The Magic of Nantucket

Its very name means "faraway," and even in the missile age the historic island, long a famous resort, still imparts an away-from-it-all feeling
August 03, 1958

If once you have slept on an island,
You'll never be quite the same;
You may look as you looked the day before
And go by the same old name.
You may hustle about in street and shop,
You may sit at home and sew,
But you'll see blue water and wheeling gulls
Wherever your feet may go....
—RACHEL FIELD
(Taxis and Toadstools, Doubleday)

There is indeed something special about islands, and none is more special than Nantucket, a sort of supersandbar that lies off the coast of Massachusetts, 25 miles due south of Cape Cod. From the air it looks like a large loin lamb chop. But it is large only when compared to lamb chops. Actually, it is less than 15 miles long and four miles across at the widest point. Its dimensions are not precisely constant, for it is a plaything of the sea. Right now the Atlantic is eating away at Smith's Point at the western tip, but at the same time it is building up the beach at Tom Nevers Head near the eastern end of the South Shore.

Nantucket is the best-known small island in the world. In the heyday of the whaling ships its fame was spread across the seven seas. Natives of distant lands who had never heard of Paris, London and New York knew about Nantucket. Before and since the whalers it has been the landfall for westbound Atlantic shipping, and today its name is bandied about the skies as a key point in the regulation of transoceanic aerial traffic.

Nantucket is an Indian name which translates as "faraway island." It was a good name for it when only Indians lived there, and it still is. Few places can impart the faraway feeling as Nantucket does—even today when excellent commercial airline service (about 20 flights in and out daily during the summer) has brought it within little more than an hour from New York and less than an hour from Boston. In a secluded spot on the magnificent beach at Siasconset (for instance), looking out to Spain over 3,000 miles of unbroken ocean, a man is about as far away as he may hope to get from things in this shrunken world. Make it nighttime, make it clear, make it silent except for the pounding surf, and the world seems well lost. Ralph Waldo Emerson found that such a Nantucket setting made him feel "that all imaginable good shall yet be realized."

Compared to lush Martha's Vineyard, its neighbor to the west, Nantucket is sparse. Aside from a comparatively few trees worthy of the name that have been made to flourish in the settled communities, the thin, sandy soil sprouts mostly scrub oak and dwarf pine. But the island is a paradise of flowers—white daisies in the spring, a riot of wild red roses in the summer, along with the broom and the heather that gives the moors the look of old Scotland. The colors (and the delicate fragrances) change subtly with the seasons: there are the greens, pinks, reds, whites and lavenders of summer; the over-all reddening of the bayberry, huckleberry and deerberry bushes in the fall; the golden brown of the grasses in early winter and, at last, the bleak, gaunt look of January, February and March that makes it clear why oldtime mariners called the island "The Little Gray Lady of the Sea."

But let a fact be quickly faced. Nantucket is not for everyone. The little gray lady is a creature of moods. Anybody can love her when the air is clear and the skies are blue by day and starry by night and the planes are flying and the steamers are docking on schedule. But let the rains come and the fog close in. Then the little lady tests the mettle. Some people develop a kind of claustrophobia known as island fever. While the true island-lover welcomes the respite from sunshine as an interlude (not without its own special charm) in which to catch up on reading, bridge or conversation, others show signs of cracking up. Tallulah Bankhead, for instance, trapped for three days on the island by rain and mist, is quoted as having proposed a startling (and thoroughly impractical) scheme for relocating the island at the busy port of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, a famous mainland summer resort where the Nantucket steamers connect with trains for New York and Boston.

The whole truth is that Nantucket has near-perfect weather from May through October, and the two months after Labor Day are the favorites of those who come to the island every year. But, for some reason, Nantucket has always taken an affectionate kidding about weather and other things. When Herman Melville was writing Moby Dick more than a hundred years ago, he could not resist putting in a passage that might serve as a model for a Bob Hope monologue.

"Nantucket!" wrote Melville. "Look at it—a mere hillock, an elbow of sand; all beach, without a background. There is more sand there than you would use in 20 years as a substitute for blotting paper. Some gamesome wights will tell you that they have to plant weeds there, they don't grow naturally; that they import Canada thistles; that they have to send beyond seas for a spile to stop a leak in an oil cask; that pieces of wood in Nantucket are carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome; that people there plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the shade in summertime; that one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day's walk a prairie; that they wear quicksand shoes, something like Laplander snowshoes; that they are so shut up, belted about, every way inclosed, surrounded, and made an utter island of by the ocean, that to their very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering, as to the backs of sea turtles. But these extravaganzas only show that Nantucket is no Illinois."

On Nantucket (as on Martha's Vineyard) there are only two kinds of people—islanders and off-islanders. An off-islander can never become an islander. He can become a summer resident or, if he spends 12 months a year on the island, he may call himself "a summer-winter." That's the best he can ever do—and there is a joke about that:

One time, years ago, an infant was carried ashore at Nantucket on a pillow. The baby was two weeks old. His parents decided to settle permanently, and the child grew up and went to school and on to high school and then into business. He became an outstanding citizen. He was active in civic affairs and in church work. As he prospered, he gave generously to all local charities and was on every committee that anybody could think up. He had a long and fruitful life and he lived to be 96 years of age. The church was filled for the funeral service and when the preacher got up to deliver the eulogy, he began by saying, "Brethren, we are gathered here today to pay our last respects to a beloved stranger."

Something that an authentic stranger should get into his head right away is that when you say "Nantucket" on the island, you mean the town of Nantucket. And you don't say "Siasconset" but " 'Sconset" when referring to the second largest community. 'Sconset people (as well as those of smaller communities like Madaket, Surfside, Polpis and Wauwinet) speak of "going into Nantucket" to shop, and many go for no other reason.

THE QUAKER INFLUENCE

Nantucket celebrates its 300th anniversary next year, and a great deal of its history can be absorbed by just wandering around the beautifully preserved old town. Nine-tenths of the island was purchased in 1659 from Thomas Mayhew (who also owned Martha's Vineyard at the time) by a syndicate of Massachusetts colonists whose names live on in the present-day Coffins, Folgers (Benjamin Franklin's mother was a Nantucket-born Folger), Starbucks, Macys (one of whom started a department store in New York and didn't tell Gimbels), Gardners, Colemans, Husseys, Worths—among others. These first settlers (who gave Mayhew ¬£30 and two beaver hats for Nantucket) came to raise sheep on the moorlands, which were ideal for that purpose. Some were Quakers, and later most of the population was converted. The Quaker austerity of the early settlers is reflected in the island architecture, which was frozen, so to speak, by the eventual passing of the prosperous whaling era. With the discovery of petroleum, Nantucket went broke just in time to escape the gingerbread horrors of the Victorian period.

As a summer resort, Nantucket has long had a special appeal for Middle Westerners. Breckinridge Long, an Assistant Secretary of State under President Wilson, spearheaded a large colony from St. Louis. Mr. and Mrs. Gwynne Evans of that city live in a famous island showplace, one of "The Three Bricks," the Main Street mansions built by a prosperous whaling man for his three sons. There is also heavy representation from Illinois, Michigan and Ohio. The majority of regulars come from New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey.

Just about anybody and everybody is likely to show up (or at least put into the harbor) before Labor Day. For instance, the other day, Jan de Hartog, author of The Fourposter, The Distant Shore and other plays and books, suddenly showed up aboard his 90-foot sailboat, a converted Dutch freighter. Next week, Dr. Paul Dudley White, President Eisenhower's heart specialist, will bring in a party of 20 that will include some of his medical colleagues and a few university professors. All are members of Dr. White's Safe Bicycling Committee, which will pedal seven miles from Nantucket town to Siasconset for lunch and a symposium on how to best spread the cycling gospel. Dr. White feels that cycling is the ideal exercise and regards Nantucket as a first-rate place for a cycling vacation.

Bea Lillie may turn up any day; she did last year. U.S. Senators Stuart Symington of Missouri and Mike Monroney of Oklahoma are regular summer visitors. The Gilbreth family of the best-selling book and hit movie Cheaper by the Dozen will be on hand as usual: Bob and his wife Barbara, operating the Anchor Inn (Frank wrote about their adventures as innkeepers in his book, Innside Nantucket); and Dan, living at "The Shoe," the family cottage that features two authentic old lighthouses on the property. Mrs. Robert Benchley, widow of the humorist (a dedicated Nantucket man), and her sons Robert and Nathaniel and their families will again be summering in Siasconset.

Once given a good exposure to the island, a man is usually happily hooked for life. Jules Thebaud, who looks out on a magnificent water view from his house on The Cliff, was asked the other day how long he had been coming to Nantucket. "Fifty-four years," replied Mr. Thebaud promptly—which means that he has not missed a year since he was born.

What brings people back year after year? Well, Nantucket is set down in waters as fine for sailing as may be found anywhere. It has superb beaches; it is, in fact, one big beach with moors in the center. The fishing is superb, with emphasis on the blues and stripers; surfcasting is a highly developed art, with women as active as men and a half dozen long-time summer residents so dedicated to the sport that they have installed two-way radios in their beach buggies to share hot information.

There is a fantastic amount of things to do on the island for those with the get-up-and-go. People on Nantucket swim and sail, search the beaches for seashells and driftwood, ride horseback, picnic, paint pictures, snap pictures, hike, bike, play golf, play tennis, play a highly scientific game of croquet, watch birds, band birds, take historical tours or browse in excellent museums and libraries. In the evenings there are movies at the Casino at Siasconset and at the Dreamland in town, as well as legitimate plays by a stock company at the Straight Wharf Playhouse. Sometimes there is a block party or an impromptu community sing on Main Street.

There is an abundance of excellent inns and guest houses. The food is uncommonly good almost everywhere and the best-known eating places include The Inn and The Chanticleer at Siasconset, the Nobadeer at the airport, and The Ropewalk, Opera House, Mad Hatter, Harbor House, the Upper Deck, Ship's Inn, White Elephant, One Pleasant Street and others in town. Down at the wharves there are The Skipper, The Boat House, Allen's, The Blacksmith Shop and a place (Rainbow Foods) that specializes in putting up box lunches. Some eating places feature entertainment, usually guitar or piano.

It is possible to spend a great deal of money for food and lodging and it is also possible to spend comparatively little. The chamber of commerce mails out booklets on inns and eating places, and one of the two newspapers, the Town Crier (a postwar competitor of the celebrated Inquirer and Mirror), publishes a useful booklet called Nantucket Holiday, which is crammed with information about the places to stay and to eat. For those who arrive without reservations (a procedure not recommended during the season), there is an Information Bureau which can almost always come up with accommodations.

The activities of people who own summer houses (or rent them regularly) center around the Yacht Club and Cliff Side Beach Club in Nantucket town and at the Sankaty Head Beach Club and the Sankaty Head Golf Club (see cover) at Siasconset. The Casino in Siasconset is given over largely to the youngsters of the island, but parents take it over for a dance or a town meeting now and then. Add it all up and the conclusion is that most people are having fun.

Having fun or not, there may be as many as 25,000 persons on the island at the peak of the season (the winter population is under 4,000), and the easygoing islanders have to adapt themselves to a whole new way of life for eight busy weeks. The busier the better for those who must earn a year's livelihood in this brief period, but the frantic prosperity sometimes gets a little out of hand. This situation finally caused the chamber of commerce to issue a Declaration of Courtesy and Consideration in leaflet form. The Declaration calls attention to the fact that the curfew is rung by the Lisbon Bell in the South Church Tower at 9 p.m. as a gentle reminder that Nantucket appreciates quiet in the late evening hours. Another item in this manifesto states that "tradition frowns on...unduly exposing attire. Bermuda shorts and sport shirts are quite acceptable." So far, the excursionists have taken the hint about the Bermuda shorts, but many of them carry on far into the night as before.

A SEASIDE JEWEL

Out in 'Sconset, there is none of that. The busloads of "trippers" and the cycling excursionists come to inspect the village, of course, but there is no night life to detain them. There are a grocery store, a post office, the "Book Store," which is also a soda fountain, and there is a town pump. An idea of how life is paced in 'Sconset is suggested by a sign in the grocery store window that reads: "Haircuts at Albert Egan's Cellar Tuesday Nights at 7:30."

'Sconset is a seaside jewel with its profusion of flowers, its magnificent gardens, its winding roads and lanes and the Atlantic Ocean in all its moods and majesty. A distinctive architecture dates back to the days of the Quaker pioneers who discovered that there was an abundance of codfish offshore. They came out from the town to fish and, since it was a considerable journey in those days, soon began to build fishing shacks. Later, the wives of the fishermen decided to come along and make it a weekend. They contributed their touch to the shacks, with their sharply pitched roofs that almost came down to the ground, and from this casual beginning emerged the " 'Sconset cottage," which may be seen in its pristine form at Codfish Park at the foot of the bluff, and in its refined state, with roses tumbling down the roofs, all around the village and notably at The Inn, which has more than a score of them around its main building and Moby Dick, its celebrated bar.

At the turn of the century 'Sconset was discovered by theater people and soon blossomed into an actors' summer colony which eventually attracted all the brightest names on Broadway. The village went through another phase when Frederick Howe, founder of The Inn (now operated by Clem Reynolds, who formerly managed the Cat Cay Club and the Augusta National Golf Club), assembled some of the more advanced thinkers of the 1920s—Walter Lippmann was one—for 'Sconset summers. Their talk was as deep as the ocean at the door.

Today's residents of 'Sconset prefer to leave their deep thinking behind them on the mainland and concentrate on such urgent local matters as the improvement of the fairways out at the Sankaty Head Golf Club which deteriorated during the last war. There is an ambitious program of rehabilitation under way at that scenic course, and each of the 18 holes bears the name of a donor (or donors) who has contributed toward its restoration under the direction of Greenskeeper Sam Swayze. Donors include David Gray, whose father, one of Henry Ford's original associates, donated the land for the course with the stipulation that it be used for golf and no other purpose. Others are such longtime Nantucketers as David Lilly, Wynn Perdun, Donald Hardenbrook, Lewis Greenleaf, William Hutton, Roy E. Larsen, John Lucas, James Fleming, John Chapman, William Ritchie, Louis Krauthoff, Whiting Willauer, Bert Finnell, the late Allan Melhado, one "syndicate" and two groups named "Mostly C" and "Wesco."

It is the ambition of these donors to make Sankaty Head one of the finest courses on the eastern seaboard. With its gently rolling moors and the Atlantic Ocean as a backdrop, it has not too far to go. Of course, Sankaty Head will never be able to do anything about one of its natural hazards: the fog which rolls in off the sea on some late afternoons just to remind golfers and people all over Nantucket that they are on an island and, as the Indians were saying in the first place, far away—so wonderfully far away.

PHOTOTONI FRISSELLSHELLS from world's oceans grace Nantucket home of Mrs. James M. Hutton PHOTOTONI FRISSELLLANDSCAPE of 'Sconset is typified by Sankaty Head Light dominating golf club of the same name. PHOTOTONI FRISSELLSEASCAPE of the island shows sandy shore, Brant Point and Flying Dutchmen sailing past the starting line. PHOTOTONI FRISSELL"SOUR HOUR" is meeting time for Lee Niedringhaus and sister Carolyn of St. Louis (seated), Sondra Steimle and Peter Hallowell. PHOTOTONI FRISSELLCLIFF SIDE BEACH CLUB is dotted with bright umbrellas beneath the weather-grayed shingles of Nantucket homes, looking seaward from The Cliff. PHOTOTONI FRISSELLART STUDENTS of Peter Kerr's school sit absorbed before their subject, the vertebra of a whale. PHOTOTONI FRISSELLSURF CASTER Bill Hutton, a summer Nantucketer, totes rod and reel to Smith's Point. PHOTOTONI FRISSELL"PINK HEAP" is Jock Gifford's version of the island's favorite transport, the beach buggy. MAPALL BEACH AND MOORS historic Nantucket is set down in sailing waters as fine as any in the world. Map shows principal communities of summer residents, who are concentrated in the greatest numbers in Nantucket town and at 'Sconset to the east.
NANTUCKET SOUND
ATLANTIC OCEAN
TUCKERNUCK
SMITH'S POINT
MADAKET
24 MILES TO EDGARTOWN
38 MILES TO WOODS HOLE
25 MILES TO CAPE COD
NANTUCKET
NANTUCKET
BRANT POINT
MONOMOY
POLPIS
GREAT POINT
WAUWINET
QUIDNET
SANKATY HEAD LIGHT
SIASCONSET
TOM NEVERS HEAD
SURF SIDE

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)