I got to know the Custom House for various reasons, since I was a child in the 1920s.
It intrigued me immensely because not only did I live in Market Square, but I actually was daily in and around the Custom House on Water Street, for the most part playing or doing errands for my father, who had his store almost directly across the street at 14 Market Square.
I would daily look at the immense Custom House and admire it, and I’d wonder about it for its beauty and its strength. I wondered, “What did it do?” “Why was it there?” All those questions often came to mind. Oh, yes! It was beautiful. It represented strength to me.
It had a distinct purpose. And, it had a job to do — however it was unknown to me what its job would be.
The years passed by and the Depression was upon us. I never saw anybody go in or out of the Custom House, although I would often run errands for my father and pass by it daily.
My history teacher, Miss Lutz in Newburyport High School, taught us somewhat about the Custom House. It was used as a meeting place. It almost could speak to me when I looked up at it as I passed by. It harbored a mystique about it. I, never realizing, the day would one day come to me and bring me answers to my questions.
I was a young man, working as a laborer for Benjamin Checkoway, and he had a need in his work (which was the demolition of buildings) for a storage warehouse for his goods and his salvaged materials gathered from building wrecking. So, he struck a deal with the city to utilize the Custom House as a place to store his wares from the demolition of other properties.
He was given a key so he could enter and lock the building as was necessary for him. He actually was renting it for space. One lucky day, I was with Mr. Checkoway, and he needed to open the front door of the Custom House to store some demolition materials. He took me along as a helper and that was my opportunity to see it from the inside. Everything about it had been a puzzle to me – until then!
We walked up the granite steps, and I watched, somewhat nervously, as he reached for the key and unlocked the door. My heart was racing. I was nervous and maybe even a little scared of what we may find inside.
When we got inside, it was as though the building could talk to me. It was in marvelous condition, and I saw in there many wares that seemed to be from the Civil War era. I stood there in the middle of the floor, enough daylight streaming in from the windows, and I looked up and around at its walls and ceiling and felt the building could almost speak to me.
I have heard it rumored sadly that it was discussed, and it was seriously considered by some people in this city some years back, to raze it. But, I personally think that when they considered how costly it would be and how difficult it would be to take it down, they thought better of it and reconsidered dismantling it and left it alone. It survived on its own – its beauty and strength defying the very people who wanted to abolish it.
Today, it is a historical maritime museum – irreplaceable. It has become a gift for the people to come and view it and to learn from it. I’m sure you, too, will be quite taken by it especially when you enter it and picture it in its heyday in those glorious years -- when it functioned truly as a Custom House. People, adults and children from wherever they come, now have the pleasure and the right to visit it and witness its beauty and glory of its time past.
The Custom House still stands tall and beautiful and strong and powerful and proud – even to this day! My dear readers, learn from and enjoy The Custom House Maritime Museum; its doors are open to all. Visit it, if you haven’t done so, and learn how the present reflects its past!
John Lagoulis, now in his 94th year, is a columnist for the Daily News who writes about life in Newburyport the way he lived it during the early 1900’s. John has authored two books titled, Newburyport: As I Lived It! The Trials & Tribulations of a Young Wharf Rat during the Early 1900’s in Massachusetts, which are available in local shops. He can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or www.NewburyportWharfRat.com