Marshing Time Approaches

Some Account of the History of Earlier Hampton

{And Its Daughter & Neighbor Towns}

By Rev. Roland D. Sawyer, Kensington

Hampton Union, Various dates of issue

Hay cocks on 'staddles' on the marsh, Hampton Beach, N.H.

75 years ago I listened with great eagerness as the men discussed after haying season was over about cutting their salt hay on Hampton and Hampton Falls and Seabrook marshes.

My father in those days was cutting the Robinson marsh (the Exeter Robinsons), which had two stacks and he annually cut it at the halves. That meant I could go with him two of the three days - on it were pond holes where I caught tommy-cod and found horse-shoes - what happy days for a seven year old boy.

Later at the stores I marvelled at the wisdom of the men as they got out the Leavitt or Old Farmers' Almanac, and discussed the learned questions of the apogee and perigee phases of the moon.

In later years I looked it up and found that apogee is when the moon is most removed from the earth and tides are low, 8 or 9 foot tides. Perigee is when the moon is nearest the earth and tides are high, 10 and 11 feet, and if hard winds even beyond the eleven feet.

This year, as I study my almanac the good marsh season starts with this week and Tuesday, Wednesday and today (Thursday) are safe days to mow. Grass won't float away till ten days later, also be a season following September 10.

In Marsh season of older days the women were up, had a hearty breakfast ready at 1:30 or 2 a.m. and with butter-box full of food, old dobbin (horse) was on his way to the marsh by 2:30 or 3 a.m.

Scythes must be hung in and mowing start by 3:30 or 4 to get the easy time of cutting, while dew was on the short salt grass.

Greatest of all days for a boy was the day when the farmer chose to boat his hay up to the Hampton Falls depot in the "gunlow" (Gundalow). When I was a lad there were nine gunlows and a small one in Hampton, Hampton Falls and Seabrook and in marshing seasons they were always busy.

Years ago I tried to find a surviving gunlow but could not. In 1949 Amos Jewett of Rowley was more successful and he found a snap shot which he put into his brochure TIDAL MARSHES OF ROWLEY AND NEWBURY, and at front page 4 of the brochure, and further on we find a snapshot of an empty staddle and also several stacks of hay.

"Going In The Marsh"

What a thrill we got from those days in the marsh cutting, raking and polling in and stacking the hay.

How I enjoyed it from a very small lad, say five years of age. My father was then cutting the Robinson marsh at "halves", two stacks, he had one and the Robinson sisters of Exeter the other; they lived in Exeter in the old house Mr. Richards has recently bought and improved.

There were 3 or 4 pond holes on the marsh, my father made me a net on a hoof from a firkin, and I spent the day catching the little fish that the last tide had left there.

I would fill a couple of mason jars as full as they would live and then by changing the water and putting in salt, would-keep some of them alive for months.

A little older lad I would swim, fish with a hook in some deep creek or over the river; then came days when I was big enuf to help. My father used to say the man who could stack a good stack should be on the ground, so when very small I was up on the stack and built it up and slid down into his arms.

Each stack was placed on top of staddles that stood 3 feet from the earth, so high tides would not wet and spoil the hay.

At last came the days when I could swing the scythe, pool in and pitch or rake.

This was the procedure. The grass would cut much easier and better in early morning when the dew was on, so the women folks on the farms or in the homes were up at I a. m. to get breakfast and put up dinners in the baskets and boxes, so we could drive out of the yard at 2 or 2:30 at the latest.

We must be on the marsh with scythes and ready to swing down the swath by 4 a. m., so to get 4 hours work before the dew was off.

Around 10:30 mowing was ended, we ate dinner, then raked out the creeks, left things trim and started back to the high ground, "Healey's Island" or "Mike's Island", where we left the horse with his bag of hay.

If the work had not been to hard the men would go and dig a mess of clams before we started back.

The next day we came down again and raked it into windrows and cocked it up into a bunch twice as long as it was wide and which would weigh 50 to 100 lbs.

What a thrill when the job was done, the marsh mowed smooth and the fine shapely, stacks standing there, monuments to skillful labor.

The salt air always made one feel good, gave us an awful appetite, and the whole thing was of the nature of adventure.

Many hired men would not go for the work unless the owner would furnish plenty of cider and of perhaps a little of Caldwell's rum.

At the island there would be from 50 to 100 horses hitched and the owners coming in would have many chats, not having seen one another since the previous year.

My father was a rare man to keep a scythe sharp and to use it and I got great pride at the smoothly mowed marsh we always left when work was done.

In old Exeter News Letters, I have found articles written on "Going In the Marsh" by Dr. Sanborn of Hampton Falls, Will Cram, and Rev. Elvin J. Prescott; Cram's article is reprinted in his book.

"About this time (1638-1639) a settlement was set down at Winnicunnet, the people who settled being enticed by the large tract of salt marsh, which would furnish fodder for their cattle till lands could be cleared."

So wrote Johnson in his "WONDER WORKING PRO67DENCE" in 1654, I think he was right, and I also find evidence to make me believe that when Richard Dummer and John Spencer visited Winnicunnet early in 1636(?) (we have the record) and then Dummer went into the General Court in Boston and had the Massachusetts Bay government lay its claim to it by ordering the Bound House built, that it was the salt marsh that moved Dummer and Spencer to do this, for they lived in Byfield in old Newbury, and had with Nicholas Easton, already imported cattle kind from the old world to their farm in Byfield, and hence spotted what an asset to a prosperous settlement would be the several thousand acres of fine salt hay, just waiting to be cut or even fed off in pasture.

Anyhow, they were back and built the Bound House, 50 rods or so north west of where stood the old Tide Mill taken down in 1879. In that building, John Brown helped them.

Early 1638 Nicholas Easton and his sons came there to settle but as they were building their house the legislature ordered them away, and they were in Newport, Rhode island in June.

When he went away Eastor gave his cows he had imported to John Brown for past favors.

This means that John Brown was already there, the first white resident of Hampton. And I also think he had been there since the Bound House was built, for while he is never mentioned in 1639 as being given a farm, we find that later in the year he already owned one, probably given him for helping build the Bound House.

A little later Moses Cox built a house near Brown, or moved into one owned by Brown, and was chosen herder of the cows.

The late Asa Warren Brown began a little before 1850 to dig into Hampton History and the Brown family, and had two drawers in his slant top desk full of manuscripts when he moved from Kensington in 1907, but a cruel and unthinking son burned up all that work. He had early published in The Exeter NEWS-LETTER, Oct. 27, 1851, and in the GENEALOGICAL REGISTER, his early collected data on the Brown family, but in subsequent years he had enlarged his data several times and made some corrections, one important one being, that it was Sarah Dummer who was wife of John Brown and not Sarah Walker.

But to come back to "Going in the Marsh." The farmer people of Hampton and its daughter towns, towns of Exeter, and of Salisbury and in Exeter and some daughter and South Hampton and Newton, all owned their patches of marsh, pieces which varied from a single acre to a dozen acres.

A period in August or September when there was a low run of tides was chosen as "The marshseason," scythes were made sharp, help was engaged if needed, and then came to going down, cutting to be brought up later by "gunlow" and raking and stacking the hay, to the dock, or to be hauled off with oxen or horses in the winter when the soft marsh was frozen and the teams could get on.

Memories Of A Nonagenarian

Cutting The Salt Grass

There is something like 5,000 acres of salt marsh between the Merrimack River and Rye Beach and that marsh was the great attraction for settlers from England, as people along the southwest shore of England had a similar marsh and knew its value and aid to get a living.

After the John Brown house was built in 1636(?), he with others cut and stacked salt hay for the cows he was tending and which were brought over by Richard Dummer, Nicholas Easton and John Spencer.

Eighty years ago, I was a lad whose greatest delight in life was to "go in the marsh" with my elders, and the procedure had been the same for over 200 years.

Men came from 15 or more miles away to cut their salt grass. Summer haying around their farms progressed till late July then every farmer took from its hook the Old Farmers. Almanac of the Leavitt Almanac to get the run of tides, for it must be cut when tides were low or the hay would float off.

We kids would spend half our time in the creeks in swimming, or digging clams, catching lobsters or tommy-cod.

At around 2 a.m., the farmers ate their breakfast, hitched up the horse, packed in the box of food and filled the jug with water and other jugs with cider, then off for the hour ride to Healey's Island. 50 to 75 horses were hitched there to stamp flies all day and be fed.

When the salt grass was wet with dew it cut easy. Thus, if they swung in by 3 a.m. they had five hours to swing the scythe till the dew was off, then you had to pound with full strength to cut the dry grass with dull scythe. Then to rake out the creeks at their edges and go home. And 48 hours later be back polling and stacking the hay.

There were usually two marsh seasons and when the second was over the marshes were dotted with stacks like the one in our picture.

When winter came and the marshes froze, down from inland came the two men and some boys with oxen and sleds to drive on to the marsh and load the stacks. A matter of five ten and fifteen miles were travelled to cut or get the hay.

My father and I were down there the day when there came up a terrible wind. Capt. Joe Brown would not allow his men to get upon the stacks, so at 85 years of age he climbed and stacked eleven stacks, and slid down the pole to the ground from the top of every stack.

The Stacks of Hay On New Hampshire Salt Marshes

Thinner and thinner grow the ranks of us who ever cut, spread, polled in and stacked the salt hay on the near 5,000 acres of salt marsh along the New Hampshire coast.

Southeast England had salt marshes which were of great value to the people there, and thus our New Hampshire coast attracted English immigrants.

Cows, oxen and horses could live on the hay, thick thatch could he laid on a roof that would shed water, so here came many from England.

There is a movement on foot to secure title of a large section of Marsh off Hampton & Hampton Falls and preserve it as an historical spot. If successful it would be true to history that it should have a few staves and see that thereon each season be a stack of salt hay like our picture, which was taken in 1899.

Men of older days found a joy and we lads found a delight in "going down to the marsh". The women cooked and packed the lunch at 3 a.m. and went back to bed and the men started for the marsh. The salt grass cut much better when the dew was on it and from 4 to 9 a.m. were the mowing hours.

Then creeks were raked out and two days later the salt grass was cocked and polled in and the stacks put up. When stacked the lad or man on the stack was given one end of the poll on which he slid to the ground.

In 1888, Capt. Joe Brown of Kensington stacked nine stacks and slid down on the pole be cause he thought the wind was blowing too hard for a hired man to risk it, he was then 87 years old.

I felt big when I could go up on the stack and my father would walk around to see if each side was properly laid, and then slide down the pole like a man -- that was 1887.