High above the end of Long Wharf next to Mattapoisett’s Shipyard Park flies an iconic symbol: the swordfish weathervane. It has greeted thousands over the decades, moving with the shifting winds, witnessing the tides of time.
But what is its history, its story, how did the swordfish get there and what does its future hold? To get to the bottom of those questions, The Wanderer sought out the descendants of Sophia Means, F. Gilbert Hinsdale, and William DeYong Field, gathering oral histories from cousins Horace Field III and William “Billy” DeYong Field.
The story begins with Sophia Sword (no pun intended) who married William Allen Means in 1877. The couple had two daughters, Mary and Martha. As a widow, Sophia bought the land at 20 Water Street and built a home on the site.
Martha would marry F. Gilbert Hinsdale and they lived together in the house at 20 Water Street. Mary wed Horace F. Field, the son of William DeYong Field, a prominent landowner in Mattapoisett.
On June 16, 2017, Horace Field III would share his family’s history with the swordfish:
“My Great-Uncle Hinsdale had the swordfish made as a weathervane for the top of his boathouse at 20 Water Street,” Horace said. Hinsdale, known to Horace as ‘Uncle Gibby,’ had an interest in maritime memorabilia, amassing a collection of whaling-era materials that was later gifted to the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
The swordfish was modeled after an actual fish harpooned by Hinsdale. Although the exact date of its creation is not known, Horace believes it had to be in the 1920s.
Horace explained that during the 1938 hurricane, the boathouse that was situated at the 20 Water Street homestead ended up across the street, pushed there by the unrelenting storm surge.
“It landed in the back of the lot,” he said. Today, that former boathouse is 23 Water Street, a bed and breakfast. As you walk down Water Street, the homes numbered 20 and 23 both bear historic plaques that read “Sophia Means.” Of the boathouse, Field concluded, “It must have had good bones.”
After the hurricane, the swordfish was placed in storage deep within the recesses of the garage at 20 Water Street, never seeing the light of day until the 1950s. At that time, the swordfish was gifted to the Town by Hinsdale’s widow, Patricia, and was erected at the end of Long Wharf where it’s been flying ever since.
It’s interesting to note that Shipyard Park, the tiny but brilliant gem next to the wharves, was also gifted to the Town by Mr. Hinsdale during his lifetime. In fact, the Hinsdale and Field families have a long history of service to the community.
John Field was a selectman from 1966 to 1973, while Horace F. Field was a selectman from 1902 to 1916. And many boat owners know Horace Field III as the former harbormaster serving in that capacity from 1999 to 2013.
On June 13, 2017, the Mattapoisett Board of Selectmen gave William “Billy” DeYong Field’s great-great grandson to his namesake a Certificate of Appreciation for the decades he has dedicated to keeping the swordfish in viable condition. In a follow-up, he explained how the weathervane was crafted.
Billy said that Manuel Perry, who had been a local craftsman working for Hinsdale, was the artist responsible for its creation. “He was a master model ship builder,” Billy said.
“The swordfish is sort of like a model airplane,” said Billy. “There’s a frame and over that, wooden slates.” He said the swordfish is constructed of native white pine with a solid tail, fins, and sword. The weathervane is painted to mimic the blue hues of the animal in the wild. Then, a coating of epoxy is applied to protect and seal the wood.
“Through the years, about half of the original has been replaced,” Billy shared. He said that a major renovation was done in the 1970s.
He also confided that the hollow interior contains no less than three time capsules.
The first capsule he said holds a letter from Seth Hinsdale that describes the construction of the swordfish. The other two capsules hold unknown items.
Of the current condition of the swordfish, Billy said, “Well, it’s like an old man’s teeth,” lots of bits and pieces have been replaced. He hopes that in the not-too-distant future, a mold can be made of the weathervane and a fiberglass model created to replace the original.
“Maybe the original one can go into the Mattapoisett Museum,” said Billy.
For now, the wooden swordfish continues to grace the end of Long Wharf, having its picture taken and inviting the public to enjoy a place rich in history and steeped in the goodwill of those who love Mattapoisett.
By Marilou Newell