Edward F. (Edward Fitch) Underhill.

The credible chronicles of the patchwork village : 'Sconset by the sea online

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Online LibraryEdward F. (Edward Fitch) UnderhillThe credible chronicles of the patchwork village : 'Sconset by the sea → online text (page 1 of 9)
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Credible Chronicles


The Patchwork Village.





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1886. \ ^-'^j^






To the readers of this book who purchased it unadvisedly
and without fault of their own, I owe and I tender an apology.
Nothing is due to those who successfully resisted the
blandishments of the publishers. They are able to take
care of themselves.

It was written at different times and in varying moods.
Like a 'Sconset cottage it was made in sections, without
unity of design, and certainly with no thought of inflicting
it upon a patient and long-suffering public. Any credible
statements contained in it were concocted without mali-
cious premeditation, and I am not conscious of even a
mischievous intent rankling within my bosom. Whatever
is absolutely false was introduced under the belief that
draped fiction would be perused by modest readers in
preference to the naked truth. But it did dawn upon my
understanding that, if its parts were securel}^ lashed to-
gether, the total result would sell and that I would thereby
greatly profit. I don't believe that anybody's mental,
moral, physical, or financial constitution will suffer an irre-
coverable strain by its publication ; unless it be the pub-
lishers'. But they take their chances. If the event shall
prove that I am mistaken in this view, I give due notice
that any attempt to recover damages, either actual or ex-
emplary, will be resisted bj' every device known to the

New York, September, 1884. *

w '■ mum


One hundred and twenty miles nearly south-east of Bos-
ton and directly south of the peninsula of Cape Cod is the
Island of Nantucket, famous for its connection with the
whale fishery, and for near a century as the nursery of
American seamen. On its south-east corner is a little vil-
lage, like unto which there is no other. Its aboriginal
name was Siasconset ; but the natives of the island, iu
ordinary speech, have eliminated its first syllable and call
it 'Sconset. It is quaint in appearance. The surf beats on
the beach before it. The air and surroundings possess
qualities to afford rest to mind and body. Quiet is the rule.
Fashion has never gained a foothold within it. Excitement
must be sought. To cares, strangers become indifferent.
They are free from multiform troubles that are common to
those on the continent. Neither mosquitoes ; nor walking
matches ; nor millionaires ; nor tramps ; nor earthquakes ;
nor cholera ; nor coaching clubs ; nor beggars ; nor political
crises ; nor duns ; nor corners in lard ; nor stock privileges ;
nor chills and fever ; nor strikes ; nor city statesmen ; nor
gin-mills ; nor trichinae spiralis ; nor kid gloves ; nor theo-
logical polemics ; nor fast horses ; nor operatic dissensions ;
nor boisterous revivals ; nor dynamite conspiracies ; nor
malaria, disturb the even tenor of human rest and enjoy-


ings that to-day give architectural character to the village.
They were put up on the edge of The Bank that they might
be near to, and yet be in safety from the sea ; for in those
days, during heavy storms, the waves dashed over the
beach and against the bluff on which the houses stood. In
time, a second and a third row were built up in the same man-
ner, each running in a parallel direction with the first, and
thus narrow streets but little over twenty feet in width were
an incidental result and were not laid out by design.

Now and then the wives, daughters and sisters of the
fishermen paid them visits for a day or so at a time. They
enjoyed the pure and invigorating air of The Bank and even
the primitive life their husbands, fathers and brothers led
was not without its charms. With their advent, even for
temporary sojourns, additional comforts were necessary.
Old window sashes were brought from the village on the
other side of the island and fitted into the sides of the
houses. Floors were laid. A little shanty of inclined boards
was put up at the end under which to hang a kettle or set a
f lying pan, to do^the necessary cooking, and this, in its
turn, may have been the beginning of a second room of the
dwelling. As families increased and visits became more
frequent, other improvements were needed. Two or three
little sleeping rooms were built on, at the other end. They
projected beyond the line of the main room in front and
rear, and the roofs over them were sometimes brought to
within four or five feet of the ground. These little bed
room additions became known on the island as "warts" and
are still so designated by residents. Odds and ends of
furniture were brought from elsewhere to make the house
habitable for protracted stays. Bedsteads and bedding
superseded the bunks on which they had.slept. Then a fire-
place made of stones, held together with clay, was put up,
and from its top a chimney of boards allowed the smoke to
escape through the roof. In time, another room was added





or perhaps two, at one end of the house for use as a
"porch," by which term a kitchen is known on Nantucket.
A brick chimney then replaced the old one made of
boards. Then a shingled roof became a matter of necessity
and comfort. Next, joists were run across, under the roof,
to support a floor and thus a little cramped attic was made
to furnish additional sleeping accommodations during the
season of fishing. In time the sides of the houses were
shingled. Then, perhaps, a little cellar was dug to preserve
their food untainted during the warm weather. Next some
extravagant fisherman made the innovation of lathed and
plastered walls from which to scowl at his less pretentious
neighbors. In a very few instances a cistern to catch water
was built, but, in most cases, it is still received and stored
in casks standing at the corners of the houses.

What I have here briefly sketched was not the work of
one or even two generations, but required near a century to
complete. No man saw the beginning and completion of
what has been described in respect to any one house. But
still more room was needed. The "Proprietors" of the
island had either formally or tacitly dedicated The Bank to
the use of fishermen, who " squatted" upon the ground
they thought they required and each squatter was in close
proximity to his neighbor on either side, with but a few
feet intervening. When he could no longer enlarge
at the end of his house, he must of necessity build on at
an angle, from the front, or the rear, or on both, accordingly
as space was available. The additions were made out of what-
ever material was at hand. Or perhaps the builder purchased
an old boat house, or small barn, or a little house on another
part of the island and took it down and brought it to The
Bank in sections. In some cases the beginning of the
dwelling was brought from Sesachacha, another "fishing
stage" two miles to the northward of Siasconset, or from
Madoket or from "The Town," as Nantucket is called, either


of them several mUes distant. The timbers in a given house
were used without regard to their thickness, for sills, or
studs, or joists. One may have been taken from a wreck
stranded upon the beach ; others from an old house in
The Town ; still others from bams that were sold for old
material. Old doors were got, here and there, of different
sizes and patterns. If too long they were " razeed" to suit
the height of the room. One might be made of a single
board 18 or 20 inches wide, and another panneled and
another battened. Those leading into the open air uniform-
ly swung outward as a precautionary measure against
gales ; for the owners naturally reasoned that it would be
easier to blow a door in, if it hung in the usual manner,
than it would be to blow the entire house over if the door
closed from without. On many of the doors wooden latches
with latch strings are still to bo seen, and on a few are the
original wooden hinges on which they were hung at the
time they were placed in position. Windows of odd shajjes
and sizes, both in respect of sash and glass, were fitted into
the sides of the house, and in at least one house there were
a dozen windows with no two alike. In time brick fire-
places and chimneys superseded those of stone and wood
and the chimneys, sometimeo two and a half feet square,
project through the roof from a room, perhaps, not more
than 10 feet by 12. And when completed the structures had
assumed shapes so fantastic as to be like nothing in the
heavens, nor on the earth, nor in the waters beneath the

But this was not all. From the wrecks of vessels the
carved figure-heads, or strips containing their names, were
taken and brought ashore and nailed to the gables of the
houses for ornamentation. Or, if the figure was of life size,
it was set up in the front j-ard and from year to year is re-
painted, in bright colors, as a model for visiting artists not


to follow in reproducing the human form divine. The
most notable example of a life size figure is that to be found
in front of the residence of that ancient mariner Captain
William Baxter, which has been preserved in thousands of
photographs. She is a ligneous virgin and though she has
been under the inspection of residents and visitors, heaven
knows how many years, the most virulent gossip on The
Bank has never uttered a word against her chastity.

The streets on which the old houses are situated indicate
the incidental origin and growth of the place. They run
north and south. In the latter part of the 18th century, a
heavy gale made such an inroad upon The Bank that one
row of houses was in danger of falling over, and they were
removed further back. Again, in a southeast gale, which
happened in October, 1835, and which the 'Sconsot men will
tell interesting stories about. The Bank was so rapidly
washed away that one or two houses went down, and a half
dozen others would have followed, but that they Avere re-
moved. So the old streets are now reduced to three. They
are intersected by little openings which, at the beginning of
the village were spaces from five to ten feet wide, and were
used only for the passage of wheel-barrows. In latter years
through some of them vehicles pass to the edge of The Bank
and down the roadway to the beach. But the houses are
not set in a line with the street, nor are the sides of the
streets themselves in a direct line. Mathematical accuracy
was not thought necessary for the purposes of the pro-
jectors, and much less were land surveyors dreamed of to
ensure right lines. Some abut directly on what may be
supposed to be the street line. Others are a little back
with a board or picket fence, sometimes on the border line
between utility and ruin. The lots on which they are built
may be anywhere from 25 to 40 feet in front with a depth
no larger. The ruts made by the wheels of the passing


vehicles are always to be seen in the centers of the streets.
Of artificial sidewalks there are none.

In the center of the village is the old pump .which was
placed in position in the year of the Declaration of American
Independence, when some fifty of the people interested in
the place made subscriptions of a shilling and upwards, to
dig the well and construct the pump. To day it still exists.
It is picturesque in appearance and annually many views
are taken by the camera and by artists. At night lighted
lanterns are suspended in front of the dwellings by the ten-
ants to facilitate movements through the village in the dark
and they also give a lively appearance to the village.

But a glance at the interiors of the little houses is sufficient
to suggest that the architects were seafaring men, whose
ideas of house building were largely gained from their ex-
perience on shipboard. By the settling of the sills and
Joists, sometimes the floors have assumed the convexity of
a ships deck, which might well give rise to the thought
that the builder intended it to recall recollections of his
life at sea. The snug parlors, perhaps, six or seven feet
in height, and in length and breadth not twice as large, re-
mind one of ship cabins. The small bedrooms are little
more than state rooms in their proportions, while available
spaces are used for closets that are little more than cabin
lockers slightly enlarged. To ascend to the attic there is a;
step ladder fixed at a slight inclination, or it may be a mere
succession of rungs fastened perpendicularly against the
side of the room by which to climb as best one may. Every-
thing within suggests snugness, comfort and convenience,
as the object of the builders. On the walls are ancient pic-
tures, some very crude both in design and execution,
suggestive of domestic life or illustrating the dangers of
whale fishery, or giving views of foreign lands. On the
mantel-piece there may be a couple of brass candlesticks, a;


pair of snuffers with an antique vase or two. Oft a rag
carpet, such as our grandmothers cut and . Avove, covers
the floor. Chairs of patterns in vogue a hundred years ago ;
antique tables with spindle legs and carve^ feet ; queer old
clocks, some the production of Connecticut skill a half a
century since, and others brought from England or Holland
by old shipmasters, and which are now owned by their
children, grand-children or great-grand-children, perhaps ;
four post bedsteads on which feather beds and patch-work
quilts are laid ; bureaus with oval fronts and odd brass
handles or glass knobs to move the drawers ; mirrors of
French plate glass and frames of fantastic scroll work ; or
others of early American manufacture, with the plate
surmounted by a landscape painted on glass, showing im-
possible trees, impracticable houses and lakes, the solid
waters of which exhibit all the hues of a vigorous but ec-
centric rainbow ; cutlery and crockery of odd shapes and
patterns and of all ages, ancient and modern, some pieces
of which may have been in the families of their owners for,
perhaps, three generations, and even pewter plates and
platters may be intermixed on the cupboard shelves. Now
and then, the iron crane still swings in an ancient fire-place
and on it are hung the pots and kettles for cooking the
daily meals of the inmates. As no house is furnished
with any thought of unity of design, it is apparent that the
articles were brought by their owners from their homes in
"The Town." Whatever was not needed there was
sent to 'Sconset for immediate use, or for storage until it
should be wanted.

During the war of the Eevolution, Siasconset had a con-
siderable accession in its growth ; and again during the
war of 1812. The same causes operated alike at both
periods. By the middle of the last century the interests of
the island had become almost wholly identified with the




whale fishery ; but the advent of the war made the pursuit
hazardous. Some of the seamen did suffer capture and im-
prisonment, Cut off from supplies from the main hind,
with a soil too poor to afford sustenance from the products
of the earth, they were compelled to follow fishing for food,
and it was at these periods that some of the houses were
constructed on The Bank or were brought thither from
other parts of the island. But with the return of peace,
the old industry of the island was resumed and was con-
tinued until the zenith of its prosperity was reached, about
1840, when, with nearly ten thousand inhabitants on Nan-
tucket, everybody had all the employment he could wish in
whatever productive calling he was engaged. At that
time there were public houses at 'Sconset and even a
billiard room and bowling alleys, to afford recreation to the
fishermen or to returned seamen, who sought rest in the
village prior to again going on a cruise which might last for

Some of the houses had become the occasional residences
of well-to-do families in town and several of the more
wealthy had erected, on new streets laid out, dwellings
more pretentious and even approximating the styles of
modern structures, though most of them, following the
traditions of the place, were built in sections and em^body
more or less some of the peculiarities of shape and form
which are seen in the old houses on The Bank.


The decadence of the whale fishery resulted in an indus-
trial paralysis within the limits of Nantucket. The men
had been bred to the sea and to a special branch of service.
Every industry of the inhabitants depended on that for its
prosperity. Landsmen went elsewhere to seek employ-
ment in commercial cities. Seamen made their way into
the merchant service. Ship after ship was sold. Store-
houses were empty ; wharves were deserted and went into
decay. Candle houses were torn down and the timbers and •
lumber sold for old material. Capital sought investments
in other fields. Sporadic efforts were made to organize new
industries to stay the tide of emigration from the island,
but one after another they failed and brought ruin or dis-
aster upon the promoters. Year by year the population
lessened. In 1849, near a thousand of the young men
sailed for California to seek their fortunes in the land of
gold. The values of real property on all parts of the island
fell until zero was nearly reached. Even then there was little
demand and fewer sales. Houses and lots in The Town
sold for a fifth or sixth of the original cost of the buildings.
On The Bank matters were ev(m worse. Families emi-
grating offered the little houses for sale at any price.
Wl aliiig captains, then out of employment, with but slender


incomes trom their savings purchased dwellings there and
sought by fishing to eke out a subsistence. Some of
them, though beyond the tliree score and ten of man's
allotted life, still continue in the pursuit, and each Spring
and Fall venture out on the waters. Other houses were
kept in the family that their sons might gain a livelihood by
fishing and have shelter during the night and in storms.
But 'Sconset cottages had no value. One of the best and
most commodious now on The Bank was bought by an old
captain on his return from California, for $75 and two
quintals of codfish. Year after year he has occupied it at
night during the fishing season, while by day he is braving
the dangers of the deep in his dory. Another was sold for
a hundred dollars. A third, for a long time, was rented
at six dollars a year.

Matters went from bad to worse until 1879, when the
population of the island had diminished to little over three
thousand souls. In that year a well built house compara-
tively modern, but constructed after the 'Sconset pattern
was sold with two acres of land adjoining, at auction, to
close up an estate, for $127. Another commodious modern
built house containing fifteen rooms, fairly finished, with a
half dozen out buildings, seven acres of land and a 'Sconset
cottage built on the edge of The Bank, 300 feet distant from
the surf were offered to a New York man, by the executors
of an estate, for $1,400. The buildings could not have been
replaced for near throe times that amount and the furniture
for less than $500. Frightened at the unheard of cheapness,
the party did not dare to accept the offer. Within three
years it was sold in separate lots for $2,500, and six years
after the offer was made, it could not have been purchased
for $10,000. For a new morning of prosperity had dawned
upon Nantucket, and especially upon The Bank where the
sun daily rises before it from the sea.



o •


^ r



Near the close of tlie late civil war, an occasional family
from "The Continent," as the natives call the main land,
visited Siasconsct and hired one of the little houses ready
furnished, to enjoy the invigorating air, bathe in the surf
and experience a season of absolute rest, to return to their
homes in the Autumn redruited for the cares and labors of
another year. The advantages of the situation gradually
became more widely known and each year the number of
visitors increased until, at last, every house which its
owner would consent to let found tenants for the summer
in families of refinement, intelligence and even wealth,
from most of the principal cities from the Atlantic to the
Pacific, and as far as the west coast of South America.
The dilapidated shingles were torn off and replaced by new
ones. Next they were white or yellow washed, and some
at last painted. Fences were repaired. Old shutters or
blinds gave place to new ones, or they were placed on win-
dows that had never known them before. The interiors
were repaired, furbished and tidied up, and now the little
dwellings, some portions of which may be two centuries
old, and all evolved from fishermen's cabins, but with the
same charming quaintness of style, ai'e rented each season at
sums for which the owners, twenty years ago, would have
gladly sold them. A second hotel was built, to which, one
"annex" after another was added until its principal building
within a few feet of the beach looms up in larger propor-
tions than all its other parts. The town authorities
awakened to the fact that Nantucket had still a future as a
summer resort, as a haven of rest for tired out business
men and brain workers, and a sanitarium for invalids.
They improved the roads. The little passage ways be-
tween the houses on The Bank, not more than 10 feet in
width nor more than 25 feet long, have been dignified as
streets and christened with the names of 'Sconset families.


Street lamps have been put up and are nightly lighted. A
little railway has been completed from The Town which
skirts the south shore of the island, giving the visitors a
splendid view of the ocean during the greater portion of its
length ; and since the advent of the locomotive, within a
single season more strangers visit Siasconset than in a
quarter of a century before.

In the meantime, the demand for the little cottages ex-
ceeded the supply. Persons who had become enamored
of 'Sconset cottage life, purchased land on The Bank and
undertook to supply the demand. Within three years, pre-
vious to 1885, over twenty houseswere built and furnished
to rent to summer visitors, while nearly as many more
were erected by families for their own occupancy, and the
work of improvement continues each year. Some of the
new structures are modern and ornate in style, in strange
contrast with the generally modest architecture of the
island, and markedly so when compared with the 'Sconset
cottages. Others follow the old traditions, except that the
rooms are more commodious, and have complements of
furniture and housekeeping appliances to ensure the com-
forts of the occupants.

The popularity of The Bank, as a sea-side home, is largely
due to favorable climatic influences. It is on an island 17
miles in length, following a line through its center, with a
width, at its greatest breadth, of four and a half miles. Its
shape is irregular and will be best understood by a rtifer-
ence to the map. Sixty miles distant from the continent,
the hot land breezes are unknown. To the north is still
water, except during the prevalence of heavy gales. On
the east and south the surf is ever beating upon the beach.
The island has but one harbor of any importance and that
the port of Nantucket, not far from midway between its
eastern and western extremities. An extension of this to


the north and east, a distance of six miles, affords admirable
facilities for safe rowing and sailing. To and from this
harbor all visitors to the island come and go.

The climate is equable. The insular situation will in
part, account for it. Being narrow, every breeze that is
wafted over it is from the sea, and there is scarce ever a
time when there is not more or less movement of the air.
Hot days are hardly ever known. The mercury seldom
rises above the point of summer heat. In observations
extending over six years, it reached as high as 89 degrees
but four times ; and it does not mount above 82 degrees
more than half a dozen days during a season. On those
days the duration of warmth, so unusual, is never more

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Online LibraryEdward F. (Edward Fitch) UnderhillThe credible chronicles of the patchwork village : 'Sconset by the sea → online text (page 1 of 9)