1635 by an English party, which landed on the left bank of a river renamed the Parker River, after the settlement’s spiritual counselor, Rev. Thomas Parker.     The Reverend had received a royal charter from King Charles I for the granting of agricultural lands stretching from the river in the south to the Merrimack.    He established the First Parish Church which was closer to the lower green on the Parker River.    A newer building was then relocated just north of the Upper Green many years later.    This land grant stretched west all the way along the Merrimack bordering onto present-day Groveland & Georgetown.

Privateers.   There were never any pirates in our history.    We had privateers instead.     Patriotic, noble crews who seized enemy combatants ships, returned them to Newburyport, sold the ships and goods and in which a sizeable percentage went toward the government’s treasury.   Pirates often murder seized crews but privateers would take them back to shore for imprisonment but more often left them to find their own way back to England.   As much as it was war, privateers had a certain air of legitimacy if they had a ‘mark’ or legal certificate from their government.   If captured, they would be treated as prisoners of war and open to some measure of civil treatment.     This was fine during the War of 1812 when Britain recognized the United States as a legitimate government but not during the American Revolution.     All combatants were considered rebels and the government not recognized.     Prisoners from Newburyport would often ‘disappear’ or be treated cruelly since they were considered worthy of death as traitors.      Regardless of this danger, Newburyport was considered a leader in privateering and held especially responsible for forcing the British to abandon Boston due to English supply ships being so successfully interdicted.

South End.     This area stretches from State Street on the west to Marlboro Street on the east and south to north from High Street to Water Street.      This is often considered the oldest neighborhood in Newburyport.    Even though it is the prettiest part of the City, it tends to have the highest concentration of Dark Siders. And no, the South End isn’t south, it is east.

The Curse.     John Greenleaf Whittier, exasperated by weak-kneed Newburyport merchants and politicians afraid of retribution from the South, cast a curse upon the City.     The City would be lost to the rest of the world and would lose its port until it repented of its pro-slavery stance and learned to honor outsiders amongst its midst.      Obviously, seeing William Lloyd Garrison standing in Brown Square (without a rail under his butt) has shown that we have long repented of our misbegotten stance.     We have lost our port status except in our name but we still do not honor outsiders  as legitimate equals or outside ideas as legitimate concepts.    There is only one Newburyport on the planet but the world will never know of us until this Curse is lifted.

The Five.       Short hand term for the Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank.      This banking company owns large amounts of mortgages in town and is noted for being a benevolent organization toward the community.     Unfortunately, it has a large representation of officials and trustees that are Dark Siders.       The way they build their own buildings (ghastly Scandinavian-style and mutant-historic structures) has often found them behind some of the more destructive developments in town.      Fortunately, in the last few years, they have worked aggressively to overcome their past image and have been successfully championing many historic preservation efforts.

The Institution.      Short hand term for the Institution for Savings.     This banking company owns large amounts of mortgages in town and is noted for being a benevolent organization toward the community and extremely conservative in their banking processes.

The Ridge.     The most exclusive and the most breathtaking collection of great houses (except for the one house that replaced ‘rum cottage’) in the City.    Most of the structures lie on the cusp of the highest point on the ridge that lies from State eastward to Coffin’s Court and across from Parsons Street.     The history of the former occupants are just as breathtaking ranging from nation-builders, political giants of the Commonwealth & Washington and the epicenter of the silversmith industry in the Nation.   Although not viewable from High Street, many had elaborate gardens in their backyards.

The Waterside.      When Newbury stretched from Groveland’s border to the west and south to the border with Rowley, a cultural rift began to emerge along the banks of the Merrimack.     While most of the town consisted of farmers, a distinct group formed that were involved in international trade, rum-making, ship-building and fishing.      This also created a culturally-mixed community consisting of grogs, salty sailors and lavishly-rich merchants.      If any respectable Newbury farmer saw a newly arrived visitor, warnings were kindly issued to watch out for those people at the Waterside.

Towle.      Silversmithing in America originated here.   Towle took over the Brown Munitions Factory on Merrimac Street and for years its silver was considered the finest in the country until international pressures caused it to be sold to a competitor who disastrously tried to make more common commodity silverware.     The business plan failed and the plant closed.       Towle Silversmith as a corporation still exists today in East Boston but the silverware is now mostly manufactured overseas.    

Townies.      These are precious gems amongst our natives.      You can not be a townie just by being born here, you must have been part of generations who have lived here.     Unfortunately, they are becoming a shrinking minority as newcomers move into the City and supplant their ancient homesteads.       Politically and philosophically, they are a mixed bag but one thing rings true; they are the holders of Newburyport’s long-standing culture and history.

Waterfront.     Usually said in a sentence, ‘The Waterfront’.  The term is strictly used for a short piece of eminent-domain land by the NRA stretching from the parking before the Chamber of Commerce all the way to the border with Atkinson’s Lumber yard (now the Atkinson Building ).      The original plan was to demolish the firehouse, and build a large hotel/shopping center all the way to the water.     Fitfully and with much smoke and fire, the entire area is slowly being molded into a finished product but it’s any one’s guess what that will eventually be.      One side wants mostly a park and the other side wants mostly buildings.      The struggle continues.

Waterfront Trust.     Created as a settlement over a lawsuit made by the Friends of the Newburyport Waterfront against the NRA, the Waterfront Trust was established to protect Riverside Park (The parking area just north of the Bottom of Green Street, the Boardwalk, the Main Market Landing Park (which includes the land under the firehouse) and special ‘wayes’ to the water.    These ways established by the City represented the original paths down to the ancient wharfs .     Largely funded by boat and parking fees, the Trust takes care of the park and the boardwalk and maintains landscaping along the ‘wayes’.      Though housed in City Hall, the trust is a semi-governmental body that is mostly independent.

West Side .    An area that stretches from Route 95 to the Artichoke Reservoir and River and includes Maudslay State Park, Curzon Mills, Arrowhead Farm and other farms, Turkey Hill and the housing developments along Turkey Hill Road.    Peopled mostly by suburban homes, there are historical buildings peppered throughout this area.

Wheelwright.     William Wheelwright is considered a national hero in Chile and a statue of him stands prominently in that country’s third largest city, Valparaiso.   He built up ports and actually built entire railroads throughout South America.    He was raised in the house that stands at 75 High Street but only briefly occupied it as his main domicile was in South America , but he always considered it his ‘home’.   After his death, it became a home for aged women for a very long time until the organization sold the building to a developer.    When much uproar was made on his plans to develop the property into a housing development, open space preservationists succeeded in seeing a large section protected and the home was sold intact and magnificently renovated.    The economy forced the housing plans to be abandoned and the developer sold the land.

Yeat.    The origin of the word is from the city’s famous Clipper ships from its port days. It was often used when unloading or loading goods (such as breads). The original usage of the word most closely resembled the word: “Pass”.    During World War II it was used as a ship-to-ship Naval greeting to identify oneself as a resident of Newburyport. A response in kind indicated that the man had found a fellow Newburyporter.     Unfortunately, the word has devolved and is now used as a profanity in response to an idiotic statement or action.        Fortunately, whenever a tourist sees the word on a Dark Sider’s car and asks, the locals like to white wash the explanation by referring to the original meanings!    This often results in visitors proudly displaying the stickers around town.    Yeat!

And of course, the term, “The knowing ones”.          A term used by Lord Timothy Dexter for those who were in the know and were full of wisdom.      Now that you have gone over these definitions and explored some of the links on my site on other facets of Newburyport, you will be better equipped and soon may even call yourself, ‘A Knowing One’!