In mid 1890s, a man lived on the shore of Mattapoisett in the village. He had built a small shack near the Bay View Hotel, now the present day Kinsale Inn. He often slept until noon and if disturbed before that he became very angry. He had very little in the way friends except for the many cats he fed and cared for. He referred to his cats as his “sole comfort” and preferred them to the company of “yaller dog flea incubators”.
Henry Wilson Barstow was born in Rochester in the village of Mattapoisett on April 7, 1823. His parents were Calvin Barstow and Betsey Joselyn, who had married in Pembroke, Mass. before moving to Rochester. Henry had several brothers and sisters but by the time he moved in to his shack it seemed he had little or no connection with them. Instead, he fondly recalled friends from his past with names such as Southworth, Sprague, Delano and Hathaway and mournfully commented “I suppose [they] are dead. We used to have mighty good times… just like brothers together”.
Growing up in a shipbuilding village led Henry to a career as a ship joiner. He most likely learned carpentry from his father who was also a ship joiner. Henry claimed he traveled New England looking for work and found his first job at Foster’s Shipyard in Medford where he worked for four years. By 1850 he returned home and lived with his parents and three of his brothers.
In June 1863 Henry registered for the draft but records do not indicate that he served during the war. Wanting to contribute to the war effort, Henry made a trip to Charlestown where he said battleships were being built for war service. However, many others were looking for work building the ships and he was put on an employment waiting list. When he asked the superintendent of the yard how long the wait for a job would be, the superintended produced a waiting list that was four feet long.
“There are a half a thousand ahead of you and you will have to wait your turn”, he was told. Over thirty years later Henry, recalling the incident explained, “I concluded to wait, and I’m waiting yet”.
By 1870 Henry was still living with his aging parents. Three years later Henry’s father died. In 1878 he would lose his mother too. By 1880 Henry was living as a boarder in the home of Sarah Baker. He soon decided he wanted to spend the rest of his life alone. In 1887 he built his waterfront shack, which he made from a discarded shipbuilding steam box. He included an old “cook stove” and a wood bed. He decorated his home with lithographs, a life insurance calendar, and hung a plaid horse blanket over the door way which he referred to as his “port-hooray”.
Henry could often be seen emerging from his shack smoking a corncob pipe protruding from his bushy white beard followed by his large number of cats. He supported himself in his later years by fishing and sawing wood for people in the village. He enjoyed eel spearing and would take a small row boat out off the shore to spear them. He described eating eel as better than beefsteak and without “bones to stick in your throat to choke ye, like there is in shad”.
Henry had many interests including science and the emerging study of x-rays. He also wrote poetry. The only known poetry he had written had hung on a shingle inside his shack:
Just at eve, down on the wharf
I think I heard a bullfrog cough.
The moon rose up beyond the sea.
And shone down on the wharf and me.
Henry never married leading villagers to speculate he suffered from a broken heart. When asked about love he once said, “love is serious business and the path of matrimony is one of thorns”.
As Henry grew older he had more difficulty caring for himself. Despite living on the waterfront in a shack he complained that with the “bitter cold days I can hardly get enough [food from fishing] for myself. Cold weather don’t agree with me”.
He eventually moved indoors to the almshouse on Aucoot Road where he began to suffer from the effects of arteriosclerosis. It was there on May 30, 1910 that Henry Wallis Barstow passed away at age 87. He was buried the next day at Cushing Cemetery.