NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

April 21, 2014

Fond memories of 17 Ship St.

As I See It
Tim Fowler

---- — I was saddened to read in The Daily News of the final decision to demolish the house at 17 Ship St. in the South End of Newburyport.

I have been following this story through the newspaper as well as through the family grapevine, as Ship Street has a very significant connection to me and my family that spans back to the early 1900s.

My grandmother, Laura (Souther) Wright, settled down at 15 Ship St. with a fisherman named Capt. William Wright at the turn of the 20th century. There they raised nine children in a very small saltbox house. My mom, Edith, was the eighth child of the nine.

I have often wondered how they managed, but my thoughts are short-lived, realizing my mom also raised a family of nine in one-half of a duplex home on Hancock Street.

Capt. Will, unfortunately, passed before I was able to meet him, but my mom and her family members were able to forward some of the tales of his life to me. I have pictures of him that corroborate the stories that he was not a distinctly overwhelming man of stature, but anyone who is called to the sea does not necessarily have to be of brawn and brute.

Moreover, they just need knowledge of the sea, passion for a life on the water and a strong will to fight whatever wind, tide and weather throw at them, in order to eke out a living from the ocean.

Somehow, between selling most of his catch on a fish truck with my oldest uncle, Will Jr., and my grandmother growing what little food she could in a small garden in the backyard, they all managed to survive, even during history’s most trying Depression.

My mom told me stories of how Capt. Will sometimes gave away much of his catch to others who were struggling more than they.

He moored his fishing boat, named the Indian, at the bottom of Ship Street (hence the name). In that era of time the river and docks were very much closer to the edge of Water Street, according to my mom.

Eventually, the Wright family grew older and left the nest one at a time. The eldest son migrated to Gloucester, again the call to the sea, but the eldest daughter, Gertrude, did not fly far. She settled next door in a tall, majestic home at 17 Ship Street.

Gertrude, or “Aunt Gerty,” as we knew her, was a hoot! An avid and devout Red Sox fan, she hardly ever missed a game, even back in those days when most games were not televised but broadcast over the radio. You could walk into her home and hear the radio at full blast because poor Aunt Gerty was hard of hearing.

When people called her on the phone and she didn’t answer, they just figured there must be a Sox game on.

She had two sons, Emery and Harry, and one daughter, Laura, who was named after Gram Wright. Aunt Laura lived with and looked after Aunt Gerty as far back as I can remember. Even though she was my cousin, we all called her Aunt Laura. I think it was because of the age difference and basically a term of respect.

When I was preschool age, my mom worked long hours, so she would often drop me off at Gram Wright’s to baby-sit. Back then Gram was getting on into her late 70s, so containing a 4-year-old must have been exhausting. So when she was tired of having me underfoot, she would ship me next door for Aunt Laura to watch me until my mom came to pick me up.

Aunt Laura was the kindest, most loving aunt one could have. She would take great joy and laughed whenever telling my friends of how I helped her bake a cake when I was a tot.

She promised I could help do some of the frosting and had it cooling on a rack when the phone rang. She returned, only to find that I had crawled up in a chair and had cut the corners off the square cake with a rubber spatula. She asked why I had done this and I said, “because it’s suppose to be round!”

I will always have great memories of 17 Ship St. and the people who made it a special home. As the story goes, Aunt Laura chased me off that classical, winding Captain’s Staircase that led to the upstairs many times. She lived there for many years up until her 90s, when she could no longer fend for herself or the house.

I sincerely hope that if it cannot be saved, that some of the historical artifacts of that home can be passed on to others to preserve and enjoy. If not, I still have those early days spent on Ship Street etched in my memory forever, and as the immortal “Chairman of the Board” sang, “You Can’t Take That Away From Me!”

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Tim Fowler lives in Newbury.