• by Julianne Adams •
It is fitting that Frances Ruley Karttunen has taken on the project of recording the history of Nantucket’s North Shore. A 12th-generation Nantucket native, Karttunen’s own history is wrapped up in the island’s. Her family reaches back to the English families who settled into Madaket Harbor in the mid 1600s. For the next three and a half centuries, her lineage traces through some of the most storied Nantucket families up into the modern age and her prolific historical career.
Over the past decade, following an impressive career in linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, Karttunen has been recording the history of Nantucket. As Karttunen says, “I have been dedicating myself to telling Nantucketers and visitors unfamiliar stories about the island or, when I tell an oft-told story, I have sought to approach it from a new perspective.” Her previous books, like The Other Islanders (2005), Law and Disorder in Old Nantucket (2007), Moses Tapped the Washing Pond (2012), look at aspects of the island less often seen. In her series Nantucket Places and People (2007-2010), Karttunen takes the reader on a guided tour of various points of the island, in town and beyond. In her delicious culinary memoir, Good Things from Nantucket’s North Shore (2011), Karttunen shares the story of her upbringing on the island and how food played a significant role in her Finnish-American home.
This work, helped inspire her current release, Nantucket’s North Shore: A Neighborhood History, which Karttunen has actually been thinking about for many years. “I inherited a collection of old Nantucket recipes in 1994 and felt I should do something with them.” For Karttunen, writing about the North Shore was a logical choice. “The Nantucket Historical Association was holding neighborhood games to acquaint people who had recently acquired property to learn about the history of their neighborhoods. We didn’t do one for the North Shore, but it gave me the idea to write a book-length neighborhood history.” As a North Shore native, Karttunen looked no further than her own neighborhood. “I couldn’t write a book like this about any other part of Nantucket but this part where I grew up.”
Karttunen’s kinship with the North Shore helps mold Nantucket’s North Shore into a heartfelt history. As it moves through the centuries, North Shore reads like the family story, which in many ways it is for Karttunen. “What this project has done,” she writes, “is to give me the opportunity to explore memories of mine that were just on the edge of my consciousness, to check them with somewhat older people like my cousins and North Shore neighbors, and establish firmer foundations for them.”
The book goes beyond recent memories, back to the beginning of Karttunen’s island ancestry. Beginning with the 1669 arrival of English settlers in Madaket Harbor, North Shore details the surprisingly complex and rich development of the northern part of the island. Conveniently for Karttunen and her book, the settlers and their descendents moved east in a linear fashion. In 10 chapters over 144 pages, Karttunen follows the men and women of Nantucket from Eel point, past Sunset Hill and Lily Pond to end on the north side of Cliff Road.
Over the pages, Karttunen retraces the development of the island, known as Sherburne until 1975, into a community. Each chapter looks at a particular section of the North Shore from its beginnings settlements to the 21st century. Karttunen’s thorough details bring us right into the past. We learn how the names of roads, homes and ponds came to be. For example, in the 1700s, Wyer’s Pond, named after nearby resident Nathanial Wyer, became what we know as Maxcy’s Pond.
At the heart of Karttunen’s book are people like Nathanial Wyer, who shaped the island in ways small and large. From the Brooks family, whose farm delivered milk to North Shore residents through the mid-1900s, to whaling captain Richard Gardner III, whose 1722 house on West Chester Street is preserved to this day.
Physicians, whalers, government employees, innkeepers, artists and more, including the wealthy, influential North Shore residents called “nabobs,” all make up part of Karttunen’s historical journey.
Along the way, there were a few surprises for the knowledgeable historian. When asked what she did not expect to discover, Karttunen mentioned a past moment with ongoing effects. “[I]t was artist Eastman Johnson who first tampered with Sachem Spring so that it ceased to flow from one spot and broke out all along a section of the Cliff, causing slumps that go on to this very day despite efforts to rectify the situation.”
To capture the lives, work and mishaps like those of Eastman Johsnon of these Nantucket residents, Karttunen weaves together historical facts, anecdotes, letters, newspaper archives, photos and recipes. Most of the over 200 photos were carefully selected from Nantucket Historical Association’s image archive. The photos show Nantucket residents at work and play. One riveting set taken in 1915 from the roof on the Jethro Coffin House sweeps over a baseball game and its onlooking crowd, which includes a man with a horse-drawn carriage. The lovely 19th and 20th century portraits of people and homes, as well as maps documenting the island changes, are accompanied with personal photographs from Karttunen as well as over a dozen new photographs. Taken by active Nantucket resident Allen Reinhard, the photos provide a fresh lens to the historical images.
The recipes collected throughout the book compliment the photographs and the areas that they capture. Alongside a picture of a 1880s clambake are instructions for a traditional clambake and recipes for ‘Mock Cherry Pie’ and ‘Cranberry Jelly.’ These three and many of the 27 others are adapted from Esther Gibbs, the beloved aunt of Karttunen. For more than two decades, Gibbs ran the North Shore Restaurant, where served up American and Swedish dishes (Gibb’s mother was Swedish). Karttunen writes that Gibbs, to whom she has dedicated some of her previous work, “styled herself the Town Mother.”
Karttunen uses the recipes from her aunt and others to delve deeper into local history. The recipes she uses “are bits of history,” she explains. “For the most part they don’t work with what we have on hand today. The corn pudding just turns out a runny mess with today’s super sweet, juicy corn. In its time it was made with much starchier yellow corn. Candy made from flag root is mildly toxic. I don’t recommend it. The old recipe I love, just for all its associations, is Dr. Folger’s Mother’s Nantucket Indian Pudding.”
Like the portraits and detailed stories, the recipes create a personal connection to a different time. When reading over the 1870 recipe for Egg Gruel, or reading Alice Albertson’s 1921 words on boys selling flag root candy in the street, Karttunen inspires an intimacy with the reader and Nantucket. After finishing Nantucket’s North Shore, it is hard not to walk away with a deeper appreciation for the many people and places that have made the island what it is.
As a further nod to the community that she chronicles, Karttunen has turned to Kickstarter to help fund this passion project. Contributors will help Karttunen see through the printing of her book, which is being published by Spinner Publications.
The aim, too, of Nantucket’s North Shore is to remember and celebrate the history of the island. On the cover of the book is a photo of the Nathaniel Paddack House. Karttunen writes, “The Nathaniel Paddack House stood up on Sunset for a couple of hundred years. It was there when my mother and her brothers and sisters were children. They must have played there. When it was torn down in 1927, everyone apparently forgot it overnight. Nobody, not even my mother, ever mentioned it. Only several photos and a painting remained. I am happy to bring it back into public memory.” Karttunen hopes her book will inspire residents to discover, appreciate and hold on to local memories that are so easily lost.
Through donations, accepted until June 17, readers can become a part of this effort and help develop a new history of cultural preservation. Nantucket’s North Shore will be released on Thursday June 19. At a book launch that evening from 5-7 pm in the Nantucket Hotel and Resort, Karttunen will sign books and talk history.