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Treasured Island

Are the cottages of Boston Harbor's Peddocks Island - occupied by families for generations - a historic gem or an eye sore in a public park? Each day this feud drags on brings another house a step closer to ruin.

Most of the 36 cottages on Peddock's Island are occupied, but some are vacant and decaying. Most of the 36 cottages on Peddock's Island are occupied, but some are vacant and decaying. (Photo by Channing Johnson)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Stephanie Schorow
May 25, 2008

PEDDOCKS ISLAND, ONE OF THE LARGEST IN BOSTON HARBOR, MAY BE DESTINED for Hollywood fame. This spring, crews roamed the eastern section of the 210-acre island to scout scenes for Ashecliffe, a film by Martin Scorsese based on Dennis Lehane's bestseller Shutter Island. But is Peddocks ready for its close-up? /// If you follow the trail leading though the middle section of the island, you'll find yourself staring at an aging cottage that seems to lurch into your path. Its front room has collapsed into a mass of broken wood and glass. The rest of the house appears ready to follow. Tattered strands of curtains droop in the windows, giving it the aura of a haunted house. Last summer, a handmade sign was pasted in one of the few remaining panes of glass. It read: "Property of D.C.R." /// It wasn't a label. It was a message.

To many, that cottage and 35 other little island houses - all without electricity or running water - tell the story of a fishing village that sprang up in the 1880s and of a summer community that evolved in the early 1900s and continues to this day. Even now, a few hearty souls live here year-round. Unless current policies shift, all 36 cottages could end up deserted and decaying - an eyesore in a national park - as their current inhabitants die and ownership goes from private to public hands. Could these cottages be saved? More importantly, should they?

Such questions are not unusual in New England. For decades, the National Park Service has wrestled with how to manage private ownership of historic "dune shacks," once the home of fishermen and artists, along the Cape Cod National Seashore. Issues of private ownership versus public access have been raised by family-occupied cabins within the Myles Standish State Forest in Plymouth. And Newburyport residents are wondering if improvements to the city's last clam shack will save the structure or obliterate its historical significance.

With an ambitious promotional campaign about to be launched for the Boston Harbor Islands National Park Area, more visitors will be exploring the five drumlins (or hills) of Peddocks, which stretches from Houghs Neck to Hull. Visitors may wander among the cottages and wonder who built them and why. But if cottage dwellers and state officials can't agree on their fate, if a solid plan to protect the houses can't be devised and funded soon, future visitors may be left only to imagine what once was.

GETTING TO PEDDOCKS ISLAND ISN'T DIFFICULT USING the park's inter-island water shuttle service (which begins this year on June 21). You can take the ferry from Long Wharf to Georges Island and then hop the shuttle to Peddocks, Grape, and Bumpkin islands. You debark at a pier on Peddocks's East Head, near a military guardhouse that has been turned into a visitors' center. You can follow a path around the outskirts of Fort Andrews, built about 1904. The fort's decaying bunkers, barracks, officers' quarters, firehouse, bakery, hospital, and other structures are, however, off-limits to the public due to safety concerns. Which means many visitors make their way past the fort over a sandy spit to the island's Middle Head.

Here you will find cottages, each with a unique construction. About 25 are still occupied. Some are cozy and solidly built, a few are mere shells of weathered lumber. One, painted an outlandish pink, marks the beginning of an area called "Crab Alley," once home to Portuguese fishermen who sold fish, crabs, and lobsters here. No signs explain the history, but if visitors are lucky, they may run into someone who will tell them about the past. Someone like Claire Pierimarchi Hale.

Hale's ties to Peddocks reach to 1919, when her father, then just 11 and newly arrived from Italy, was brought to the island for a picnic by his older brother, who was friendly with some of the Portuguese fishermen. Eventually, three Pierimarchi brothers bought cottages and then improved them over the years. Since 1935, Hale has, first with her parents, then with her husband, Bill, spent summers on the island (the Hales live in Georgetown the rest of the year). Now in her early 70s, Claire Hale is the unofficial matriarch of the island, the keeper of memories. She loves to talk about Peddocks history.

But she can barely speak about July 31, 2001. She can't read a poem she wrote that day without crying. That was the day then Metropolitan District Commission chief David Balfour personally oversaw the demolition of several abandoned Peddocks cottages, aging structures that he deemed a hazard to public safety. "Then with tears in my eyes, I watch as [another] cottage goes," she wrote. "Remembering the laughter from my Nonie as we put the pots and pans under the leaks. All that left is a big pile of wood and the pungent smell of debris. My tears drop into the pile as I stoop to touch a piece of wood."

The Hales and other Peddocks Island families have never owned the land beneath their cottages. They have always been - in some sense - squatters, a tradition in the long history of settlements on the island. Peddocks was likely visited for centuries by Native Americans; a 4,000-year-old skull has been found there. Europeans started farming Peddocks, named after English planter Leonard Peddock, in the 1630s. In the 1880s, a group of Portuguese fishermen settled on the western shore of the East Head, paying a yearly permit fee to the island's private owners. Many of these fishermen had been living on nearby Long Island. When Boston expanded its hospital there, they floated their shacks to Peddocks. In a few years, they had to move again, this time to Middle Head, when Fort Andrews was established. After World War II, Fort Andrews was decommissioned, and many of the fishermen started drifting off to the mainland, seeking better jobs. Drifting in were Boston-area families seeking inexpensive summer retreats.

Summer residents included Frank Enos, a Boston jeweler who repaired the clocks of Portuguese fishermen. Of Portuguese descent himself, he accepted their invitation to visit Peddocks and fell in love with the place. In the 1890s, he bought a small shack on one side of the island and floated it to other side, overlooking Hingham Bay. He improved the structure, and his son Walter built a cottage next door. Walter's sons, Walter and Robert, spent summers here.

Robert Enos, now 76 and living in Centerville, recalls how on summer Sundays the family would worship in a small Army chapel where a choir of Italian prisoners sang in voices so heavenly, it was hard to believe they weren't at La Scala in Milan. His brother, Walter, 79, of Brookline, tells of how his father combed the beach for driftwood and lumber to expand the house. Walter Enos and his family still summer in his father's cottage. Walter's daughter Pat Bernier and her son Tom come when they can.

Upkeep of the cottage remains a constant struggle. There are no utilities and no heat. The family uses well water for washing and brings drinking water. The furnishings are spare. "It's not the Kennedy compound," Walter Enos remarks dryly. "It is oceanfront property, but it is a lot of work," Pat Bernier says. She adores the place but is unsure about the future. When her father, the cottage's legal owner, passes on, so does the cottage.

IN THE 1970S, THE METROPOLITAN DISTRICT Commission, acting for the Commonwealth, acquired Peddocks from its private owners for the then-new Boston Harbor Islands State Park (which would later become part of a national park). Cottagers started paying their annual permit fee to the MDC. The next step seemed obvious. The islanders didn't own the land. It was now a public park. They should leave. The permit holders didn't see it that way. In 1993, after the intervention of the Legislature, the MDC agreed to a compromise that remains in effect today. Cottage owners who pay the yearly permit fee, currently $400, may keep their dwellings until they die, when ownership reverts to the MDC. Owners can sell their cottages only to the agency. State officials considered this a fair alternative to simply evicting the cottagers.

As islanders left or died, the MDC acquired cottages and removed their doors and windows to prevent squatting. Battered by harsh weather, the houses began to fall apart. Some islanders, who saw the old homes as convenient dumping grounds, filled them with junk. In 2001, seven of the cottages were demolished and removed by Balfour, over the fierce objections of islanders. Many, including the Hales and the Enoses, argued that a vital bit of Boston Harbor Islands history was being lost.

In 2003, Governor Mitt Romney shuttered the MDC, and the Department of Conservation and Recreation was formed. On Peddocks, empty cottages were boarded up rather than exposed to the elements. But these cottages - like nearby Fort Andrews - are slowly deteriorating. "They don't seem to know what to do with the property," complains Philip Chalmers of Rockport, who has a Peddocks cottage bought by his father in 1930.

Indeed, "there hasn't been any hard decision made in terms of what future use is going to be," says DCR Commissioner Rick Sullivan. "We're certainly willing to work with people moving forward in terms of finding a larger reuse for them." In September, the agency released a 45-page "Buildings Condition Assessment for Fort Andrews and Island Cottages" that pinpointed which Peddocks structures were salvageable, which should be demolished, and which were at a turning point. Four of the 11 cottages owned by the DCR were deemed salvageable, and the agency noted that tenant-occupied cottages had better upkeep, underscoring the need for the DCR to develop a cottage strategy. The study is a "stepping-off point to take a look at these buildings and see what we can do," says DCR spokeswoman Wendy Fox. "What is feasible? What makes economic sense? What makes historical sense? And, frankly, what makes emotional sense?"

Some islanders aren't impressed. "There have been so many plans over the years," Pat Bernier says. "I really think they're hoping we'll just all go away." Fox disagrees: "The cottages are there. They're not going away. We are trying increasingly to devote resources and energy to making the whole situation better."

The September study has sparked a possible new development, spearheaded by Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands, a volunteer and advocacy group founded nearly 30 years ago by Suzanne Gall Marsh. The group and Marsh, who owns a cottage on Crab Alley, hope to turn a DCR-owned cottage deemed salvageable by the study into a mid-island visitor contact station to highlight the island's history. However, the Friends' request for 2008 matching DCR funds for the project was rejected. "But that is absolutely something that we would entertain in the future," Sullivan says. Fox says the agency urged the group to apply for 2009 funding. Marsh says the Friends hope to win a DCR grant to stabilize one cottage to prevent further damage and preserve it for future use.

Are other cottages worth preserving? "Yes," says Steven Marcus, chairman of the Friends. "Like everything else, it gets less `yes' over time."

THIS YEAR, THE BOSTON HARBOR ISLAND Alliance, the nonprofit marketing arm of the Island Partnership that runs the park, will unveil a promotional campaign to increase visitors to all of the islands. Although the islands were gathered into a national park in 1996, many New Englanders don't yet know about these offshore gems.

There are also big plans for Peddocks. The alliance aims to build an all-inclusive eco-retreat and family camp on East Head that would use green technology. Rustic cabins or tents would shelter families overnight. The salvageable buildings of Fort Andrews would be rehabilitated into a communal dining hall, an amphitheater, and possibly a conference center. Other fort buildings would be preserved as "historical ruins." Work on the project has begun; $5.3 million has been invested in extending utility lines to the fort from Hull, restoring water and electricity, which was lost decades ago. Part of another $5.3 million has been designated for Peddocks improvements. These funds are part of mitigation money from a Liquefied Natural Gas harbor project, allocated by the state's secretary of environmental affairs.

The eco-camp "is an ambitious project that will more than take our time and focus," says Tom Powers, president of the Boston Harbor Island Alliance. "The cottages are down at the other end. We've got more than our hands full with the fort end." As for policy on the cottages, the alliance is "neutral," he says.

Once, national parks were less neutral on private ownership. In the early 20th century, after the national highway system was established, people were encouraged to own or lease housing within parks as a way to promote their use, says Kathy Abbott, a founding director of the Boston Harbor Island Alliance, a former DCR commissioner, and now vice president of field operations for the Trustees of Reservations, a nonprofit land conservation group. "By the time I got into this business in the 1980s and 1990s, the situation had dramatically changed," she says. With increased demand for public land, Abbott adds, state and federal officials did not renew leases and evicted families - even those who had lived there for generations - from parkland.

Various ideas have been floated on how to reuse the DCR-owned cottages. Some suggest following a model used by Peaked Hills Trust for its Cape Cod dune shacks: The trust holds a lottery for those interested in paying for a one- to two-week stay. Artists may also apply for a two-week residency. Abbott has heard most of the ideas. She, too, had wanted to reuse at least some of the DCR-owned cottages. But, she says, it would have been a struggle just "getting them up to code - they don't meet the health standards in the town of Hull. There's no running water. There's no sanitation. And the costs were just too great."

Many cottagers agree that the homes may never be suitable for public lodging. For them, the primitive nature is their charm. "I want my children to experience this," says Sheila Martel, whose connection to Peddocks goes back five generations to the Portuguese fishermen. "At home, everything is electronic. I like the fact that on the island we're up with the sun and down with the sun. They don't rely on TV. They're reading. They're exploring. They're fishing. They're figuring out they can survive without what they take for granted."

She, like other islanders, wishes she could pass her cottage to her children. She believes that cottage owners add value to the park by serving as caretaking "eyes and ears." Cottagers also mow the pathways. They answer visitor questions. But even some cottagers admit that not all of them have been welcoming to visitors. Abbott says, "If your house was public and in the middle of public property and you had people continually walking through your backyard and front yard - how would you be with all those people on a regular basis?" The DCR's Sullivan is blunt: While no "hard and fast" decision has been made, he says, "there will not be cottages for people to own in the future."

WOULD TOURISTS EVEN CARE IF THE cottages disappeared? Robert Enos, whose grandfather bought a cottage in the 1890s, believes they would. "There is something there that is historically significant. It's not a fort. It is a community." An artist and teacher, Enos did his 1986 master's thesis on Peddocks. "It is the only island in the harbor that had a Portuguese fishing village and a summer community. It was a lifestyle that was really quite amazing. It was romantic. It was magical," he says. "If [today's] families go, the history will go with them. And that's kind of sad."

Sad, but not unusual.

For all the hoopla over the Freedom Trail, Plimoth Plantation, and Lexington Green, New Englanders like history the way some people like revenge - as a dish served cold. Only when passions have cooled do we laud abolitionists. Only after the wrecking ball has swept away the West End and Scollay Square are tears shed about "the good old days." What was an eyesore in one decade is a historical treasure in another. What islanders call the "living history" of Peddocks may not yet be cool enough to serve.

Stephanie Schorow is a Boston-area writer. Her book East of Boston: Notes From the Harbor Islands will be published this summer by History Press. E-mail her at sschorow@comcast.net.

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