What comes to mind when you think of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket?
Hand-woven Nantucket lightship baskets? Scrimshaw pie crimping wheels carved from whale teeth? Or sailors’ Valentines, the octagonal boxes with intricate patterns of seashells that 19th-century sailors would make during their voyages to give to their loved ones?
Maybe it’s the saltbox houses and cozy Cape Cod-style cottages designed to withstand the stormy weather of the Massachusetts coast. Perhaps it’s the fried clams, chowder, lobster, cranberries and other regional specialties that foodies indulge in there. It just might be one of those sought-after tee shirts from the Black Dog Tavern on Martha’s Vineyard. Or it could be the way the “Year-ROUN-dahs” of “Da Cape,” “Da Vin-yahd” and “Da Eye-lants” talk.
Thanks to some vicarious traveling I did recently, I added four new vocabulary words to my lexicon about this iconic region.
First are the Carpenter Gothic campground cottages at the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association in Oak Bluffs. Formerly known as Wesleyan Grove, this was one of many Methodist camp-meeting grounds resulting from the religious “camp meeting” movement of the 19th century. At first, those who attended the week-long revivals slept in straw-floored tents, but the camp meetings’ growing popularity called for a new form of housing.
In the 1840s, the tents evolved into wood-sided, canvas-topped cottages with a wide double door reminiscent of the rolled-back flaps of tent openings, a small narrow window on each side of the door, and a second-floor double door that opened onto a balcony over the entrance. The tent-inspired cottages usually had two or three rooms on the ground floor with sleeping rooms above.
During the late 1850s and early 1860s, the “Martha’s Vineyard” cottage became more ornate, with distinctive filigrees that carpenters created with the recently invented bandsaw, attention-getting color combinations, and front porches that served as outdoor living rooms. In their heyday, there were over 500 Martha’s Vineyard cottages; today, about 300 remain.
Second is Sandwich glass, produced in Sandwich, the town that was founded in 1637, making it the oldest town on Cape Cod. In 1825, Boston glass merchant Deming Jarves decided to open a glassmaking factory in Sandwich. With its abundance of sand and sea salt needed to create the glass, salt-marsh hay used to package the fragile goods, and pine trees to run the furnaces, Sandwich was an ideal place for glassmaking. For the next 63 years, the Boston & Sandwich Glass Company made blown glassware, lacy glassware, threaded and striped glass, paperweights, and pressed glassware like cup plates, coasters used for the saucers from which it was customary to drink tea at the time.
Third are the shimmering sand dunes of the Cape Cod National Seashore, a 40-mile stretch of beaches, marshes, ponds and wild cranberry bogs. Today, you can take a unique look at the National Park Service-protected seashore by driving through its sand dunes in specially authorized four-wheel-drive Jeeps. In earlier days, however, solitary seashore sojourns inspired two authors to produce two classics of American nature writing.
Henry David Thoreau first went to Cape Cod in October 1849 to get a better look at the ocean, and returned several times. His powers of observation led him to write unforgettable descriptions of the landscape and its features in his classic Cape Cod, first published in 1865. Talking about soil, he writes in the book, “The plowed fields of the Cape look white and yellow, like a mixture of salt and Indian meal.” Windmills, those “gray-looking, octagonal towers, with long timbers slanting to the ground in the rear,” looked to him “like huge wounded birds, trailing a wing or a leg.” The area north of Provincetown, the spot all the way at the tip of the Cape where the Pilgrims first landed before settling in Plymouth, “was like the richest rug imaginable spread over an uneven surface…There was the incredibly bright red of the huckleberry, and the reddish brown of the bayberry, mingled with the bright and living green of small pitch pines, and also the duller green of the bayberry, boxberry and plum, the yellowish green of the shrub oaks, and the various golden and yellow and fawn-colored tints of birch and maple and aspen, each making its own figure, and, in the midst, the few yellow sand-slides on the sides of the hills looked like the white floor seen through rents in the rug.”
In September 1926, 38-year-old Henry Beston turned a two-week vacation at the Fo’castle, a small frame cottage he had built on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, into a year-long sojourn that transformed him from a thwarted author into a best-selling nature writer. Laboring in longhand at the kitchen table overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the sand dunes, Beston painstakingly produced a chronicle of nature’s seasons, revising his work so carefully that sometimes he took an entire morning to finish one sentence.
I’ll show you what I mean.
“On these lovely, cool September nights the level and quiescent dust of light which fills the sky is as autumnal in its colouring as the earth below,” Beston wrote. “There is autumn on the earth and autumn overhead. The great isles of tawny orange smouldering into darkness, the paths of the channels stilled to twilight bronze, the scarlet meadows deepening to levels of purple and advancing night – all these mount, in exhalation of colour, to the heavens.”
Before Beston arrived on Cape Cod, he had proposed marriage to Elizabeth Coatsworth, an accomplished poet and children’s author, but she had replied, “No book, no marriage.” Beston’s Cape Cod chronicle was published as The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod in the fall of 1928, and Beston and Coatsworth were married in June 1929.
Beston’s book became a classic of American nature writing, one of the motivators behind the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1960. Coatsworth was awarded the Newbery Medal for excellence in American children’s literature in 1931 for her book, The Cat Who Went to Heaven. And the Fo’castle was a National Literary Landmark until it was swept away by high tides during a February 1978 blizzard.
And fourth is Maria Mitchell, the first librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum, who discovered a comet through a telescope from the roof of Nantucket’s Pacific National Bank on October 1, 1847. Most nineteenth-century Nantucketers owned a telescope to spot sails in the distant ocean and read names of ships coming into the harbor, but Maria enjoyed spending an evening “of subdued quiet and grateful seriousness” looking the stars from her housetop, as she wrote in her diaries.
Maria’s fame led her to resign from the Atheneum in 1856 to travel extensively. In 1865, she became professor of astronomy at the newly founded Vassar College, teaching there until her retirement in 1888. She died in 1889, and is buried next to her parents in Nantucket’s Prospect Hill Cemetery.
You can take in the view of the Nantucket harbor from the rooftop observation deck of the Nantucket Whaling Museum, housed in a restored 1847 candle factory. The museum honors the accomplishments of sailors like Rowland Hussey Macy, who worked on a Nantucket whaling ship, the Emily Morgan, as a teenager and later founded Macy’s, the department store with the red star logo that comes from a tattoo that Macy got during his sailing days.
For more on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, see An Explorer’s Guide: Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard & Nantucket, by Kim Grant; The Salt House: A Summer on the Dunes of Cape Cod, by Cynthia Huntington; The Enduring Shore: A History of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, by Paul Schneider; The House on Nauset Marsh, by Wyman Richardson, a classic collection of essays about Cape Cod that was first published in 1947; Time and Tide: A Walk Through Nantucket, by Frank Conroy; and Cape Cod Pilot, written by Jeremiah Digges as part of the American Guides Series for the Federal Writers’ Project, Works Progress Administration, for the State of Massachusetts in 1937.
The Lighthouse Santa, by Sara Hoagland Hunter, is based on the real Christmas flights of Edward Rowe Snow, who dropped presents from his airplane for children of the keepers of lighthouses like Nantucket’s Great Point Lighthouse for almost 50 years. Fans of cozy mysteries might like to check out Death in the Off-Season and the other books in the Nantucket Island mystery series by Francine Mathews.
The painted stairsteps of Edgartown Books, an independent bookstore in Martha’s Vineyard
Read The Outermost House, then track down other Henry Beston books like Northern Farm, about life in Maine; The Saint Lawrence, a geographical and historical look at the great river; The Best of Beston, an anthology of his writing; Especially Maine: The Natural World of Henry Beston from Cape Cod to the St. Lawrence, selected and with introductions by Elizabeth Coatsworth; and Herbs and the Earth (I recommend the 2001 edition with an introduction written by Roger Swain, the red-suspendered, bearded man who hosted The Victory Garden on PBS from the mid-1980s until 2001). You might also like an edition of Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod that is illustrated with photographs by Scot Miller.
If you’d like to know more about Maria Mitchell, read Sweeper in the Sky: The Life of Maria Mitchell, by Helen Wright; Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science: An Astronomer Among the American Romantics, by Renée Bergland; and Maria’s Comet, by Deborah Hopkinson.
The Martha’s Vineyard Table, by Jessica B. Harris, includes recipes for standard island fare like codfish fritters and stuffed Quahogs. Berries in the Scoop: A Cape Cod Cranberry Story is Lois Lenski’s tale of a family who earns their living in the cranberry bogs of Cape Cod. Thornton Burgess, a naturalist and conservationist from Sandwich, wrote more than 170 books as well as 15,000 articles for “Bedtime Stories,” a syndicated newspaper column that ran from 1912 to 1960.
In November 1820, a mad whale wrecked the whaleship Essex in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, stranding 20 Nantucket sailors in three small boats, 1,200 miles from the nearest land. Three months later, passing ships picked up five survivors. Three others were stranded on an island, while 12 more were dead – seven of them eaten by their starving shipmates. In the Heart of the Sea, a movie recounting the story of the Essex and its crew, is scheduled to be released this December.