Nantucket Is Its Own World

~ by Rebecca Nimerfroh ~

Living on an island that was voted Top 10 in the world by National Geographic, boasting too many breathtaking sites to count, Nantucket Historical Association’s Gosnell Executive Director Bill Tramposch still finds his backyard to be one of his favorite places on island. Residing in a historic home in downtown Nantucket, Bill speaks of how he loves the duality in the seasons of this island: the summer months, the sight of families gathering in yards, the smell of barbeque in the air, and in the winter, that privilege of silence, of being able to walk nearly the entire length of Main Street and not see another soul. It seems fairly clear that this man who has served as Nantucket’s historical protector for the past ten years not only enjoys his adopted home here on island, but in fact deeply loves it, too.

This spring, Bill and wife Peggy celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary, their nuptials coincidentally held directly across the street from his Whaling Museum office in the Town Building in year 1976, officiated by Justice of the Peace Clark Coffin. Having only been on island once before as a child, Bill says, “I wanted to get married in a place where great voyages began. And it’s been a voyage ever since.”

When Bill and his new wife Peggy asked their Officiant to take a wedding photo, they did not account for the shake in his hands, and upon returning home, they found what resulted was a perfectly focused picture of their feet. For accommodations, they stayed at the White Elephant. “I’m not going to say it was like the Bates Motel, but it was a lot different than the White Elephant is today,” Bill laughs. For dinner they dined at the Jared Coffin House on the proceeds of an oddly specific check from Peggy’s father, made out for $47.50. “It was a quirky weekend but it was a great place to begin our marriage,” Bill says. Their trip was surely serendipitous, for it was exactly 30 years later, on the very day of their anniversary that Bill would begin his first day at Nantucket Historical Association.

Many experiences happened within those thirty years, of course, none of which the least bit dull. In the beginning years of Bill’s career, he served as a costumed blacksmith, working on a 19th Century Farm in Old Sturbridge Village. “I loved every minute of it, because it was teaching at its best,” Bill says. After three years, he left to join Colonial Williamsburg, to head a department that trained 500 interpreters, or “role players” in their setting of living history. Making a home there for ten years, and having children in the middle of this mock-historic era, Bill recalls with a smile, “My daughter’s first word was Oxen.”

But eventually it was time to move again, when Bill was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship, and the family moved to New Zealand, a country in which they would live for the next twelve years, half of that time Bill spent working in the development of a new national museum. “It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world,” Bill says, recalling their adopted country. “In many ways it bears a lot of resemblance to Nantucket.”

Bill remembers three times that his daughter had lost her wallet in the neighboring city, and in all three occasions she got a call from the person who found it, and in two out of three occasions the person returned it to their front door. It was such a peaceful country, in fact, that the police carried whistles instead of guns. “But what I was missing was New England,” Bill smiles. “Stone walls. Maple trees. I missed American Studies and American History.” Bill then chose to connect with a firm that would help in the search for a better suited position, and a year later, he finally got a call that would change his life, again. “I know this is a long way from New Zealand,” they said, presenting Bill with the opportunity at NHA. “But I have a good feeling about this job.” After Bill came to interview and fell in love with both the island and the organization, the rest, literally, is history.

“I wanted to work for an organization that had a really interesting story to tell, which ours is, and it’s not only a Nantucket story, it’s an American story,” Bill says, stating that when he came to Nantucket, he saw “a real number of opportunities” but what particularly sold him on the position most of all was his staff, a group of people he is even more impressed with now than the day he started. “This is a remarkable place,” he says, “and I think it has a lot to do with us being on an island.”

The Nantucket Historical Association is currently responsible for 21 historic island sites, the newest of which includes Greater Light, a property on Howard Street that once served as the summer home to two Quaker sisters from Philadelphia. Now beautifully and painstakingly restored, this building and its gardens are open to the public for tours, classes, and even yoga. This careful restoration is just one of the many fruits from the labor of Bill and his team, and Nantucket is very lucky to benefit from them.

I ask Bill how he feels about life on this small island. “One of the things [local author] Nat Philbrick said when I moved here is, ‘The longer you are here, the larger it gets,’ which at first sounds counterintuitive, but he’s absolutely right. It’s its own world.” It doesn’t take any encouragement from me for Bill to ooze admiration for the natural beauty of this island he now calls home. “Especially on a foggy night, you can practically feel the presence of the past. I love the fact that you can tell who is piloting the ferry at 6:30 in the morning by the way he blows the horn. I love the sounds of the birds. I really love the weather, especially how low the clouds sometimes are as they steam over the island.”

But more so than just beauty, Bill admires this island for its habit of serving as a sort of historical precursor for the rest of the world, especially in terms of diversity. “One of the major focuses of our last ten years has been on issues of diversity,” Bill says, “and making The Historical Association be a place to celebrate diversity, because throughout history, diversity was a trademark characteristic of this island. Not only diversity, but tolerance, which I think is extraordinary.”

These days, Bill keeps his focus on the role of museums in our society, and their importance to future generations. Mentioning that an eleven-yearold Ernest Hemingway once visited the Whaling Museum, and stared at the giant whale jaw that now adorns the building’s inside hall, Bill states, “This is Ernest Hemingway, a Midwesterner who later wrote The Old Man and The Sea. There’s something about museums that a friend of mine calls ‘Landmark Learning’,” Bill says. “It actually awakens your curiosity. I’ve watched it especially with the kids coming for our fourth grade sleepovers,” Bill says, referring to an over-night program called “Night Watch.” “At first they were a bit anxious, but now they’re actually pounding on the doors when it’s time with their sleeping bags under their arms.”

Bill believes in the ability of history to inspire, to connect with people who visit the Whaling Museum. “It’s not facts, it’s not dates, it’s feeling it in your heart, that people from the past experienced similar things that we experience today, and as a result we can learn a lot from it.”

From our meeting in his corner office adorned with many antiques, things may look a whole lot different from his time blacksmithing years ago at Old Sturbridge Village, but he still owns an anvil and has plans to return to the hobby soon. “My family calls it my midlife crisis,” Bill jokes. “Someday I’ll do it again.” In the meantime, Bill can be found working to preserve Nantucket’s history, and, often, when the day is done, getting in his kayak to explore this island by water. “It’s such an easy place to leave work and do something completely different,” he says. But it’s easy to see that in every scene Bill enjoys from that boat, or while sitting in his very own backyard, he encounters this island with an appreciation for the past, and an excitement for the future.