Come with me to Gooseberry on an early summer morning. We’ll park at the south end of the lot and head down the dirt road that bisects the little island. As we come to the first small crest, the road dips down ahead of us, turns sandy, and curves gently up another hill to the highest spot on the island.
Pause. Close your eyes, and listen carefully. Do you hear it? Those faint stirring notes of reveille? Or is it the wind? No, I think it’s reveille, and I think if I look carefully towards that hill I can see the whole island suddenly waking up. I see four gaily painted cottages, and in front of one of them an old man is raising an American flag and a 10-year old trumpeter is playing his heart out.
This is the Gooseberry I never knew – the one of 57 years ago. The man is Joseph V. Cabral, known affectionately as the “mayor of Gooseberry,” and the boy is Peter Joseph Rosa (right), his grandson. Someday Mr. Cabral would hear Peter play in Carnegie Hall with the NORAD “Cavalcade of Music Band,” made up of selected musicians from the U. S. Army, Navy, Air Force, plus the Canadian military forces.I’ve never heard Peter play. Never met him, actually. But we have exchanged many emails, and he has become the key to unlocking for me a 45-year-old mystery. For long ago when I wandered Gooseberry as a newcomer to Westport, I wondered about the many foundations I saw, now almost entirely hidden by undergrowth as the island returns to its wild state. In its hey day it was the scene of summer fun and frolic from the innocent searching out of blue-shelled crabs among its bay side boulders, to the carousing at a popular night spot on the little bluff near the southwestern corner of the current parking lot.
In 1954 there was a thriving summer colony with more than 80 buildings, plus tents. Four cottages dominated the scene overlooking the island from a hill in the center. They belonged to the families of Cabral, Perry, Kelly, and Braga as noted in this c. 1955 picture from the Westport Historical Society archives. We’ll take a closer look at this picture later.
But let Peter tell the story, for the summers of his youth were filled with a Gooseberry most of us can only imagine.
As he recalls it, his grandfather (photo at left) “built a playground out of large telephone pole logs for the kids on the island and that sat in front of the row of cottages. Nightly, and on weekends almost all day, were volleyball games, softball games, horseshoes, and kids swinging, sliding, and enjoying a spinning ride.
“On Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day there were large competitions with prizes for kids and adults. Arm wrestling, bike races down the big hill to the entrance of the island and back up the hill, all games were made into prize winning categories. Most of the islands’ inhabitants took part in these celebrations, especially those with kids. My grandfather supplied most of the party favors and food from his position in the A & P Company. . .
“The thoughts of Grandpa Joe Cabral bring the memory of the kids on the island. They all loved Grandpa Joe. Every day they waited to hear the honking horn of his green Mercury car as he ascended the hill on his way home from work. When he arrived at the side of the cottage, he opened his trunk, and there was the stash of a lifetime. Grandpa worked for A & P food company. The trunk of the car was always filled with bushel baskets of mostly fruit, but also goodies like candy for the kids. . .
“Life on the island was charming. At night you could see all of the lights from the various cottages and fish camp shacks all over the island. The four cottages also had a 360 degree view from the top of the island. We saw the large ships in the shipping channel . . . just visiting the island, as people do today, does not give you the frightening memories of the violent storms, the fog, and the sound of the Hens and Chickens light ship’s moaning fog horn blaring through the dark night as I tried to go to sleep in the bunk bed in the main room of the cottage. . .
“I used to get so scared when I had to go all the way down the boardwalk to the two-hole bathroom. Another point, the Cabrals, Perrys, Kellys and Bragas were card playing friends who lived from the north end of New Bedford to Dartmouth to Westport to Fall River. They built a network of boardwalks between the houses and in back of the houses. We could walk to the four cottages without getting our feet sandy. These walkways were gaily painted in different colors. Being from the old country, my grandfather painted rocks in the yard so people would not trip and fall, also to mark his territory. And the wood beach chairs were painted all different colors.
“Inside the cottage were large hand pumps, and they were painted bight colors for pumping water to cook or wash up. The cottages were one large room. At least two of the cottages later had full width of the cottage sun rooms with windows all down the outer wall. And let’s not forget the four-door ice chests. The ice man would come daily and bring in a block of ice.
“On the island, Joe Cabral was nothing to screw with. Very rarely did he not get his way when it came to matters on the island. I would like to say here that although he was aggressive, he was a very compassionate man and people on the island seemed to love my grandfather. He would shake hands with you and squeeze so hard you would go to your knees before he would let go. The young bucks used to love trying to best him. Rarely did it happen.”
“Our cottage had a very large sun deck all the way across the back of the cottage across . . . My grandfather would soak it down with creosote to help it in the weather, and I remember my feet always being black on the bottoms from walking on it.”
Peter especially liked to go crabbing in the rocks along the shore to the east of the cottages. “The crabbing I did was for my dear Grandmother Delia,” he wrote. “She was as round as she was tall, and the sound of joy in her voice as I brought the bucket of crabs into the cottage was a sound I still hear today. My son, Justin, laughs just like her. An infectious laugh that was heard all over the island as she visited with her many friends on a summer evening at their cottages.”
And how many other people lived there? It varied, of course. As near as I can tell, they started coming and staying in tents and small shacks early in the 20th century. Alvin Waite of Salters Point owned the island, and in 1913 started building the causeway – a project that took nearly a dozen years to finish, but certainly would have made serious construction on the island easier. East Beach Road was made macadam in 1915 and West Beach Road in 1925, an indication of the level of development along the nearby beaches. Nickolas S. Salivera purchased the island in 1929. By the 1940s – if not earlier – there were at least a few hundred hundred people there, for when the state went to take over they asked for the tax records for January of 1954 and these showed 81 buildings, all on property owned by Nickolas and his brother, Kostas. And besides these buildings, many people erected tents.
Peter wrote: “The only retail operation was Nick the Greek’s dance hall and bar, which I think was located on the right as you entered the island. . . . I remember distinctly that if you got out the back door of the dance hall, you could plummet on the steep boulder rocks that were on the right side of the island. The island was high on that side and it was difficult to climb up to the top rim of the island. The other side housed the sandy beach and the perimeter road that gave you access to all of the little lanes that cottages and shacks were built along.”
Do remember that what was a “plummet” for a young boy may not look quite so threatening today, but it is still rocky and as Gooseberry goes, steep, in that section of the island.
As you explore the parking area today you’ll notice a path that angles off to the southeast near the new boat ramp. This is what is left of the Beach Road. “That was the bumpy, rocky road that went quite a ways down along the beach,” Peter wrote, “and then at the end of the sand where the big rocks started is where the road curved to the right and started a fairly steep climb up to the left of my grandparents’ cottage and went back to the main road quite a ways past our cottage. The road on the bottom continued for only a little bit because the topography was very rocky.” And it still is today.
“I do not remember being able to get to the right side of the island to the shore line. We always played along the beach or headed towards the cottages and then we had a myriad of paths through the gooseberry bushes weaving all the way to the Fort. In those days the island was extremely sandy where it was not rocky. Cars were always trying to negotiate the little lanes and got stuck. I did my fair share of helping to push people out of the sand.”
The most obvious thing that remains from these earlier days are the concrete towers near the south end of the island. The taller was a fire control tower built by the military just before World War II and linked to the coastal defense guns that were hidden inland in Tiverton. I am told the Gooseberry facility was disguised to look like a farm. We now see two towers there, but the shorter has an extended foundation that suggests it was inside the administration building that Peter remembers. To a young boy in the early 1950s, the military base was one huge adventure land.
“We played war, tag, hide and seek all over the island, but the most fun was exploring the fort. Back when I first started to be able to be on my own in the early 1950’s, the gate to the fort was secure, but nobody got too excited about the kids playing in the fort. We climbed to the top floor of the tower, walked through the large command building, and the door to the underground munitions bunker worked in those days. I remember how scary it was as the door creaked when we opened it. It was cold, damp, dark, and very scary to go inside the bunker.”
The four cottages were the focal point of island life. “Each had shutters painted different colors. My grandfather’s cottage was painted white with green shutters; the Perry cottage was a Creamsicle orange with darker orange shutters; Kelly was painted white with Irish green shutters; and Braga was white with black shutters.” In the picture you can see a table set up for the frequent card games played there.
A roadway went to the beach where there was an area (still marked off by rows of boulders today) cleared to launch boats that was near where Peter loved to go crabbing among the rocks.
People dwelled on the island in tents, shacks, trailers, and cottages. Many, like Peter’s grandparents, came from nearby communities but others came from all over the northeast. “It was a mixture of society and fish camp, kinda like Key West Florida or Provincetown,” Peter wrote.
Here’s the view in 1949 looking downhill from the four cottages towards the causeway with East Beach off in the distance.
The islanders endured three hurricanes – the great hurricane of 1938, the 1944 hurricane, which fortunately hit at low tide and so did mostly wind damage, and the 1954 hurricane. While homes on the beaches were wiped out wholesale in both 1938 and 1954, it’s not at all clear how much damage was done on Gooseberry. Maybe because of its shape and orientation to the ocean the cottages didn’t take the full brunt of the tidal surges? Or maybe the central hill is just tall enough to stay above the tidal surge?
In any event, I’ve found only two specific references to Gooseberry in accounts of the hurricanes. The first was in a newspaper article that said that the 1938 hurricane tore up the causeway, but that “Nicolas Salveros, the owner, planned to rebuild it.” The second was more intriguing. It was from the Fall River Herald News of September 23, 1938, and said:
Horseneck had been “reduced to a mud flat.” Only two houses were left standing and both of those were damaged. Then noted that “four unknown women who were forced to spend the night on Gooseberry Neck Island without shelter when the storm leveled houses, tents, and trailers, were rescued the following morning.” Since that storm struck on September 21 I imagine many of the summer residents had left the island.
As for Hurricane Carol in 1954, which hit at the end of August, Peter had this comment:
“The cottages actually faired well except for the tents and shacks that were still there. However, the east beach road was completely uprooted. I remember walking with Grandpa all the way from the Small’s Village area to the island. We passed a station wagon while enroute and I remember seeing a body floating in the water inside the car.”
But it wasn’t the hurricanes that brought an end to the Gooseberry summer colony. It was the state takeover of Horseneck Beach and Gooseberry in 1955. There’s a hint of this in the photo below.
I had originally thought this picture, from the historical society archives, was taken in 1954 prior to Hurricane Carol, which I had assumed wiped out many of the buildings. But Peter was puzzled by all the buildings in the foreground to the right of the truck. When you blow it up and look carefully at them, they appear to be slightly raised.
His guess? The picture was taken in 1955 or a bit later when they were moving many of the buildings to Small Village!
Peter notes: “My grandfather named the high point where the cottages sat, “Isle of View.” When the cottage was moved to Small’s Village, he changed the name to “View of Isle.”
So step back again – close your eyes – and listen: Can you hear Peter playing taps – as he did on many a summer evening as his grandfather lowered the flag? Taps for the fading day and taps for the Gooseberry summers – memories, carted away on the trucks of progress.