From the Files of the Rochester Historical Society

Growing up in either Weymouth or western Mass., I always knew where I would be with my family on Memorial Day weekend. We would make the trek to Rochester to spend the weekend at my grandparents and attend the Rochester Memorial Day boat race.

            My grandfather, Jim Hartley, started the race in 1934 so his 4H group would have something to do with the double-ended boats they had made as a project. We were always at the starting point at Grandma Hartley’s Reservoir to watch Grandpa help send off the boats. Then it would be into the car to follow the racers.

            We would stop at all the spots where you could see the boats paddle or portage through the course. There was always a member of the extended Hartley family to cheer on as they maneuvered the slippery riverbanks and paddled furiously down the river.

            The last stop was in Mattapoisett to watch the boats come in and touch their paddles to the cement wall. Eating hot dogs, listening to the crowd roar as boats came around the bend and watching the time board until a winner was announced was all part of the day.

            I can remember questioning when I was nine or ten why there were no girls or women in the race. I didn’t have too many years to wait for an answer. In 1961, Barbara Harriman (now Kirkland) and her friend, Judy Furnans (now Pierce) decided that the boys shouldn’t have all the fun. The two teenagers approached the race committee who were receptive to the idea of them participating.

            The two girls borrowed a boat and went on their one and only practice run. Unsure of the actual route and encountering the need for much portaging, it took them two days to go through the entire course, 6 hours the 1st day and 2 the 2nd. On race day with spectators lining the route, they found the course to be easier.

            Barbara, pictured here, and Judy proved that two 17 years olds could make it down the river and in the years since the sight of girls and women racing down the river has become commonplace.

By Connie Eshbach

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