Share on Google+
Watercolor of Nantucket's Oldest House showing other houses nearby

Nabobs and More on the North Shore

A Conversation with Author Frances Ruley Karttunen

There’s a new book about Nantucket on the horizon, with a great view from Sunset Hill. It’s called Nantucket’s North Shore: a neighborhood history, by Frances Ruley Karttunen. In fact, the presses are whirring at Spinner Publications, Inc. today, Wednesday, May 14, with an official launch date of June 19.

Karttunen’s roots run long and deep in this part of the island. She’s a direct descendant of Jethro Coffin and Mary Gardner Coffin, original owners of the Oldest House, which has anchored the neighborhood since the 1680s. She grew up in a cottage behind her grandparents’ house on Cliff Road, and currently lives on Centre Street. The author spoke last week about how and why this project, a true labor of love, came to fruition.

“It’s been kind of a long process,” she said. “In 1990 I inherited my aunt’s house, and a collection of old Nantucket recipes, some from old cookbooks, but many from people, a wonderful 19th century collection.

“The NHA decided to have a series of neighborhood gams, with cute old-timers reminiscing. I was not too enthusiastic about [a North Shore gam], because there were not too many people left to talk about it, and a talk would not be enduring. A book would last. I decided that writing and publishing a neighborhood history would be a good idea.”

Karttunen started at the Research Library at the Nantucket Historical Association, poring over hundred of old photographs and documents. Things really opened up for her when the Atheneum converted its newspaper files from microfilm to digital, with search capabilities. She could find exactly what she was looking for, and often stumbled on pertinent information that she hadn’t been looking for. The level of detail in the book is both astonishing and delightful.

One of the interesting features of the North Shore’s development over time is the fact that it was perfectly linear. From the first English settlers, who sheltered at the edge of Madaket Harbor near Eel Point, to the early homesteads that comprised the Town of Sherburne, nestled between Capaum Pond (the original harbor) and Hummock Pond, development slowly migrated along the Cliff and what are now Dukes Road and West Chester Street, to the Great Harbor and what we now know as the Town of Nantucket.

“It starts west, and trundles east. The chronology and geography have such great continuity,” Karttunen said. Even today, as changed as it is, key elements remain.

“All through the modern fabric, bits of history poke up through it,” she noted, “like the Oldest House.”

The book’s cover, a watercolor painting of the Oldest House, is a treasured possession of Karttunen’s.

“There was another house on Sunset Hill until 1927. It was demolished to provide materials to refurbish the Oldest House … gone without a trace. This painting shows a piece of history that didn’t survive.”

A more recent (but also departed) notable feature of the neighborhood, historically and physically, was the imposing presence of the massive Sea Cliff Inn, built in 1887, and expanded in 1893, which existed into the 1970s before it was demolished. It heralded the onset of the island’s resort economy; Nantucket’s first bathing beaches were along the North Shore. Karttunen recalls walking from her house to the Inn with her mother as a small child, on their way to Jetties, along the long driveway, then passing over the boardwalk to North Beach Street, and on to Jetties. It was a long journey for a little girl; they would always take the beach bus home. When she was older, she and her friends would go sledding down the bluff in front of the inn, which was quite steep, and ended in what was once a cranberry bog.

“If you weren’t careful, you’d end up in the bushes, or through the ice at the bottom,” said Karttunen. “We went home wet and bloody from time to time. Children were free back then … we walked everywhere, no matter what the weather.”

Peppered with the historic recipes that helped generate its inception, the book chronicles the lives of notable residents, and offers a window on what was truly the heart of Nantucket for many generations. The original hospital was there, as well as Academy Hill School. Island lifestyles over the ages, prominent summer residents such as artist Eastman Johnson, farms, dairies, and lost traditions and events, are all described in vivid detail, along with an incredible collection of photographs. Plus secrets are revealed, such as the fates of Barzillai’s Creek, and Sachem Spring.

In addition to the recipes, the book includes charming, old terms, such as “nabob” (a person of wealth and influence), and “squantum” (a Nantucket term for going on a picnic). Karttunen noted that there were plenty of female nabobs on the North Shore, whom she was happy to document. There were many thriving businesses and large families in the area, including her own, though less so now. Her aunt’s much loved North Shore restaurant, which started out as a grocery store, still exists today as American Seasons. A photo shows the waitress figurehead, carved by Nancy Chase, standing proud guard over Centre Street.

“At one point, some of the fingers got broken, and Nancy had her sister hold her hands in the exact position so she could replicate it,” Karttunen recalled.

Unfortunately, the current location of that figurehead is unknown; Karttunen said that the last she heard is that it went to a home in Florida, never to be seen again.

“My aunt founded the North Shore. We all worked there. She started it during World War II, a crazy time to start a restaurant, during rationing. That made it necessary to feature local food, and simple preparations,” she said. With many of today’s establishments embracing the same philosophy, we are reminded of Nantucket’s role as a trend-setter over the ages, with its own grace and style. As much as things have transformed on the North Shore, much has not.

Karttunen’s life over the years has given her a unique lens on this evolution. She left Nantucket in 1960 for Radcliffe, followed by a 30-plus year career in Central Texas. When she returned to the island for visits from time to time, friends and family would complain about upending changes to the community.

“Things that happened here in the 70s and 80s, people who came and went, I had no recollection,” she said. “I could see for them that the changes were upsetting, but I would look around, and everything was so familiar; I could see the continuity … I’m utterly grateful I got to come home in the end, and live here full time.”

Nantucket’s North Shore: a neighborhood history is indeed an excellent way to say thank you, and a wonderful documentation of this important part of the island, from start to finish.