A Gift From The Sea -August 2008
by: John Stanton
The cargo from the Gaelic Prince littered the island’s eastern shore with chunks of greasy white stuff. Islanders didn’t know what it was, but saw dollar signs.
—An excerpt from the book “Throw Out the Lifeline,” a companion book to “Wrecks Around Nantucket,” due out this fall.
Eugene Larsen stood in the tower of Sankaty Lighthouse one cold April morning in 1921, and observed that the beach was covered in white chunks of hardened coconut oil as far as he could see. Word got around that there were big pieces and small pieces, floating in the water where you needed a small boat to fish them out, or just sitting on the beach where all you had to do was go and get them. Take all you wanted.
Men and women began collecting the stuff, gathering it and trying to find a place to keep it until they could figure out what to do with it. One simple fact about life on an island is that sometimes you pick up things you find on the beach. And those greasy chunks washing up on the beaches all over the island sure looked a lot like money.
The scallop season ended April 1, and the coconut oil season began soon after. – “Seen and Heard” column, The Inquirer and Mirror
Nobody really had much of an idea what it was or what it was worth. All they needed to know was that the Furness Steamship Lines of New York had loaded 900 tons of it onto the British steamer Gaelic Prince, to ship it 15,000 miles to Brooklyn. So it must have been worth something.
So when the steamer stranded on Great Round Shoal and had to pump her load of coconut oil into the cold ocean, where it congealed into greasy chunks, and when an east wind pushed it up onto the shore, islanders stopped what they were doing and began collecting it any way they could. The entire town turned out. Every-day work was set aside. People began calling it a harvest, rather than cargo from a stranded ship. When the ocean brings you a gift, you never say no.
Albert Egan’s house on New Street looks very attractive with its new coat of paint… Sconset beach was quite lively yesterday, when men were at work gathering the coconut oil, which was strewn everywhere. – “Sconset Notes” column, The Inquirer and Mirror
The Gaelic Prince had stranded on the shoal March 30. A fleet of tugboats and lighters, along with the Coast Guard cutter Acushnet, tried for seven days to float the ship off the shoal. When they could not, the decision was made to lighten the ship by losing the cargo. It worked. The Gaelic Prince was finally set free. It would not be so easy for the agents of the shipping company to get back the cargo.
Originally, the coconut oil harvest was found on the east end of the island in Sconset, Quidnet and Wauwinet. In a few days, shifting winds and tides meant that the slick, white-yellow chunks could be found on Brant Point and near Children’s Beach. Entire families began collecting the stuff. One letter to the editor wondered what summer residents might think if they saw the scene.
The chunks of this stuff were about like mutton tallow in appearance, some as large as a washtub, others the size of a good old-fashioned mince pie, while there are millions of smaller pieces washing ashore as far as the eye can see. It was no trouble to load up a wagon full in 10 or 15 minutes. – “Seen and Heard” column, The Inquirer and Mirror
Someone estimated that the oil would bring five cents a pound if it were shipped to a soap factory. Someone else suggested it was time to open a soap factory on-island. Someone said that Lloyd’s of London had estimated that 900 tons of coconut oil would be valued at $400,000. The harvest continued. The steamer Petrel and a group of fishing boats went out on the water to fill up. People stopped what they were doing and joined the harvest. It was all anyone talked about.
That week’s Inquirer and Mirror described the scene as reminiscent of the old whaling days and what was known as “greasy luck.” “Since our last issue, Nantucket has talked coconut oil, wallowed in coconut oil, smelled coconut oil, and almost eaten coconut oil. Never was a place so blessed before and probably never will the experience be repeated,” the paper reported.
You could not walk down the street without seeing an automobile or wagon with signs of the oil smeared on it, and the docks began to take on the strange but presumably not unpleasant smell of coconut oil. The wind pushed the oil onto the Jetties. Men, women and boys, armed with rakes, boxes, bags, wheelbarrows, wash tubs and even a baby carriage, worked until dark collecting the chunks.
It is one of those times when people get over-enthusiastic over the chance to get something for nothing. Men have set aside their daily labors to join their fellows and go out as a team and reap the harvest floating around their island home. – The Inquirer and Mirror
Women began to make the best homemade soaps anyone could remember. Local shops ran out of oil of lavender and sassafras, used to scent the soap. In some kitchens cooking experiments took place to see if clams and fish could be fried in it. The results were said to be tasty. After a hand-made sign spelled it cocoanut, a debate began on the correct way to spell coconut.
The situation has really been both interesting and amusing, and wagonloads of the greasy white stuff have been seen in every street in town. The question quickly arises: What will they do with it? – The Inquirer and Mirror
That was the exact question on everyone’s mind. What was the best way to make a few bucks off this oily windfall? Several local ships loaded up and left for New Bedford – where there was a soap factory – to try to sell their loads, only to be turned back by revenue officers. The fishing boats Bertha, Ruth and Outing actually made it into New Bedford, but word that revenue officers were sniffing about made the soap manufacturer reluctant to buy it until the legal ramifications were settled.
The National Board of Marine Underwriters and the local police put out the word to all boat owners who shipped coconut oil to New Bedford that there would be no sales. That Tuesday, two New York cargo surveyors from the Furness Steamship Line, named Leisegang and Koehler, arrived on-island. They looked around. They inspected some of the oil that had been collected. A meeting was called for Friday at 2 p.m.
A crowd of over 150 showed up for the meeting, on Old North Wharf, outside John Killen’s shipping office. The agents wanted to deal with a committee of only those few who had collected the most oil. They were hooted down. Both sides quickly reached an impasse. The agents for the steamship company did not seem to feel that they would need to buy back the coconut oil. The islanders did not seem anxious to let the stuff go.
Leisegang and Koehler stood outside with Killen, who was also the agent for the insurance underwriters, and tried to talk to the crowd. He argued that the oil did not belong to the people who had collected it and could be legally taken away. Leisegang and Koehler argued the oil was worthless on Nantucket and only had value when delivered to the soap factory in Brooklyn. They seemed under the impression that the islanders were at a disadvantage since it needed to be shipped.
Several ship captains in the crowd called out that they could make $3 a ton if it shipped to New York aboard the schooner Nantisco. The agents argued that the Nantisco was a coal boat and the oil would be worthless once it was mixed with coal dust in the hold. Someone from the crowd asked what the agents would be willing to pay. The answer was nothing.
John P. Taber then piped up for the Nantucketers. “We’ve got our eyes open, sir,” he said. “We have had experience in this sort of thing for many years. We know that the salvors have some rights.” – The Inquirer and Mirror
Taber argued that he knew the freight cost of the oil when it was first pumped into the steamer. He pushed the agent to see if he knew what that number was. They went back and forth, taunting each other to say it first. Taber wanted the agent and himself to write down the number on pieces of paper. The agent refused.
When the crowd began to jeer at him, the agent threatened that if they did not cooperate, they could all end up in jail for 10 years.
The statement was the climax. There would be nothing serious after that. The Nantucketers had too many years of experience in handling wrecks and shipwrecked goods not to know their rights better than that – and, moreover, the Nantucket jail only had accommodations for two. – The Inquirer and Mirror
Somebody suggested that nobody in the crowd say another word until a more formal meeting could be called, three days later, at Town Hall. The crowd wandered away, leaving the agents standing there in the cold air and dwindling sunlight.
The meeting began on Friday evening, and spilled over to Saturday evening. Town Hall was standing-room-only. All sections of the island came into town for the meeting, which in 1921 meant groups from Sconset, Quidnet, Polpis and Madaket. It was said to be the biggest crowd at a townwide meeting since the debate, three years earlier, over whether to ban automobiles from the island.
Even the automobile controversy did not bring forth such a large gathering as the subject of coconut oil did on Friday night. Standing room, even in the entry-way, was at a premium and there were many who could not even get in. – The Inquirer and Mirror
Arthur H. Gardner, who compiled the original “Wrecks Around Nantucket,” was named chairman of the meeting. He claimed to have no interest in the coconut oil, pro or con. Discussion quickly got back to where it had been on the wharf, with the agent arguing that the oil was worthless on-island and that he would sell it for 2 cents a pound and the salvagers would get a cut. No money would change hands until after the sale.
The crowd made it clear what they thought about that idea. If the general feeling was that they did not trust the New York agent, neither did they seem inclined to simply hand it over to Killen, the agent for the insurance underwriters. It was feared that in his role as agent for the underwriters, Killen would be forced to sell the oil at 2 cents a pound, and the salvage cut would be only a single penny a pound.
Koehler once again told the islanders that they did not own the oil, but merely had a claim to it since they had salvaged it. For their part, the islanders said that they would rather keep the oil in their barns until it melted away than take a chance at making just 1 cent a pound.
“You can cook in it, or swim in it, if you want to,” said Koehler. “But you must understand that you do not own this oil. All you have is a claim to it. Delivered in New York, in good condition, it would be worth 7 cents (a pound), but as it is now it is nothing better than oil drainage. Colgate & Co. don’t want it at any price, but we are in the hopes that some buyer will be willing to take it off our hands, so that you Nantucketers can get something out of it.” – The Inquirer and Mirror
Nobody at the meeting was buying the argument that the agent had their best interests at heart. The question was asked again why the agent did not simply buy it back. If the price was $20 a ton, of which the islanders would get half, why didn’t the agent simply buy it back for $10 a ton? At least one man argued that because the oil had been pumped overboard on the high seas it should be considered abandoned by the steamship people.
The first meeting ended with Koehler saying that he had an oil buyer on-island, who would examine the oil the next day and make an offer. Again he reminded the crowd that they had no legal right to the oil.
Saturday’s meeting began with the news that Koehler’s oil buyer had made an offer of a single penny per pound, meaning the salvagers would make only half a penny. Nobody was happy. A few stood up and said they wished they had just left the coconut oil on the beaches until it melted away. They threatened to dump it all back into the ocean. To make matters worse, a letter from Colgate & Co., of New York, was read confirming that they had no interest in any of the salvaged oil.
This statement was followed by laughter throughout the hall. “I can tell you this is no joke,” said Koehler. “You can take up with this offer or leave it. In my opinion you would do well to take it.” – The Inquirer and Mirror
At the end of the second evening, a five-man subcommittee was formed to come up with an answer. Arthur J. Barrett, James A. Backus, Arthur McCleave, James A. Andrews and Edmund Z. Ryder would come up with a plan and report to yet another meeting five days later. Stored for almost a month in barns and on back porches, the congealed chunks of oil were beginning to melt.
In the end it was a summer resident named Harral, a man who was said to be “in the grease business in Brooklyn,” who offered the best deal. His offer was for $27.50 per ton, but only after it was boxed, shipped and refined. He said he would assume the cost of shipping. The numbers put the islander’s split at $13.75 per ton, or four-and-a-half cents for each pound.
In spite of having a deal on the table at a higher price than they were ever going to get from either the Gaelic Prince people or the insurance underwriters, Town Hall was filled with arguments, mainly over the idea that the final price would be settled only after it was shipped and refined.
Small groups began to talk among themselves, the chairman tried unsuccessfully to gavel the meeting into some sort of order, and then Taber put things into perspective.
“Spring dollars are scarce,” said Mr. Taber. “We all know that, don’t we? Why can’t we get out money for this oil within 30 days and square the thing up? Let’s get rid of this shrinkage, leakage, cartage, garbage, storage, and stealage, and all the rest of them, and get our money.” Mr. Taber’s suggestion brought forth an outburst of laughter mingled with applause. – The Inquirer and Mirror
The meeting voted to take the deal. The next day South Wharf was crowded with men delivering what coconut oil they had gathered to the Nantisco, whose name was an amalgam of Nantucket Island Service Company. The work went on for three days.
The oil had to be delivered in bags or barrels, each load weighed and logged for payment. Enough oil began to roll into town and onto the dock that estimates of how much had been collected began to look conservative.
The shanties on the wharves, barns in town, and even some family kitchens in some sections yielded a wonderful amount of the stuff. It seemed almost unbelievable to think that this much of the coconut oil had been saved. From Friday morning to Sunday afternoon there was a steady stream of vehicles headed down to the Island Service Company’s dock. – The Inquirer and Mirror
Three hundred and eighty-six loads of the coconut oil went onto the scales and into the schooner. A sign was posted on the wharf saying the Nantisco was full and no more oil would be accepted. The ship had 337 tons on board, filling her hold and her deck. When the schooner was filled, there were still more than a few people standing on the wharf with oil that would be worthless if it did not get shipped.
A quick estimate was taken and the guess was that another 100 tons was left on the dock. A small two-masted schooner, which happened to be in port, was hired to ship the remaining oil.
“From Madaket to Sconset the bags of oil then commenced to come in and it was found that several of the buildings on the wharves were still full. Many more tons are probably held for the local soap.” – The Inquirer and Mirror
John Stanton is a writer and documentary filmmaker living on Nantucket. He writes occasionally for Nantucket Today.