Each June, Gloucester marks the end of the school year and the start of summer with its amazing Italian/Catholic fishing and drinking festival, the St. Peter's Fiesta. Founded in 1927 in honor of the patron saint of fishermen, and based on traditions brought over from Sicily, the festival includes processions of religious statues and icons through the downtown, seine-boat rowing races, carnival rides, sausages, fried dough, lots of beer, and a greasy-pole contest.
When people picture the greasy pole, they often envision men scaling a vertical pole, as in Boston's Festival Betances. But Gloucester's version features a telephone pole extending horizontally 40 feet out over the icy waters off Pavilion Beach, slathered with a foot-thick layer of grease. Dozens of men (it's still all men) costumed as Superman, Strawberry Shortcake, bumblebees, and cheerleaders try to shuffle out to grab a flag from the end without slipping and cracking their backs — or the family jewels (cue groans from the thousands watching on the beach). This year's contests begin at 4:45 pm on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, so the walk to the flag should be directly into a low, blinding sun.
Beforehand, the walkers (only townies can enter) will gather in a back yard a few blocks up from the harbor. Nine-time champ Peter Frontiero pours beer over their feet as a blessing. Then they'll head down to the harbor, stopping at bars along the way for beers and to holler blessings to St. Peter, before riding boats to the greasy-pole platform. This year's competition is stiff, including seven-time champ Jake Wood.
"My father walked it for 17 years," says Stewart "Stew" McGillivray, 25. Even though his dad never made it more than halfway, McGillivray grew up dreaming of walking the pole himself. He and friends practiced in his back yard on logs they covered with dish soap or Crisco. Then, in 2004, he won the Friday contest, qualifying to compete on Saturday, when he won again. This qualified him for Sunday, the main event when past champs face off against each other. He's won on Sunday in 2008, '09, and '10. Last year, about six feet from the end of the pole, as he began to slip, McGillivray dove forward, stretching his arm out, and wrapped his fingers around the flag. To win is to become part of Gloucester legend — plus, everyone buys you drinks all summer.
"I've won it the past three years," McGillivray says, "and still, every year I get really, really nervous."
St. Peter's Fiesta runs June 22–26 in Gloucester. Visit stpetersfiesta.org for more information.