Nantucket Places & People
'Sconset's Sanguine Genius
by Frances Kartunen
Nantucket’s one state road, better known as Milestone Road, runs almost straight east from the traffic rotary at the end of Orange Street to another rotary in the heart of the village of Siasconset.
Upon arrival there are three alternatives. One can proceed around the rotary and go on downhill under the wooden footbridge to the beachside neighborhood known as Codfish Park. One can turn left into the old village that lies to the north of the rotary. Or one can turn right into a relatively newer part of ’Sconset.
“Relative” is the operative word. The south side is old, but the north side is older. The diminutive houses along Broadway, Shell Street, and Center Street are ancient by American standards. The core of the one named Auld Lang Syne is thought to have been built in the 1670s and to predate Nantucket’s “Oldest House,” the Jethro Coffin house that was built for a couple who were married in 1686.
Other small houses in the old village bear dates ranging through the 1700s to the early 1800s. This was ’Sconset as it was until the 1870s—a former whaling station that had evolved into a very modest summer retreat. After the delivery of Nantucket’s first dory to carpenter-turned-fisherman Asa Jones in 1857, the summering place up on top of the bank shared space with a sort of pre-industrial park for processing codfish below the bank. The healthful breezes coming in from the Atlantic picked up the smell of desiccating codfish and wafted it up to the village’s first tourist hotel, but no one seemed to mind. The beached dories, the rudimentary fish houses that resembled tobacco-drying barns, and the fish carts that rolled over the sand on old barrels instead of wheels all charmed the people who more or less camped in ’Sconset during the summer.
And then came the great change. A newspaper article of 1888 described the rapid development of ’Sconset since 1877. While lamenting the inflation of summer rents and the selling price of old fishermen’s cottages, the writer extolled the fact that there were now two grocery stores in the village, a post office with a highly competent postmistress, telephone service, and a telegraph office to connect ’Sconset with the mainland, daily visits of two butchers, and daily ice delivery. No longer did people spending the summer in ’Sconset have to rely on the services of Captain Baxter to haul their supplies out to them. Moreover, a dozen wells had been dug to supplement the water ’Sconseters drew from the village pump, and by 1888, with coal readily available, the burning of peat in ’Sconset grates was no longer “thought of.” Most wondrous of all was the 1884 extension of Nantucket’s railroad to ’Sconset (a service that continued for thirty-three years).
And who was behind this transformation? A man named Edward Underhill, who was described in the newspaper article as “that sanguine genius who thought he foresaw a prosperous future for Sconset and acted on his convictions.” Born in Wolcott, New York, in 1830, Underhill had been a war correspondent for the New York Times during the Civil War and remained a prolific writer all his life. After the war he first invested in an upstate New York vineyard and then sold it off to raise $20,000 to invest in ’Sconset.
There he bought land and set about building cottages to rent to summer visitors. Underhill’s cottages were completely furnished right down to bed linens and cooking utensils, and he provided baby cribs upon request. (His jocular advertising reminded the renters that they themselves would have to provide the baby.) Underhill even had a mobile spare room that he could wheel up to a cottage in case of overflow guests.
The wonder of the cottages that Underhill built to the south of the old village is that they are so harmonious with the much older ones to the north. Like so many visitors to ’Sconset, he was utterly charmed with the old buildings, and he designed his new ones to the scale of the old, making diminutive size a feature in their favor and building in many idiosyncracies. He described the old houses as “All squatty, one-story affairs, no two alike,” and offered “Lots of new cottages built in the old style. Latch strings on doors. Quaint ornamentation.” Among the attractions of the ’Sconset cottages, both old and new: “Old ships’ sidelights set in front doors; pretty peep holes for those within. Gables set off with ships’ figureheads; carved stern-pieces, quarter boards, and wheels, all taken from wrecks; old oars and anchors; harpoons and lances; whales’ ribs, jawbones and pieces of backbone set up for outside decoration. Funny names for the houses.” Underhill’s cottages line three streets: Lily Street, named for his daughter; Evelyn Street, named for his wife; and Pochick Street, named for Pochick Rip, located off the ’Sconset shore.
During the summers Edward and Evelyn Underhill lived on-site in a cottage named the China Closet, where they displayed their enormous collection of dishes, teapots, and much more. According to a mainland article about Nantucket’s charms, “Lovers of old china and antique furniture can pick up rare treasures at ’Sconset. It is claimed that there are more than a thousand pieces of old crockery at the China Closet. Work of the famous potters, Minton, Wedgewood, Davenport, Copeland, etc., is displayed on shelves, with many specimens of pewter platters, plates, mugs, and porringers. The newest piece in the collection is fifty years old, and some of the articles date back two hundred years.”
Having built and furnished his cottages, Underhill threw himself into promotion. One of his brochures asked “What is there to do? Do nothing all day long, if you can, and you will be astonished how kindly you will take to this doing nothing. A bath in the surf, an extra nap, and three hearty meals a day take up considerable time. Or there is the quaint charm of a walk through the village streets, the very queerest streets in all America, grass-grown and with the houses of an architecture that must be seen to be fully appreciated.” He suggested a walk from the village to Sankaty Head lighthouse, a wander over the moors, a bicycle ride, a trip in to Nantucket town (so convenient by train), or a fishing trip: “A troll for blue-fish over the “rips” in a catboat flying before the wind will give you a sensation that will alone be worth your journey to experience.”
When Underhill died in 1898, he left thirty-six cottages in ’Sconset to Evelyn and Lily with the proviso that they were not to be sold, but to provide the women with income for the rest of their lives. Financial reverses and the stock market crash of 1929, followed by the Great Depression, wrecked Underwood’s plan. The cottages were sold off, after all, and eventually the china collection, too, went piecemeal in order to maintain Evelyn to the end of her long life in 1935.
The Underhill cottages endure, now well past a century old, cherished by their owners. Summer pleasures in ’Sconset these days are not so different from those advertised in Underhill’s brochures back when his cottages were new: a trip to the ’Sconset Market, a drop-in at the post office, perhaps a walk in the direction of Sankaty Head Light, and the opportunity to do a whole lot of nothing in particular.
The Nantucket Historical Association is presenting the exhibition 'Sconset 02564: A Celebration of the Patchwork Village in their Peter Foulger Gallery of the Nantucket Whaling Museum, 13 Broad Street. The exhibition features the history, architecture, personalities, and “character” of this village at the eastern end of Nantucket, following its evolution from a fishing village to a world-renowned summer resort. It will be open to the public till November 11.
Frances Karttunen’s books, The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars and Law and Disorder in Old Nantucket are available at Nantucket bookstores.