Buckskin Giants of the Eastern Frontier

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Quahauggers out on the water. Credit: FreeAndCommon.com

By Bruce Mastracchio

Before I start this next story in my Mems and Rems ( Memories and Reminiscences) series, I want to take a few lines to salute my cousin, Freddy Mastracchio, who passed away a few of days ago, in a death none of us want to go through.

Freddy was a Vietnam veteran, who suffered from the affects of Agent Orange and PTSD. It marked him horribly. He was one of the subjects I talked about in my Memorial Day poem, LittleShortTallBoy man. One night in San Diego I talked with and held him for four hours as he ranted about his experiences in Vietnam, what he went through there, and his treatment here when he returned. Then he only had the PTSD, but the Agent Orange was hiding in him ready to make a devastating sneak attack. It eventually won the battle, and the war, with his body.

For those of you who are always beating the drums of war, maybe you should have seen Freddy, and Joe, and Mark and Chris and all those young men who didn’t know where they were, or why they were there, but went and fought because their “Uncle” called them.

I remember them as young guys who played Little League baseball, high school football, gymnastics. They liked souped-up cars and hanging out at Tar Tar’s and BS’ing and girls.

When I see the young troops now I say to them. “God bless you. If you’ve been over, I hope you don’t have to go back. If you haven’t been, I hope you don’t have to go.”

“Thank you for your service” and wearing the flag pins was the ploy of those chicken hawks like Cheney and Bush, who didn’t want to fight but thought nothing of sending boys, like Freddy, “over there” to fight for “our interests,” usually oil interests.

God bless you, Freddy.  I can’t even add a “Get ‘er going over there!” because you should still be here, and we all know it’s a damn shame that you are not. Loved you, Cuz, and will miss you!


One of the things that sets East Greenwich and Rhode Island apart from most of the other states in the union, is the presence of a particular brand of independent, rugged individuals called quahauggers (forget the other spellings, they are all derivations of this, the original word from the Narragansett tongue, that of the original people who were settled in R.I. before the coming of the white man, who, like they did with just about everything they touched, twisted it and ruined it and changed it. The original word was pauquahauck. Of course the English, who wanted to spell and say it their way changed it to quahog, quohog, quahog etc. It should be quahaug.)

Those rugged individualists I spoke about are a throwback to those mountain men and frontiersmen of a bygone day. Men, who go it alone and live by what they can “catch” out on the open water, toiling in almost all kinds of weather, short of hurricanes and blizzards, and sometimes then too.

It was a thrill for young men in EG to join the periphery of their ranks, even for a summer or two, and be able to catch the food for your table, or make enough money to equal that of holding a normal, full-time job. For some, it was a great way to get in shape for football, a particular kind of weight-lifting. But, for whatever the reason, the industry is filled with lore, legends, outstanding people, plenty of characters, and of course, great stories.

The ‘hauggers’ are definitely a throwback to another time, a time when buckskin giants cast their fate against nature, the elements and the dangers of the frontier; a time when a man was a man, and needed his wits and skills to survive and live.  Most quahauggers followed in the footsteps of their dad, and of his dad before him.

One such quahaugger said, “I’ve been doing this for over 50 years now, and I love it. I feel like I own the world when I’m out there, kind of like those mountain men out on the plains. I don’t punch a clock and I work as much, or as little, as I want. I can’t imagine being stuck inside an office all day. Wearing a suit and tie, or standing beside a machine all day, or working nine to five, day in and day out, fighting the traffic on the freeway with hundreds of others, bumper to bumper, day in and day out.Out here I’m free and I choose my own way, where I work, when I work, and how long I work. I even get to choose how much I want to make.”

Many of the “hauggers” have been at it since they were quite young. They might start digging the tide with their hands and feet. Then they might advance to a handrake. From there it might be going out on someone else’s boat, and then eventually getting a boat of their own. Many of them got their first boat and motor as teenagers, a “rite of passage” so to speak. They get the bug of the good money, and the freedom that comes with a quahaugger’s life.

It is hard pulling the bullrake, as one of the tools of the trade is known, but, once you get the knack it is as easy as riding a horse. It builds strong backs, broad shoulders and big hands, and once they get good at it, dediciated “hauggers” will work summer and winter.

“One good thing about quahauggers is they are all dedicated workers,” said one member of the club.” They’re a bit independent, but they’ll help you in a tight spot, and they are not afraid of hard work to get their money.

Quahauggers are of two stripes. Some ply their trade all year ’round. There used to be over 600 of them, or more, at one time in Rhode Island.Then there are the part-timers, who usually work only summers, or weekends to supplement a regular job. The old-timers feel that the only real ‘Hauggers’, are the ones who learned it from their fathers, or an old-timer, and passed it on down to their sons. They will go out and ” pull a rake ” in just about any kind of weather or season, even breaking ice to reach their shellfish hunting grounds.

Most of them look the part. They are, after all, sea-faring men and have the salt-weathered, creased and tanned look that you would imagine. Some of them have taken that look a little further and are used to appearing in ads promoting Rhode Island, ot the Lottery, or whatever role that the lobster ordered.

Most of the quahauggers in East Greenwich have lived here all their lives, and are familiar with one another’s habits, walk, dress. They know the natives and the local lore, particularly that which deals with the cove and the waterfront. They remember a cove that was lined with shanties, where fishermen and women dug quahaugs, carried them in for cash, and shucked them if they needed shucking.

The area was known as “Scallop Town.” It was a raucous place before the “Nouveau richn” moved in with their fancy boats and restaurants. Just more white men out to replace the natives and their ways.

“There were some bad actors down here in those days,” one of the boys recalled recently. “One of the bars, The Bay View, was nicknamed “The Bucket of Blood.” There were some good fights that took place in there. They used to have to wash the blood off the walls and floor with buckets of water. The water would turn red. That’s how it got the name.”

“Weren’t many yachts around in those days. Mostly, just quahaug skiffs.”

In that heyday there were close to 1,000 quahauggers plying their trade out on the waters in and around Rhode Island. Now there are less than 200. The hardy souls, who pitted their wits against the water, are going the way of the buffalo. Most of the old-timers think it will be a sad day when they are all gone, but they are resigned to the fact that it could happen and that they could live to see it.

“This whole area used to be lined with shanties and docks for skiffs,” one of them said recently. “Now there are all these fancy restaurants and marinas for boats, driven by people who don’t know what they are doing, and, who shouldn’t be out on the water. Be a shame if this area turns into a large boutique, but it could happen. That time may be a-coming.”

Many of the “Hauggers” love the water. They love their state, and some of them have never roamed outside of East Greenwich, never mind Rhode Island. Some have yet to step across the borders of Maine, Vermont or New Hampshire. They feel they have it all here in Lil’ Rhody, and on the Bay, and in East Greenwich. They enjoy the companionship of life-long friends at the Firemen’s Hall, or down at Mully’s ( The Oaks ) after a day of hard work on the water, and they claim that’s all a man really needs out of life.

They will pull a rake summer or winter. In the summer the ‘haugging’ is probably more profitable, and more comfortable, but they have to endure the aggravation of speed boaters, water skiers, sail boats and a lot of yachtsmen with big boats, many of whom, don’t know what they are doing.

Then too, summer is when the part-timers hit the water.

When winter comes the ranks thin out, and only those who are truly serious about their trade are out there fighting the bitter winds and icy cold. They will fight the ice for a couple of hours each morning just so they can get to their beloved beds – beds of quahaugs, that is. They might get anywhere from $30 to $50 on a good day, whereas in the heat of summer, a good raker can pull in many more times that amount.

The winter comes with an extra added element – that of danger! A broken motor, and no help, can put a hurt on a man. It is one of the reasons you will usually see most of the “Hauggers” working in small groups of five or six, or, at least in sight of one another.  They are quick to go to the aid of any boater in trouble, but more so if it’s one of their own. Needless to say, a slip overboard, in the winter, can result in real problems, from possible drowning to hypothermia. So, a quahaugger’s life is not child’s play, and not for the weak of heart. (This point was driven home for the author when his boyhood pal, the one he writes about in these columns, “Picks – The Episcopal Kid,” went out one nice February day. The weather changed. He never got back to the docks. His body was found six months later, two towns away.)

To fight the cold, quahauggers outfit themselves with insulated rubber gloves. They encase their feet in a couple of pairs of socks and surround those with loosely laced rubber boots. They wear layers of clothing, usually undershirts, long johns and sweat shirts, covered with a nylon jacket. Dark pants or Levi’s. and an oilskin apron, usually complete the “uniform,” and the head is covered with a hoodie, an old baseball cap, a Russian peasant cap or a toke, depending on the weather.

Once out of the cove and into the bay, the “Haugger” views himself as a Master of all he surveys. Kind of like Jeremiah Johnson, and those other pioneer mountain men, who ranged the plains and mountains of the Old West, the “Haugger” is close to nature, and the elements, and he loves it. He will come across seals, geese, small sharks and beautiful skies as he plies his trade in the wide-screen pictorama of sea and sky.

“It’s a beautiful world out here,” he says, “and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. One time a seal came right up to my boat and just floated there staring right at me. Where else are you going to have something like that happen to you without having to pay for it?”

The tools of the trade for the “Haugger” are a long metal pole and the stale that he fits together until until he has a tool some 30 feet long. The, at the end, is the bullrake, a two-foot wide, multi-toothed contraption that he will use to catch his “dark-shelled beauties,” the hard-shelled clams, which are the source of his wealth, much as the buffalo was for the Indians.

He lowers the rake into the water and begins “pulling,” an action that resembles a standing man riding an imaginary horse. An action that got one quahaugger the nickname, “Churchill Downs.”

After getting the feel of the bottom, and that the basket has a “haul,” the worker pulls it up and washes it clear of mud and gunk by sliding the pole back and forth across the top of the water, using the sides of his boat as a fulcrum. Then he pulls in his “catch” and separates the quahaugs from other objects in the basket, which might range from rocks and bottles to crabs and seaweed.

When the quahaugger feels he has had enough for the day, he sets his sights on Greenwich Cove and home. he’ll sell his catch and then guide his skiff back to his boat slip, usually right outside his shanty, just past Greenwich Bay Clam. He chooses his work day. It might start at 5am and end after a couple of hours, or, if the catch is good, or, the sun and sky appealing, he might stay out as long as six or seven hours.

“You can’t beat it,” he says, “being your own boss. The money’s good, and I have the sky, the sea, the sun and the surf as my office. How can you do better than that? I may not be the richest man in the world, but, I’ve got all the riches right here, and I sure do feel good at the end of the day.

You have to remember this, old timer. Success is getting what you want in life, but happiness is wanting what you get, and God knows, I’m as happy as all get-out!”

With that parting shot, the Old Quahaugger got into his car and headed for the Firemen’s Hall to meet old friends for a drink or two, and to share the stories, and shoot the bull, or play a couple of hands of cards.

Like he says, if it makes you feel good day after day, what could be better than that? 

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