Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Vol 40, no. 2 (Summer 1992), p. 25-27
Summer Rituals: Wauwinet to Tuckernuck
By Diane Ucci
People who have lived or summered on Nantucket have spent their leisure time and celebrated holidays in various ways. Each area of the island has its distinct flavor, defined by its occupants and their lifestyles: a colony of actors in 'Sconset, children's parades in Wauwinet, sailing lessons at the Yacht Club, and quahoging off Tuckernuck. Participants in those summer rituals have considered their event the hub of activity Homespun on the island and seemed blissfully unaware of what was going on outside their own small enclave.
Barbara Osborne, now a year-round resident, has vivid memories of 'Sconset in the 1930s when her mother, Marguerite James Wangler, ran the Island Theatre during the summer and lived in the Actors' Colony. Barbara frequently helped backstage and knew many of the actors, including Broadway actress Patricia Collinge, who lived down the street from the Wanglers with her grandmother. The grandmother, dressed in black lace from head to toe and wearing buttoned boots, went for daily walks and Barbara accompanied her.
Marguerite Wangler was director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, and she teamed up with Robert Ross, director of the Beach Theatre in West Falmouth, to bring talented actors up from Broadway for performances on the Cape and Nantucket. Productions were also offered every Monday and Tuesday evening at the Nantucket Yacht Club, where Marguerite eventually had an office. By the late 1930s the theatre program began to wane because bringing talent to the island was so difficult, and Marguerite's work in Princeton required more of her energies. But while it was up and running it allowed the island community to partake of some first-class entertainment that even the mainland would envy. Actors such as Burgess Meredith, Percy Haswell (Mrs. George Fawcett), and Mary Sargent were among the talented performers in the Island Theatre productions. Ticket prices ranged from $.40 to $2.20, including tax.
Hamilton "Hammy" Heard remembers being in the children's summer theatre productions at the Nantucket Yacht Club in the late 1940s. Known as the "Nantucket Follies," they put on a revue called "On the Isle." Don Russell was usually the bandleader-director and parents helped with costumes and scenery. Hammy was always in the chorus, and he remembers his favorite number: Dick Gifford and Rayne Herzog singing an animated version of "Me and My Shadow."
Along with theatre, Hammy remembers taking sailing lessons from Toppy Lindsey, whose "hands-on" learning philosophy included telling his students "just get in the boat and follow me." And follow him Hammy did, with the result that at age twelve he was giving sailing lessons himself on an informal basis, picking up people at Children's Beach and taking them out for a sail. His youngest pupil was the current Rear Commodore's son, Jeff Verney, "who learned to sail before he could speak." When Hammy was fourteen his favorite race was the first of the season when "anything goes" and the crews could adorn the sails with whatever struck their fancy. After the race there was a picnic at Pocomo and on the return trip a game of "ball tag" between boats.
Hammy's love affair with sailing continued into adulthood. Most of his courtship with his wife Ginger took place aboard the Yankee vessel Ariel, and when Ginger and Hammy married they carried on the love of sailing as a strong and lasting family tradition. On the Sunday before Labor Day they hosted an event called the "Rat Race," sending an invitation that read "You are NOT invited to the Rat Race if it rains." If the sun shone, however, large, intermediate, and small rats, as well as mice (the grandchildren) were in attendance. The "water rats" came around to Hulbert Avenue by sea, costumed as King Neptune or other fanciful characters from the ocean. The tradition carried on until Hammy's parents died, and was rekindled with the birth of his and Ginger's first grandchild.
On opening day at the yacht club, Hammy's grandchildren enjoy the same ritual he did when he was a youngster. The season begins with the festive flag-raising ceremony, and while the flags are being raised you can still see children climbing on the anchor in the background. During the flag-raising, new officers are announced and club members who have died in the past year are remembered.
The yacht club was also famous for its Saturday night dinner dances throughout the summer—black-tie affairs where people danced the night away to great band music.
The season ended with the costume ball on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, and one year the C.C.Gifford children came dressed as the Kennedy family. The dance went on all night, and Sunday was spent recovering before bidding farewell to the island and returning to the "real world" on Monday.
Just as the yacht club in town had itsflag-raising ceremony, Jane Lamb, an eleventh-generation Nantucketer, remembers the Wauwinet Yacht Club having an opening celebration of its own. The Wauwinet Yacht Club was founded in 1876 and is the second-oldest registered yacht club in the United States. It has had as many as a hundred and fifty members, and in the early days they raced the Nantucket Yacht Club for the Lillian Cup, which derived its name from the steam yacht—and later, catboat—Lillian, which began its trips between town and Wauwinet also in 1876.
The Wauwinet Yacht Club's official opening for the season took place on July Fourth at a gathering on someone's lawn or, if it rained, in a garage or living room; refreshments were served. Although the meetings were informal, serious matters were discussed for the Wauwinel Yacht Club was responsible for organizing the season's social and recreational activities, such as tennis tournaments and field days.
When the business meeting adjourned, the local children paraded in a circle around the old Wauwinet House and into the Crow's Nest compound. Each summer the parade had a different theme, defined by what was current or popular at the time. The group was so small that you might have missed it if you blinked, but the children of Wauwinet marched proudly in their cleverly designed, handmade costumes. Prizes were given for the most authentic and original each year.
Wauwinet's Fourth of July celebration centered around the family, as did other activities. The people who lived and summered in Wauwinet "always made their own fun," according to Jane Lamb, who has lived there all her life. Throughout the summer children played at potato races, kick-the-can, flashlight tag, and scavenger and treasure hunts. Families traveled en masse to Coatue for sumptuous all-day picnics.
The families in Wauwinet were a close-knit group, and the community was self-sufficient in many ways. In the early 1900s, residents raised the funds to build a community center that served both for worship services and entertainment.(Later it was moved up next to the Wauwinet House from its original location on the beach.) A minister went out from 'Sconset on Sundays, and members of the Actors' Colony and other local residents would put on theatrical presentations in the same setting. The people of Wauwinet felt little need to travel into town for entertainment because life out there was so satisfying. Although the summer population is more transient now than when Jane Lamb was a girl, she maintains that "once you get sand in your shoes" out in Wauwinet, you keep coming back.
Walter Spencer Barrett has collected some sand in his shoes from time spent in Madaket and Tuckernuck. Walter was born on Nantucket in 1917 and lived on Fair Street until eight years ago when he moved to Madaket. However, he has spent over thirty years caretaking houses in Madaket and Tuckernuck and transporting passengers, in all kinds of weather, to and from Tuckernuck in his work boat.
People lived year-round and went to school on Tuckernuck in the 1800s, and summering began there around 1920. Henry Cabot Lodge's father was a summer resident, and he also died there. There were about six families who consistently came to Tuckernuck, and still do. The number of people on the tiny island at the height of the season averages sixty.
Walter feels people chose Tuckernuck as a refuge because they had friends there to begin with. Families who discovered this little jewel many years ago spent their leisure time fishing, swimming, and picking rosa rugosa hips for jam and beach plums for jelly. He believes that people who have been going to Tuckernuck for years understand its rhythm, but that "newcomers have a hard time adj usting to some of its isolation."
Walter remembers quahoging off Tuckernuck throughout the summer, beginning as early as March "unless there was a cold snap." He would go out with eight or ten friends who rowed against the wind so they could come back with the tide; they ground the quahogs and sold them to the Chanticleer and Nobadeer restaurants. Walter and his buddies also did a lot of eeling from a skiff, luring the eels into a pot. Walter considered those activities both work and play, and the time spent in Madaket and Tuckernuck good and simple. "What would you want to complicate it for?" That simple life out on the western end of the island is something Walter treasures, and he was a bit reluctant to share his memories: "Don't want people to hear too much about it or it will foul things up."
Ruth Chapel Grieder is among those who share Walter's special attachment to Tuckernuck and Madaket. Six generations of Ruth's family have gone to Tuckernuck, starting with her grandfather, Erastus Chapel, who arrived on Nantucket shortly after the Civil War. Her father, Everett, was born on Tuckernuck, as was her brother James. Ruth grew up at 31 Union Street and started spending summers on Tuckernuck when she was nine months old. She, her sister Mary, and brother James would leave town on their father's fishing boat, her parents watching the tides carefully so the boat could get as close to shore as possible on the high tide. They brought dry and canned goods and powdered milk with them and when Ruth's father went out on fishing trips he made trips into town for other staples. There was no refrigeration on Tuckernuck, so any meat or poultry that was purchased had to be cooked immediately. The Chapels frequently had meals of mackerel, codfish, or bluefish — having fried bluefish for breakfast on many occasions. All the cooking was done on a three-burner kerosene stove.
Despite the supposed absence of "creature comforts" on Tuckernuck, Ruth doesn't remember feeling deprived. Her mother, Delia (Crowell), was of the "old school" and didn't want her family living as "savages." Ruth and her sister wore dresses when they weren't in bathing suits, and there were three sit-down meals a day, complete with crisp, pressed linen tablecloths. The Chapel children spent their days swimming on the beach, which Ruth recalls was exactly twenty-nine white steps down from their door. Before naps on the veranda, Delia would read to them from Dickens and other classic authors. Late in the afternoon Mr. Chapel, who fished seven days a week, would drift by his Tuckernuck home on the north bank. Delia would greet him with a megaphone to find out when he would be home for dinner, and Everett would respond by holding up the appropriate number of fingers.
This system of communication was similar to that of Ruth's grandfather, Erastus, also a fisherman, and her grandmother, Marietta (Smith). For over thirty years Erastus worked at the Lifesaving Station on Muskeget Island, and late in the day Marietta would go up to the cupola of their house and watch Erastus set sail from Muskeget. Then she would head downstairs to prepare the evening meal, to be ready upon his arrival. Communication between people on Tuckernuck had to be creative for there were no radios, and the only phone back then was one with a crank handle located at the eastern end of the island that hooked up with the Madaket Coast Guard Station. Ruth remembers hand-delivering messages and receiving fruit or candy for her efforts.
Treats such as candy were a rarity during summers on Tuckernuck. On rainy days the children shared in the simple pleasure of making fudge and a special candy that was rolled in powdered sugar. There were also crocks of rising bread everywhere because Delia enjoyed baking for her family. A highlight of the season was a sail over to Madaket for ice cream.
In 1938, when Ruth was ten years old, her family bought a house in Madaket, and from that point on summers had a slightly different style from those on Tuckernuck. The Chapels had a phone, and they traveled into town by car once a week for groceries. Many of the families in Madaket had large vegetable gardens that kept them adequately supplied with produce, but Ruth's father "was a fisherman and had a real dislike for gardening," so they never kept one, except for a Victory Garden during World War II. Living in Madaket meant that basic necessities were more readily available, and ice cream was no longer accessible only by boat. Madaket Millie (Mildred Jewett) had a small general store where she sold ice cream ("flavors white, brown, tan, and pink"), candy bars, and bread. She also kept a watchful eye on fifteen-year-old Ruth and her friends when they joined "those cute Coast Guard boys," to swim in the surf, an adventure that had been forbidden when they lived on Tuckernuck.
For people living in Madaket, a highlight of the Fourth of July celebration was a spectacular bonfire at the dump. Most of the summer residents were hardworking "fisher folk," and, as Walter Barrett put it, "Money was so shy, you didn't have but a little green in your pocket." Gathering at the dump for a bonfire didn't cost anything, but it was an exciting event that brought the Madaket people together.
So, while the folks in Madaket looked forward to the bonfire at the dump, families in Wauwinet gathered for their homespun parade, children at the Nantucket Yacht Club climbed the anchor to view the flag-raising, and actors staying in 'Sconset prepared for their next performance. Those island neighborhoods established their separate rituals and celebrations, based on the needs and wants of their inhabitants. And though no place was very far from another, each had its own style. It is the contrast in styles that gives Nantucket the distinct and wonderful qualities remembered and treasured today as they blend together over the years into summer memories.
Diane Ucci was Director of Education at the Historical Association and Managing Editor of Historic Nantucket.