“Goin’ over to America,” old-time Nantucketers like to say. Or; “Just got back from America.” In this case, “America” is the mainland 30 miles--and 30 light years--away. In many ways their attitude is right on, for this unique island that’s about 15 miles long by 3 to 6 miles wide is like a foreign country--or, more accurately, a slice of the America of a century ago. More than 100 years ago, famous Americans were delighted by Nantucket. In 1835, Daniel Webster called it “the unknown city in the ocean” and Thoreau and Emerson were also charmed by the island. The latter stood on a bluff in starkly beautiful Siasconset (pronounced Sconset) and marveled at the gusts blowing the tops off the waves “like the hair of a woman in the wind.” Other New England resorts have good bathing, beaches, boating and fishing--so what is it that inspires the rugged fealty of the old-timers and attracts the tourists in droves? First of all, the physical look of the place grabs everyone, and photographs cannot prepare one for the impact of the setting, natural and man-made. The clouds, the air, the harbor, the boats, the buildings: It is a giant movie set with everything too perfect and newly painted and wholesome and too Herman Melville, too Mark Twain and too Norman Rockwell to be believed. And then you realize that this isn’t Disney at work--that this is for real; the town hasn’t been dreamed-up or recreated--it has been maintained over the centuries as the historical treasure it is. Nowhere in the United States are there so many houses like these straight from the 18th and 19th centuries--more than 600 of them. Historian A.B.C. Whipple put it this way: “Williamsburg, Virginia can show you what America’s past must have been like; Nantucket shows you what it actually was.”
The oldest dwelling on the island is generally conceded to be the Jethro Coffin House built around 1686 by pioneer Tristam Coffin for his grandson. Nantucket, “The Faraway Land” to Indians, was discovered in 1602 by one Bartholomew Gosnold, and the first white settler on the island in 1659 was Thomas Macy, progenitor of the department store clan. (Another distinguished, and much later, Nantucketer was Benjamin Franklin’s mother.)
To describe this anachronistic hamlet I promise not to use the cliches “quaint, colorful, and charming,” but it’ll be difficult, because everywhere there are picture post card scenes: cobbled streets lined with rows of gray and white shingled houses, often rose-smothered, a white lighthouse in front of a skiff with red sails, even a huge windmill, built in 1746, its arms still turning slowly in the wind. Down on the bustling wharves are boats of every size and hue and origin. More than a century and a half ago the world’s mightiest whaling fleet jammed the harbor, and the dozens of shops do not let you forget that Nantucket’s fame came from the sperm-oil trade. The whale motif is everywhere, from gift reproductions of harpoons to walrus-tusk carvings of whales to the scrimshaw disks atop the chic and greatly coveted “lightship purses.”
First made over a century ago by lonely lightkeepers to help pass the time, these tightly woven baskets of Javanese cane are now decorated on top with ivory carvings or nautical scrimshaw scenes and sell sometimes for more than $1,000. They bear little resemblance to the original open-topped original baskets. Jose Formoso Reyes arrived in Nantucket in 1945 from the Philippines looking for a job teaching Spanish and instead turned to basket-making. He designed a top for the basket and showed it to a maker of ship models, Charles Sayle, whose wife suggested the idea that launched a million baskets: “Why not put a little ivory whale on top?”
Now the lightship basket has become a hallmark of chic around the world. Once on the far-off island of Moorea, a Tahitian native spotted my wife’s basket and exclaimed in happy recognition: “Ah, Nantucket!” (only she pronounced it “naw-too-kay”). Also sold here are excellent copies of the basket made in the Orient that sell for about $125, but Nantucketers say you can spot the phonies. For one thing, the genuine article doesn’t have leather hinges.
Nantucketers are fiercely proud of their baskets, their cobbled streets, their pristine houses, the old White Elephant Hotel, their unsullied vistas, their white beaches with the unusually warm water, their unbelievably pure air, their heritage, and their island. They glorify the past and are fearful of the present. “Change” is a dirty word, a mainland word, an “off-island” word. They are ever vigilant and mindful that tourism is the main industry and that what draws people to the island is its changelessness. A great part of the allure lies in the island’s 5,500 or so dwellings, from ancient fishermen’s shacks to the rows of Quaker houses to austere Greek revival buildings. One cannot even change the color of one’s house, much less alter the structure, without a permit. An organization called the Nantucket Conservation Foundation has purchased large sections of the island with the intention of preserving it in its natural state; the foundation is comprised of land donated by public-spirited and, generally, wealthy individuals. Approximately 25% of the island is now in the “Conservation.”
Those who watch over the interests of Nantucket must constantly remind themselves that the very qualities that attract the visitor are endangered by the visitor. Three years ago the town established a land bank into which goes property purchased by a 2% assessment on the buyer of any house or parcel of land on Nantucket. The land bank now holds about 8% of the island. Nantucket’s selectmen and the voters of the 3,500 plus permanent population work diligently to keep away such mainland blandishments as parking meters, elevators, campers, and neon signs.
One old Nantucketer shook his head and remarked disdainfully of Nantucket’s arch rival, Martha’s Vineyard: “I hear tell they even got stoplights over there now!”
One of the reasons for Nantucket’s physical uniqueness is a result of the depression that the island experienced after the discovery of kerosene in 1838. This petroleum derivative soon replaced costly whale oil for lighting the lamps of the world. On top of that, there occurred the Great Fire of 1846 which eliminated a third of the town and vast stores of whale oil. Then came the California gold strike, and many whalers and their ships stopped off in San Francisco, never to return. The Civil War also took away able-bodied men--some for good.
In its economically depressed state, the island never got into the swing of the Victorian building craze, and so islanders rarely destroyed old homes in favor of new gingerbread ones so in vogue on the mainland. Instead, residents maintained their saltboxes with their characteristic widow’s walks, many of which go back to the 1700s.
“We’re putting you in the new wing,” said my host in the India Street house. The “new” wing was built in 1840. A couple of blocks away on Main Street three other “new” houses rose in 1836 and are the pride of the town. Known as The Three Bricks, they were built by Joseph Starbuck, who made millions with his whaling ships and spent the then-astronomical sum of $54,000 for all three mansions. Carolyn Amory, who lives most of the year in Santa Barbara and owns one of The Bricks, gave us a tour of its elegant rooms full of the best of Nantucket’s antique furniture, marine paintings and historic scrimshaw. Like so many Nantucket town homes without front yards, it has a surprisingly large and beautiful garden in back.
The Bricks are at the top of Main Street and walking down that inclined cobbled thoroughfare is one of the musts of the “trippers,” as the Nantucketers refer to the tourists. The ancient, worn-brick sidewalks with their erratic convexities, dips, and swells are trod by hundreds of off-islanders daily during Nantucket’s June till Labor Day season. Mitchell’s little book store is the first stop for maps and books about the island and then follow the many stores featuring antiques, handmade woolen garments, nautical gifts, scrimshaw, jewelry, weather vanes, T-shirts and art galleries. Much of the art looks as though it had been done by a spastic Leroy Nieman, but there are a few good local artists. One of the best is Kenneth Layman, who sells his landscapes for around $5,000, but keeps his night-time job as a bartender at The Straight Wharf, one of the islands spiffier restaurants.
Restored by S&H; Green Stamp mogul Walter Beinecke, the wharf area is a tourist mecca not only for the constant fancy yacht show but for its attractive shops and restaurants. John Stobart, a celebrated marine painter, maintains a studio at the end of The Straight Wharf in which numbered prints of his $50,000 paintings of Nantucket’s golden era sell steadily at $300 and up.
Near the wharf is a fascinating building dedicated to the history of whaling in Nantucket, first practiced by the Algonquin Indians. The museum is not to be missed, especially if one can time a visit to catch the learned Adam Craig’s periodic lecture on the incredible saga of a whaler’s life.
After my visit to the museum, like most Nantucketers and “trippers”, I stopped nearby at the Juice Bar for their famous ice cream, and another Nantucket reality asserted itself. “Ninety cents for the cone,” the girl informed me pleasantly, “and with ice cream in it, two dollars extra.” Such is the price of Nantucket’s tourism industry.
There are few bargains on Nantucket. The islanders have a scant 3 1/2-month season to make virtually a year’s income before the summer visitors go “back to America,” leaving the shops and hotels to either close or tough it out until the following June.
It is then with all of “the foreigners” gone and the prices lowered accordingly, that the Nantucketer really enjoys his beautiful island, the deer, the rare flora, the cranberry fields, the 55 miles of pristine beaches, the lazy sailboating, the peace of the elegant hamlet of Sconset at the end of the island, the scalloping, and the bluefishing.
The catching of bluefish appears to be the main avocation of the Nantucketer, along with sailing and tennis at the club or golf on the three courses. Fishermen go out nearly every afternoon to Great Point or Smith’s Point, next to dozens of other enthusiasts from all walks of life and cast far out beyond the surf, out toward Portugal 3,000 miles away. They catch scrappy 10- to 15-pound blues, a pugnacious and tasty fish that many surfeited islanders throw back or exchange for lobster at the local market.
Residents of the island are fighting progress hard. In November, 1988 the voted to turn down a proposal to inaugurate a high-speed catamaran service between the island and the mainland, which was calculated to bring even more visitors. How long can Nantucket continue to boast that it is “50 years behind the times”?
Not long, opine many dour Nantucketers. One gentleman, a retired executive of a Fortune 400 corporation and longtime summer resident, grumbles: “In the past five years the island has experienced a land rush more intense than any on Martha’s Vineyard or in Newport or any of those other blue chip resorts. And in spite of our strict codes, builders are somehow worming their way in here. Have you seen those terrible new condos going in? Interval ownership and condos--that’s what we hate and fear the most. That and drugs. Our island is a perfect place to make drug drops by boats and they were pretty rampant here for a while. But the FBI infiltrated the gangs and last year they made a huge bust and hopefully slowed ‘em down plenty.”
As he took down his trusty old fishing rod from the rack and prepared to go out to the beach after blues, he shook his head sadly. “You shoulda been here in the old days.” But to newcomers like me, Nantucket--all of it--still is--well--oh, to heck with promises--Nantucket is charming ! quaint ! and colorful !
Information for hotels can be obtained by writing to: Nantucket Lodging Assn., P.O. Box 52, Nantucket, Mass. 02554.