SALISBURY — It’s hard to imagine that an old, disintegrating whale sculpture could generate more loyalty than the one that’s been ensconced deep in the bushes off Beach Road for more than half a century.
But since its existence was threatened by a new housing development planned for its 191 Beach Road home, the welfare of that whale — whether known as Pinkie, Jesse, or Tilly — has been the focus of attention of many, including men and women at the Newbury barracks of the Massachusetts State Police.
And when a plea for information about the whale was sent out, readers responded with great memories. Not only has her rescue schedule been shared, but her origin has been revealed by one of the men who built her right where she’s beached, more than 50 years ago.
When people realized construction of an apartment complex at the former sites of Kartland and Nat’s Fun Park could bring the demise of the grayish, pinkish, crumbling, land-based sea mammal replica, some big-hearted individuals decided it was fish or cut bait time. Both Jason Rivera and Martha Dastous rallied to save the whale, and it appears that could happen soon.
According to Dastous, a group has worked since winter to save the whale she lovingly knows as “Tilly.” An attempt to move the creature will begin at 7 a.m. on Wednesday. For updates on this effort, visit the website at www.savetilly.com.
After meeting with Salisbury Public Works director Donald Levesque and Town Manager Neil Harrington, Dastous and Rivera received permission “to put Tilly on town land outside the skate park on Beach Road near the center.”
Dastous said there’s been a lot of interest in saving this whale, but Steve Contarino from Haverhill-based Adamson Industries is the one making it possible by volunteering his time and equipment free of charge.
“He’s going to try to pick it up with a crane if it’s possible, put it on a flatbed and take it to his facility in Haverhill,” she said. “The plan is for him to fix her up over the winter and bring her back in the spring. He really stepped up to the plate on this one.”
All of these plans have been coordinated with the representative of the current property owner, she said, who is cooperating with the rescue measures.
After a recent story reported that before Salisbury Beach the whale sculpture may have begun its life at the former Adventure Land theme park in Newbury — where the state police barracks are currently located — a number of people contacted the paper to share their memories.
But it was Salisbury resident Chip Davis who clarified how this beloved icon of Salisbury Beach came to be. Davis, a former Salisbury police officer and current demolition expert, was one of the individuals who actually built the whale, first known as Pinkie, because of its paint color. The whale was built with Chip Davis’ help, primarily by his father Whitey Davis and Salisbury mason Howie MacDonald, Davis said. That happened not long after 1959, he said.
The late Jim Natowich, owner of Nat’s Fun Spot before Jack Goldman purchased it, commissioned the building of the whale, Davis said, for the cost of not much more than $300. Nat was a character, Davis said, and a veteran of World War II.
“He retired as a full bird colonel from the Army Air Corps,” Davis said. “He hung his uniform up right in his house.”
“Nat called my father — who used to do a lot of stuff at Salisbury Beach — and said he wanted something in the field over there. My father said, ‘How about a whale?’ It was built right there for Nat. That whale was never at Adventure Land.”
The whale’s skeleton is made up on 2-by-4s and 2-by-6s, with chicken wire wrapped around them, Davis said. After that, MacDonald used stucco and a trowel to form the body, one section at a time. Nat got the best when he hired MacDonald as the mason, Davis added.
“I was inside the whale with a piece of cardboard,” Davis said. “Howie would trowel the stucco on an area and I’d hold the cardboard against it until it started to set. Then we’d move on to another section. You wouldn’t believe how hot it was inside that whale.”
Davis isn’t surprised the tail eventually broke off the whale, because getting it to stay up without cracking was tricky. As for its original pink color, Davis said it was the result of a combination of paints that Natowich had on hand at the time.
Rosemary Thuotte verifies Davis’ time line.
“I remember that whale being built in Salisbury in the late ’50s, early ’60s,” Thuotte wrote. “My aunt had a cottage nearby and every time we drove past, my parents would point out the progress on the whale. In the early stages it was difficult to determine exactly what it was going to be. I was quite young, but I’ve always had an affection for that guy, and always look for it every time I pass that way.”
Anne Leger wrote that she remembers the sculpture lovingly as a small child in the 1960s.
“Back then its eyes lit up, one was blue and one was white,” Leger wrote. “I couldn’t wait to see the whale each time my family would drive by it on the way to and from the beach. I would love to see it restored and find a new home so it could bring smiles to the faces of children, just like it did so many years ago.”
As for why the whale is also known as Jesse, Vic Meola shared his thoughts on that.
“What I remember most about the whale was the name that was always on the head: “JESSE,” Meola wrote. “That name was after my uncle, Jesse Parino, who used to run Salisbury State Reservation back in the day. I remember going to the beach as a young boy with my parents back in the ’60s, and I couldn’t wait to see Uncle Jesse’s name on the whale.”
Former Salisbury police officer Ed Foote also remembers the whale as Jesse. The name was painted on one night when former lifeguards at Salisbury Beach State Reservation got a little rambunctious, Foote said, and named it after their boss.
But for Nancy Riley-Whitehill, this whale’s name is Tilly and she has always been a Salisbury native.
“I have lived in Salisbury almost my whole life, and a baby sitter took me and my siblings to the beach almost daily during the summers in the mid 1960s,” Riley-Whitehill wrote. “Tilly the Whale is my first memory of going to Salisbury Beach. When we passed Tilly, we knew we were almost there. I also visited Adventureland as a kid and Tilly was already at Salisbury Beach when it opened.”
And with luck, Tilly will be back soon.