For years Bayview- and Lanesville-raised Barbara Erkkila "got the story" for the Gloucester Daily Times. She covered Cape Ann news from her early days as a teen journalist reporting on new boats arriving in Lane's Cove, to covering the first Gulf of Maine shrimp landing in Gloucester Harbor, to interviewing the old guys playing cards in the Lane's Cove fish houses. (They are fish "houses," Erkkila scolds. "The artists started calling them fish shacks; they were too neat to be shacks.")
"I loved a story," Erkkila, in her LePage apartment, told me recently. "My husband would come home from work and I'd be at the door saying, 'I gotta go! I gotta get a story!" — meaning, you take the kids, dear.
Erkkila started writing for the Times as a teenager when she was told she could attend Girl Scout camp for free if she wrote about the weekly meetings, which she did. She learned to cook pancakes on the top of a can resting on an open fire, but the more important lesson was the thrill of seeing her name in print for the first time.
"That did it!" she said; she's been reporting on and photographing Cape Ann life ever since — in her books "Hammers on Stone," "Village at Lane's Cove," and 40 years of Times and Boston Globe features with the Erkkila byline. She won a UPI award for her full-page spread, including photos, on that premiere Maine shrimp landing.
The Lanesville Community Center will host a celebration of Barbara Erkkila this Sunday afternoon from 3 to 5. Join her for nisu and coffee, ask her questions, listen to her stories, and be inspired.
"Everyone has a story," Erkkila, 93, told me, her passion for people and their lives still evident in her sparkling eyes.
"You leave out as much as you put in," Erkkila reminds. "I was always careful; I didn't want to hurt anyone."
Her own story mirrors the cultural and community riches of days when fishing and granite quarrying thrived on Cape Ann.
"At 7, I lived right on Plum Cove Beach. My sister and I were always playing together; we spent hours on the rocks — we knew which ones would 'tittle' if you stepped on it wrong; we knew the moss-covered ones you would slip on ... We'd take a piece of fence with wire still on it, and attach hermit crabs to the wire to catch cunners ... we couldn't wait for the summer people to leave so we could go find the treasures they left behind."
Erkkila emerged as an authority on Cape Ann for the outside world. When someone asked how wide was the gap at Lane's Cove, she called the Coast Guard.
"You don't know?" she cried. "But I've seen your boats in Lane's Cove; you must know how wide it is to get them in!" They didn't. So, resident George Morey (who famously always removed three socks from his drawer every morning before he went out fishing, not wanting to turn on the light and disturb his sleeping wife; if there were only two colors in the drawer, he was bound to get a pair.) went out in two boats and measured the gap for Erkkila; it's 52 feet wide.
"I called the Coast Guard and told them," Erkkila made clear.
When the Holland Tunnel was being worked on, and two large blocks at the entrance had been ruined, the New York authorities called Erkkila. They described the granite's color to her, and she said, "Oh, that's from the Blood Ledge quarry."
"You know where it came from?!" they exclaimed.
"Of course," Erkkila answered. And to their amazement she was able to find someone to quarry new pieces of the granite colored "Lanesville gray with a little green" from the exact source.
Erkkila lived in Lanesville in the golden age when the number of great sculptors living there equalled the number of those shingled fish houses. She lived down the street from Walker Hancock, and as a result ended up baking Robert Frost's birthday cake when he was staying with the sculptor for sittings.
"Plain white cake with white frosting," Hancock decided when Erkkila asked him what flavor. "Just put 'Happy Birthday' on it," he added, as opposed to "Happy Birthday, Frost or Bob."
Erkkila received a hand-written note, including a freshly penned poem, from the poet for her efforts.
When the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, igniting fear of invasion, Erkkila's response was to study Russian at Boston University. In 1960, she traveled to Yalta on a steamer, where she swam in the Black Sea. When she presented a slide show of the trip at Lanesville Congregational Church, so many people turned out, as news from Russia was novel in those days, the minister wished he had sold tickets.
In 1953 Erkkila and three women friends organized the Lanesville community to purchase the old Ahola dairy barn.
"We'd been talking about it — maybe we could buy that place and get together and take the kids to do things — women drive that sort of thing," Erkkila said. The effort succeeded, and the dairy barn was reborn as the Lanesville Community Center.
Erkkila reminisced fondly about the community events there, one of her favorites a lobster and clam bake.
"We'd never had one before," Erkkila laughed, "so we had to do one for practice first. We built the fire the night before, lined the pits with stones, and then there was that nice, cold, fluffy seaweed. Everybody was helping, that's what made it such a success."
When they sat down to dine on the lobsters, clams, corn and potatoes, "people were sitting at tables almost into the woods."
Still looking for an adventure, Barbara told me she'd like to travel to India and see the Taj Mahal by moonlight. "It's not granite," she said, "but who cares, I'd like to see it!"
Alas, slightly pouty, pointing to the cane beside her, she said, "there are so many things to do out there, but gosh darn I've got to sit in this chair!"
Born "Howell" and married to a Finn, Erkkila offers this recipe for Finnish rusks, the perfect partner — lighter than a cookie, more flavorful than toast — to an afternoon cup of coffee. You can find nisu, the Scandinavian bread redolent with cardamon, at The Brother's Brew Coffee Shop in Rockport.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees — a "warm" oven. Line a cookie sheet with a rack.
Slice 3-day-old nisu into ovals. Set out a bowl of milk and a bowl of cinnamon sugar. Dip each slice in milk and turn over so other side is coated. Then dip the slice into cinnamon sugar, and turn over so completely coated.
Lay ovals out on the rack, and cook until dry all the way through.
Food for Thought runs weekly in the Times' Taste of the Times section and is written by Heather Atwood, an author and mother from Rockport. Questions and comments can be sent to Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow her blog at www.heatheratwood.com.