Walter Sangree

NARRATOR: Walter Sangree

INTERVIEWER: Mollie Glazer

PLACE: 65 Meadow View Drive, Nantucket, Massachusetts

DATE: October 4, 2000


GLAZER: This is an interview with Walter Sangree. This interview is being conducted on October fourth at Walter's home, which is 65 Meadow View Drive. The interviewer is Mollie Glazer representing the Nantucket Historical Association, Nantucket, Massachusetts, and this is the year 2000. Okay, hello, Walter.

SANGREE: How are you?

GLAZER: I'm very well, and you?

SANGREE: Very well, thank you.

GLAZER: So we'll start with just some biographical information. You were born on what day and where.

SANGREE: Fifteenth of June, 1926 in New York City.

GLAZER: Okay. And, you know, I don't think we have to go through this--your parents' name, etc. I still have all this written down. What I'm interested in is, when did you first come to Nantucket?

SANGREE: I believe it was when I was four. It might have been five. It was either 1930 or 1931. And I have a kind of vivid memory. I was old enough so I've heard about a boat that it turned over--Chicago. I think it must have been 1931. A ferry boat where everybody had gone to one side to wave goodbye, and it capsized the boat. And as we pulled away from the dock at New Bedford, I rushed over to the other side, because everybody else was by the ____. And they said, "Don't you want to come and see it?" I said, "No, I think it's better if I stay over here." Later on I explained it to my parents, who were quite amused. But I was old enough to have heard other people telling me about this terrible tragedy and taking it rather seriously, maybe seeing pictures of it in the tabloid somewhere.

GLAZER: So what was Nantucket-- What do you remember about Nantucket in 1930-31?

SANGREE: Well, it-- You know, we lived at that point in what's now the Henchman House at 7 Milk Street.

GLAZER: Was that a rental house, or did your parents own it?

SANGREE: No, it was my grandmother-- Well, my great grandmother owned it, and she had bequeathed it to her children to use as long as they so wished before it was turned to ____ Mitchell. And this was during the bequeathment period [Laughter] when they were-- Like at that point she was still alive, too, for that matter. But they would use it. There were five children, and they could work out who would use it when during the summer. So at least a month or maybe six weeks of those-- I think it was 1931 and then 1932, maybe 1933 also. We used it for what seemed like all summer to me. We came up from Philadelphia in slow stages, I mean first by car to New York. And then on the first year or the first two years, I guess it was, we took the overnight steamer from New York City to New Bedford. And then they cancelled that one, and the third year, I guess it was--must have been about '35 or '36, we came up Fall River, by the Fall River line. It's an overnight thing, you know. And then we had a limousine that would take us from Fall River into Nantucket. I mean, it was hired, you know, to take us from Fall River to New Bedford. And then we got the New Bedford boat and it was a $5 ride to get to Nantucket.

GLAZER: Wow!

SANGREE: So the boat ride was always quite a memorable thing, both going and coming back. But then I just remember very well walking from seven Milk Street around that monument in downtown, usually with my grandmother.

GLAZER: The monument-- You're talking about the Civil War monument?

SANGREE: Yes. And the town looked much the same. I mean, you know, our whole area looked much the same, except it was kind of more informal. [Chuckle] I mean, the houses were just as big, but I think they were not as spruced up. And there was also a local store there where I think there's still a ____ store on the corner of Milk Street. That was actually run as a kind of a small corner store. And then behind it you had Weldon The Plumber, and he or his forbearer was still there. And then somewhere just on Main Street there was a little ice cream parlor just-- I don't know, just as you go down from that corner monument on the left hand side. And I think it was only there a year or two, and then it sort of went--became extinct. But I have a very strong memory of it--stopping in there to get a--

GLAZER: With your family you went there?

SANGREE: With my grandmother, usually, and my sister sometime. And, you know, we walked down. Then we'd take the bus from in front of--well, there in front of what the town building is now. It wasn't then. I don't know what it was at that point. But the bus was there, and we would take it to the--one of the bathing beaches--either the jetties or the cliff side, depending on which one was ____ using that year. And we'd go swimming, you see. And then we'd come back. And then we'd walk back from there to Milk Street. And that would take care of, you know, a good deal of the day. [Chuckle]

GLAZER: Did the town of Nantucket have shuttle buses from Main Street to the seaside?

SANGREE: It had a big buss, yes, with a shaky roof that went up and down and would go [makes sound]. And it was a huge bus, and I think it was a bus that sort of retired the Schoosett[sp?]. They also had a bus to Schoosett, you know. And those are the two big bus lines. But, I mean, the Schoosett line was the big bus line--Keys.

GLAZER: Do you remember what you had to pay?

SANGREE: No, no, I don't remember. You know, it was something like five cents. I mean, it was heavy duty!

GLAZER: Keys was the name of the bus line?

SANGREE: Yes, but you see the point is, I may be-- I think they run both the one to Schoosett and this one to the beach--I believe, but I'm not sure. And the garage was right there on the corner where the Dodge shop is now.

GLAZER: Okay. The Dodge shop on Main Street?

SANGREE: Well, no, it's not on Main Street. It's on the corner of--oh, what's the street that comes out from the steamboat wharf and Union?

GLAZER: Oh, by the A&P?

SANGREE: No, no, no, no. The one that comes out from the steamboat wharf.

GLAZER: Easy Street?

SANGREE: No! Comes straight up Broad Street--corner of Broad and what is it--Union Street--the bottom street there below Federal? The one that's between Easy and-- Yeah, I think it's Union Street. Well, we all just use these streets without noticing the names.

GLAZER: Yes, I don't know the names. Well, tell me more about your family that would come with you, like-- It was your great grandmother's house. Was she living when you were--when you first came?

SANGREE: She died in 1936, so she was very much alive. But she wouldn't come to the island anymore. She felt too ill, and she felt it was a long and dangerous journey. You know, she left here after the Civil War--1867, I guess it was, to marry--well, first of all to go to teach school at Germantown Friends. And I think she did that earlier, about 1866. But she found a gentleman that she liked down there, a quaker, and so she became engaged to him and came back to the island in-- I guess it was 1867. These dates can all be checked out they're all written up in these very biographical sketches that she wrote. And then--

GLAZER: What was her name?

SANGREE: Lydia. Lydia Henchman--Lydia Mitchell, and she married a man named Henchman.

GLAZER: And so she was born here on the island?

SANGREE: Mmm hmmm--1845.

GLAZER: And she left around--after the Civil War?

SANGREE: Right.

GLAZER: I wonder what the Civil War was like for Nantucketers.

SANGREE: Well, I don't think there was any active fighting here, but I think there were quite a number of people who were involved. The Quaker community was somewhat split about it, because they were abolitionists and they were also pacifists.

GLAZER: Well, let's come back to the Quaker thing. I want to come back to that later. What did your great grandmother give you? What do you remember about her? Did she impart wisdom to you, or what do you remember about her?

SANGREE: [Chuckle] Well, she was a formidable old lady. I mean, she was a matriarch--a real-- She had lived in a big house on Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. We'd go there for major holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving and perhaps Easter. And various members of-- Her children would come down--sort of come in. They lived in Massachusetts and New York, and my grandmother lived there outside of Philadelphia in Bryn Mawr. But they'd all sort of gather. There were five children, and certainly four of them would-- One of them lived with her, my Aunt Peggy, so she didn't have to gather. She just simply did all the work taking--running these holidays. But Great Grandmother was just a sort of a great presence! I mean, she came down from the second floor in her own elevator, you know, and she walked along with one cane and then later on two canes. And she had a companion at that point, a Miss Bailey, who, you know, was sort of--would get the sugar for the tea and thinks like that.
And-- Well, what can you say? I mean, we knew that she had lots of wisdom, and she wrote these books about the family. And you could read the books if you didn't believe it. And she would like-- You know, she would likes all sit down, have tea, and we'd have these Japanese rice wafers for--as part of the tea adornment. And you had to do things more or less the right way. And your grandmother and your mother were there monitoring you. And there was this piano that she had in her living room. And she had a screen in front of it. And when the right kinds of--wrong kind of Quakers who would be troubled, she'd put the piano behind the screen. Otherwise the piano was out where people could see it. This was not considered hypocrisy, but it was simply a way of avoiding unpleasantness and upsetting people who might feel that a piano is something that Quakers shouldn't have. And it was a player piano, in case you couldn't play it yourself! [Laughter] You just put in a roll and let it go. And we kids thought it was wonderful. And she used to sort of set limits on how much we could play that piano, because she didn't like the noise too much.

GLAZER: How many generations was she a Quaker--before her?

SANGREE: Before her? Well, you know, it depends upon who you're tracing from. I mean, the Mitchells, I don't really know exactly when they came in there. But they were sort of second generation. They weren't the first--original settlers. They came in very early, though, from somewhere. I'm not sure where, but you could read about it in her book! [Laughter]

GLAZER: I think we need to read that book! What is the name of that book?

SANGREE: Well, I mean, there are a number of books that she wrote. One of them was called Early Settlers in Nantucket, which would lay it all out. But--

GLAZER: I'm going to pause here. [Pause in tape]

SANGREE: Great Grandmother was Myra Mitchell's first cousin, and Myra Mitchell was a big factor in her life. I mean, she was of course much older. She was almost a generation older than Great Grandmother, but she remembers her very well in her childhood. And she was a kind of a special eminence--intellectual and moral eminence in her own life. And her uncle, of course, was Mariah Saylor[sp?]. And her father, of course, was Mariah's father's younger brother. And he sold his house there, which is now known as the birth--not the birth right, but the birth place. He sold that to my great-great grandfather--to his younger brother. And my great grandmother was born in that house and grew up in that house. And then when her mother died, which was just after the turn of the century-- And of course by that time Great Grandmother was living in Philadelphia for forty years. The house went to her, and then she and some other people that were--had know Mariah Mitchell, especially from her alumnae at Vassar, started the Association. And the house was bequeathed to the Association and, you know, the little observatory was made. And then later on the library and so on.

GLAZER: That's very interesting!

SANGREE: And she bought the house that's now the Henchman House simply so that her family would have a place to stay, still, once the--you know, once the birth place was turned over to ____ Association.

GLAZER: So what about your grandmother? What was her name?

SANGREE: Her name was Mary Levoido[sp?]--Mary Henchman Levoido. And she married a man from--originally from Cincinnati who was living in Philadelphia. And so she lived in Philadelphia her whole life, quite close to her mother. Her mother lived partly at Haverford, and then later on out in Philadelphia proper--Chestnut Street. She was one of those who was tossed out of the Friends for marrying outside of-- She didn't marry a Quaker. She married an Episcopalian. And one of the stuffy elders in the Philadelphia yearly meeting said, "I think thee must go." And so she was disowned, read out of meeting. And many, many years later, when the meeting had become you might say more enlightened, they asked her whether she would like to reapply. She said, "Well, I never left," and let it go at that. She felt there was no need for her to reapply. She went to meeting when she felt like it, but she was not an active elder or anything thereafter.

GLAZER: And was it your mother that was her daughter?

SANGREE: Yes.

GLAZER: Was she brought up a Quaker?

SANGREE: No, she was brought up really an Episcopalian with ____ Quaker ____. I mean, she was-- My grandfather was a very-- Well, what do you want to call it--twice-a-year Episcopalian. And she was baptized, but she-- And she went to Quaker meetings some. But I-- You know, they always used the plain language. I mean, my grandmother did. My mother didn't.

GLAZER: What does that mean, the plain language?

SANGREE: Well, "Is thee ready now? Has thee anymore questions?" And they don't use it in a way which is accord with our notions of grammar. They don't--didn't say "thou art," they say "thee is." And I think there's a variation from one Quaker community to another on just how they did it. But the Philadelphia Quakers--certainly my family all did it one way. And the siblings there all used it. My great grandmother used it. I don't know whether she used it when her husband was--she was living with her husband, because he died in 1912, before I was born, and I never met my grandfather Levoido. But she certainly was using it with all her siblings. With me she wouldn't. Sometimes she would, but usually not, because my mother didn't use it. My mother had married several times, but that was-- Well, she married-- But she'd always marry out of meeting until-- Well, actually her third marriage, she married back into meeting again. But at that point the-- Thomas ____-- Well, he was a convinced Friend, and he didn't use the plain language.

GLAZER: What does that mean, "convinced Friend"? Is that what you said?

SANGREE: He became a member of his own volition, rather than having been a member by true birth.

GLAZER: I see.

SANGREE: He became convinced he wanted to be a Friend, and he was accepted. And that's the term they usually use in the Friends.

GLAZER: And he-- So, what about your mother's relationship to Nantucket?

SANGREE: My mother had a very strong identification with Nantucket through her mother and through her grandmother. She chose to come here in the summer and use this place with her mother. Later on, in 1940 she bought the old Ramsel[sp?] farm out in the Warren's Landing Road and moved us all out there in the summer. And we spent the summer ____ as teenagers and preteens helping build the summer houses out there and rebuild the old house. And so we were very much in-- A couple of years out, just before the war, when my stepfather at that point, Mr. Butler-- He died later on, then she remarried. He died in 1938. No, he died in '36; she remarried in '38. But anyhow, for '34, '35, '36--at least '35 and '36--we were going to New Jersey rather than coming to Nantucket in the summer because he couldn't really make this trip up from Philadelphia. And he had his own business, and he had to admit he didn't see much of his family during the summer.
So, with the exception of those two years though, my mother managed to come up here virtually every summer for at least a month, and sometimes for three months. And she painted, and she liked the light and all those sorts of things, and the whole kind of artistic community. I mean, she knew-- There was a circle of painters at that point, of which she was one. And it was a place that she could-- She had a lot of children. She had eight children by that time--well, by the--not right away. By 1942 she had eight children. And it was a place that she could more or less have us roam around without worrying too much about what happened, once we learned how to swim. And she made sure we did that very early in our lives.
It was a much more benign area even than it is now in terms of dangers to children. The traffic wasn't as thick, and-- Oh, there were a little-- You know, there was a fast crowd at the yacht club, and I remember my sister-- She found out one time that somebody hit my sister with--a group that my sister was in contact with in her early teens--not my sister, but some of the others had-- Some guy had charted a sea plane and was going down to New York for cocktails and come back. At that point she read us the riot act and said, "You can either join the yacht club or have a sail boat, but you can't have both. And we all chose a sail boat. [Chuckle] So she managed to pull a veil down over the temptations of the yacht club and the extravagances of the yacht club. We all had summer jobs in the summer, and we-- You know, this isn't hard to get to do here. And she was much into making sure we didn't lounge around too much. And each of my brothers and my sister all have various jobs. I could start to name them off, but--

GLAZER: Actually--not for the tape, but when we're done I want to write down, if I could, the names of your siblings. Was your mother part of the Quaker community here, or was there a Quaker community here?

SANGREE: Well, there wasn't. And actually my stepfather and mother helped resuscitate it. I think it was in 1938, but I'm not really sure. I mean, I could check it out, because Bob Leach has documented all these, and he was here. But my stepfather, who was a Quaker, and my mother was at that point was-- Later on she reverted to an Anglican. [Chuckle] But at that point she was very much involved with the Friends meeting in ____ outside of Philadelphia and also he was.

GLAZER: And that was Thomas Drake you're talking about?

SANGREE: Yes. And they opened-- Either in '38 or '39 they reopened the meeting house and started holding it where it where it's now being held or usually being held.

GLAZER: And how did they do that?

SANGREE: Well, I have no idea what the mechanics were, but they went and saw the right people and got permission to go in there and do it. And he knew about the Quaker connection and where the meetings were held, and--off island. I forget whether it was New Bedford or--anyhow, one of the off-island meetings. And he-- You know, he went through proper Quaker channels and became recognized as an indulged meeting. I forget whose-- I really don't know whose care it was under--whether it was under New Bedford Yearly Meeting or New England Yearly Meeting and New Bedford Monthly Meeting, I'm not sure. But he worked something out where he was--they were officially-- We were officially recognized as a temporary sort of extension of one of the regular monthly meetings. And we didn't have a formal status of our own. We still don't, for that matter. But-- So I guess you could say he was--he and my mother were the co-resuscitators of the Quaker meeting here.

GLAZER: Did you go regularly as a child and with all your siblings?

SANGREE: Oh, yes. We went regularly into town. You know, very soon the war started in 1941. And we lived out at Madaket, and you had to sort of come in with, you know, rationed gas and buying everything with that trip to town. And we'd stop off at the dump. And we had a Filipino cook, an ex-Navy cook, who sort of would cook for the 14 of us out there. And he had to go to mass. And so we would come in on the station wagon. It was totally, completely full of children and people and would have trash on the tailgate [Laughter] and all in our sort of Sunday--not best, but at least a little bit washed and in order. And so, yes, we did go to meetings. And before that, of course, it was easier--for '39 and '38 still--the first--the very beginning when there wasn't any war yet.
Actually in '39 and '38 we hadn't moved out to Madaket. We were still living in town. It was at--staying at Milk Street, and then part of the summer renting later--first of all--usually, in fact always, India House, you know, which is now an inn, but it was just about big enough for our family. And so one month we'd get that. Another month we'd get ____ Milk Street. And the month we were in India House somebody else in the family, one of my second cousins and all that, would be in the Henchman House at Seven Milk Street.
Then some time in there--'45, '46--the house went to ____ Mitchell. They didn't wait till all that generation died. And we bought this place out in Madaket.

GLAZER: The Warren's Landing ____?

SANGREE: Yeah. So we were living there, and the other members of the family just weren't using the place.

GLAZER: So, when you weren't here in the summer, where were you in the winter months ____?

SANGREE: Well, we lived in Philadelphia, or outside of Philadelphia--Bryn Mawr, next door to Haverford and where my stepfather was a professor of history--American and Quaker history. And so that's where we were during the academic year, and for him to work there. And he worked out here, too, but it was writing, you know--trying to write. [Chuckle]

GLAZER: Now, I know you told me some of this on the phone. When did you start to come back to Nantucket? So you graduated high school, you went to college. Were you still coming to Nantucket in the summers during those years?

SANGREE: College years-- Well, you know, there was the war. And I was drafted in 1945. I was drafted in 1944, and I was a conscientious objector. And actually-- I wasn't actually drafted until the beginning of '45, and I was in alternative service '45-'46, so I wasn't here. I was doing what they call ____ work instead of being in the Army.

GLAZER: Oh, excuse me. What does a "conscientious objector" mean?

SANGREE: It means you refuse to go in the military service for reasons of religious ____ and belief, I think was the way it was put. And it was a real dilemma for Quakers then as before, because--especially in the case of the second world war, where Quakers were--just as human beings and also as Quakers were absolutely appalled at Hitler and what he was doing. And so how do you stop this guy other than using his owns terms and methods. And some chose to go into the Army, and some chose to go into the noncombatant military service, and some chose to go into the alternative service, and some chose to do nothing and went to jail. But I chose--well, the alternative service which, you know, wasn't everything it should be, but it was something. And so that's the story in a nutshell. I mean, there's more to it than that, but....

GLAZER: And after college you-- ?

SANGREE: Well, let me say after college--after the war I went to college. I mean, I had one semester at college, I guess, before I was drafted. And so college came after the war. It came in '46-'47, I guess. Yeah, started in early--'47. And during that time I also did other things. I mean, I went to Finland one summer. The summer of '47, actually, I was in a work camp in--you know, doing reconstruction work in Finland, and '48-- Usually in college in the summer I wouldn't be here. I was doing one thing--either having a job-- I was working actually in '48 for a carpenter around Philadelphia. And it was '49 I went west with a woman who needed her car driven out there. And then I got a job in--____ and stuff like that, you know. But I would sort of drop in and see people here when I could. Actually in '44 I had a job with the Yerksa[sp?]. I was here in '44 before I was drafted. And, you know, he was very hard up for-- Well, I'd sail around, and I--

GLAZER: What's Yerksa?

SANGREE: Yerksa was the name of a man who had a--Sterling B. Yerksa--who had a boat livery. And he would rent out these big cat boats for parties or for people. Actually sometimes he took them--people to ____ if there was a strike or something like that--steamboats were not running. But, you know, I was one of the sailors--one of the captains. I mean one of the "captains" is too exhalant a term, but one of the skippers, I guess, is a better term.

GLAZER: I'm going to turn this thing off. [Change to Side B of Tape]

SANGREE: Yerksa was a-- You know, there was a kind of a-- What do you want to call it--home guard. People who were running around-- Yerksa had a power boat. I mean, he was very busy surveying the waters around here, because he knew them like the back of his hand, and seeing where the submarines were--if they were, and things like that. And he was too old to be in the military, and I was too young to be in the military. And those were the sorts of people who were on boats in those days--very nice for me.

GLAZER: Who else would you know on Nantucket during those years--in the forties?

SANGREE: Well, Carl Lindquist was a--was working for Erikson's _____, and we were sort of friendly rivals. [Chuckle] We got to know each other quite well at the water front. He was doing the same sort of thing. This happened a couple of years. It wasn't just when I was 18, it was a couple of years before. I think I started when I was 16--maybe 15, working for Yerksa. And who else?
Well, you know, one of the things is, a lot of the people I knew-- I didn't know many Islanders well. Carl was one who has to explain he wasn't born on Nantucket. His mother was in Falmouth, and they never forgave him--his peers. But he really was a Nantucketer otherwise and grew up here. Although he went off, you know, to boarding school. He was very much wedded to the place and knew everybody.
As for myself, I didn't really know a lot of the young Nantucket kids. I knew some of them, and I've recognized some as we've grown old together. But they sort of a recognition rather than people that I really knew well. [Having trouble with tape speed] Well, McGrath and his sister--older sister--were peers of me and my older sister. So, I mean, it isn't-- We didn't know some of the people who were born and raised here, but not too many. But there were also summer people that we knew. And I've kept track of some of them over the years, and some of them have drifted off. But I have this whole host of girlfriends, of course.

GLAZER: Oh, do tell! [Chuckle]

SANGREE: Most of them were--mostly were in Madaket. That seemed to be the ones that really were attracted to me were in ____ or ____. But anyway, the tremendous amount of energy spent--probably just as well--on biking from one end of the island to the other ____ times when I wasn't working at Yerksa's.
I think, by the way, that our mother kept us pretty much on line, making sure we had jobs that took up all of our time. [Laughter]

GLAZER: So you left Philadelphia and you went to Washington with the military ____ you went to work.

SANGREE: Well, once I finished college, I went to graduate school in Chicago. And then I got married, and Nantucket became just an occasional thing. I'd visit my mother and step father and be their guest.

GLAZER: And when did they come here ____?

SANGREE: Well, they were here every summer--just about every summer. My stepfather was a professor, and if he could get some time away from his job ____ come up here. And we would ____. [Several phrases or sentences are inaudible.] ____ away for a long time. In 1955 I came back from two years in Nigeria. [Transcriber can only catch an occasional word or phrase from this point.] And ____ something better than ____. You know, they had a lot of time, and they a lot of ____ too long. ____, I was a professor myself ____ gotten tenure at University of Rockefeller. ____, it would be nice to get away from the place so I could do my writing away from interruptions ____. I have two small children. ____ Nantucket. My wife is here. [Tape is inaudible from this point--#70 on counter from beginning of Side B. Recording goes to #172, but is extremely fast and inaudible.]