Whether the story is about plotting revolution, celebrating a successful raid, or wrangling a way around a trade embargo, much of history revolves around drinks. At least that is what Eric Getz and Alex Cain came to realize, while batting around ideas for a business to capitalize on their shared passion for history.
“Whether it was a raid or a battle, it always ended up at a bar,” says Getz, who joined Cain last year to launch Untapped History, a walking tour of downtown Newburyport that ends with samples of period cocktails. “Seems to be how everything was done back then.”
So it’s historically accurate—and a clever hook to attract attention, as well as customers who like a reward alongside their history. The idea caught on surprisingly fast, Getz says, noting that the The Daily News of Newburyport ran a story on the fledging business before they had actually launched their first tour, which was followed quickly by a segment on Chronicle.
The tour attracts a mixture of locals, New Englanders, and those from further afield—in some cases much further afield, like South Africa. Of course, it helps that the Port City is gaining a reputation as a tourist destination. When an 85-passenger cruise ship decided to add Newburyport to its summer itinerary, planners contacted Untapped History to arrange an off-ship excursion and nearly half of their guests signed on.
The draw for tourists is that the city offers a sweet downtown with a lot of history, yet not a lot of people are talking about the history, Getz says. “There are lots of crazy characters and many stories to tell,” he notes, starting with the surprising fact that in 1790, Newburyport was the 13th largest city in the country, with 4,000 residents. Or maybe that’s not so surprising, since there were only 13 states back then, and New York, with the biggest population, had just 33,000. Nonetheless, tour participants learn that Newburyport was an important and cosmopolitan destination during the colonial era, thanks to a commercial port and a thriving shipbuilding industry.
Getz and Cain make a great team, Getz says, noting that the pair met about a decade ago as volunteer soccer coaches in Merrimac. Over the years, as their daughters competed on the field, the dads talked about ways to combine their hobby and deep experience into a side hustle. Getz, who teaches middle school at Sparhawk School in Amesbury, has a lot of experience in public storytelling, having designed exhibits for the Smithsonian and Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth. Cain has published two books on the American Revolution and colonial New England, and has had several close calls with a bayonet as a reenactor at the Battle of Lexington every Patriots’ Day since. So great is Cain’s dedication to detail that he took an 18th century sewing class in order to stitch his outfit by hand. Typical of what a middle-class worker would wear, his ensamble includes a dapper jacket, fitted pants, brimmed hat, and a market wallet for his money. And a whole lot of buttons.
“Alex’s outfit is accurate down to the stitch,” Getz says. “He takes it extremely seriously.” Getz’s costume is decidedly more downscale; with loose, dirty pants and a long, shirt, and a wool cap on his head, he represents more of a vagrant worker.
“Alex had the clothes, so he gets to be more reputable,” Getz says with a laugh.
Starting from the Custom House, which was designed by Robert Mills, architect of the Washington Monument, the tour ambles at a leisurely pace through Waterfront Park, up to Water Street, and winds up finally at Michael’s Waterfront. Along the way, participants learn about the devastating fire that resulted in Newburyport’s brick downtown, and the high-quality workmanship that made the city the Detroit of shipbuilding. And of course they hear about alcohol, which was safer to drink than water back in the day. Getz says the average Newburyport resident consumed a whopping three pints of rum a week—which might explain why the city was home to some 12 or more distilleries.
These days, there are no distilleries in Newburyport, but Untapped History does include Rumson’s Rum, from nearby Salem, in the historic tipples at the end, along with local RiverWalk beer. On a recent afternoon, participants got tastes of three cocktails, including the “Rattle Skull.” This drink, which got its name from old-time slang for a very talkative person, is a mix of Rumson’s Rum, brandy, RiverWalk IPA, and lime juice, served over ice. The drinks are potent, lending a convivial atmosphere to the end of the tour, which concludes with participants offering up colonial-style toasts like “To the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Bay!” or “To the American Continental Army and Navy!” while enjoying drinks and e snacks.“It creates a real feeling of camaraderie,” Getz says. “Strangers become friends very quickly.”
Untapped History tours cost $50 and run most weekdays through August by appointment, then weekends from May through the fall, with special Halloween and holiday tours later in the year.