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Old growth wood in San Souci, Siasconset, MA

Finders Keepers

Part I

Roman numerals on beams, Sans Souci, Siasconset, MA
Bricks from the ship Queen, Sans Souci, Siasconset MA
Ship's mast beam, Sans Souci, Siasconset, MA

In Shimmo, where my parents had a house for thirty years, only one of our neighbors was smart enough to grab and drag a waterfront house before the wreckers did. She graciously asked if she could bring it across our land and we said sure. It was time (everyone agreed) she stopped sharing a house with her in-laws and had a place of her own. And it was a “perfectly lovely house” tisked the older generation who couldn’t help but take personally the compulsion to euthanize all the old houses in Shimmo. At least this one would enjoy a retirement in a field of green even if denied its water view birthright.

Historically of course, living on an island many miles at sea made Nantucketers resourceful recyclers. Because their colonial ancestors had rather quickly dispatched of most of the island’s viable forest, many 18th and early 19th century homebuilders simply reshuffled the pieces of existing houses when they wanted to settle new areas. When fishermen created overnight camps on the eastern shore, they frequently carted off sections of buildings from town. And when a new village (Sconset) became a more popular address than an old village (Sesachacha), they disassembled their Lincoln Log houses and hopped down the bluff to where the party was. 

For these pioneers it helped that, with alarming frequency, the sea coughed up pieces of ship decking for walls, masts for beams, hatches for doors, ballast bricks for chimneys, portholes for windows. Arthur Gardner’s Wrecks Around Nantucket (1877) catalogues island shipwrecks in the first quarter of the 19th century by month, not just by year. To a sailor, the island must have seemed like a brilliantly conceived trap set by homebuilders. Just look at its outline.  What purpose did a seven-mile, finger-thin, uninhabited extension to Great Point serve except to scoop up hapless schooners caught in gales and fogs?

Sans Souci in Sconset is renowned, locally at least, because in his late nineteenth century record of Sconset’s cottage histories, Edward Underhill claimed that it contained pillage from the wreck of a British ship called Queen. The house’s core is a combination of a twine factory from Trader’s Lane in Nantucket town (with a brief layover in Madaket) and a boathouse. Its post and beam construction allowed for relatively easy disassembly and reassembly. Roman numerals were etched in each piece of timber to guide reconstruction. These marks are still wonderfully visible in the framing.

During the period when the two sheds were conjoined (1814), the Queen (1813) conveniently broke in two and came ashore at Nobadeer replete with bricks enough to provide Sans Souci with a chimney. Bill Moore, who with his wife Siobhan now owns Sans Souci, gave me a guided tour of his treasure trove. Working with the preservationists, Sandy Kendell and Penelope Austin, he has uncovered a jigsaw puzzle of artifacts that had been hidden behind dry wall and linoleum when he purchased the house. A ship’s gangplank provides principal support for the main stairs; a series of rough squared off ceiling beams is interrupted by a smooth round one, evidently a mast. A piece of framing contains cut-outs that indicate another prior function; Bill surmises it was fencing.  As we walk the floors of the second story I am aware of how solid the building is. The thickness of joists and the generous quantity of them marks a period in island history that was short-lived. Old growth timber like this became obsolete. If Sans Souci had actually been built from scratch in Sconset in 1814 it wouldn’t have anything like this heft.

Scanning the walls, I hummed the Sesame Street song “which of these things is unlike the other? Which of these things just doesn’t belong?”. Bill has twin three-year old boys, Geordie and Finn, who clambered up and down the narrow stairs that mount the chimney mortar as I took pictures. They seemed familiar with my tour, watching my face as their dad pointed out notches and carbuncles. What fun to be a child in that house. Not only are its rooms scaled to a child-friendly size, but its novelty, its profound eccentricities, are the stuff that childhood dreams are made of.  Layered on all that is the prospect that the house will serve as a prompt for storytelling. Constructed like a memory jug, its pieces might tell tales if you just rubbed them the right way. Which is what led me to search out the story of the Queen.

Bound from Liverpool to ports in Africa, the Queen was a trading vessel stuffed to the gunnels with “hogsheads of bottled porter”, sauerkraut, cheese, hams, duck, hats, trunks and boxes of watches and jewelry. In 1813 the US was at war with the British, so American privateers, like The General Armstrong could get away with piracy as an act of patriotism. After all the British were routinely capturing commercial American schooners, like Nantucket’s whale ships, making prisoners of war out of their crew and destroying their cargo. So tit for tat, one day The General Armstrong engaged the Queen’s 16 guns and 40-man crew in a knock-down, drag out battle. Its crew finally surrendered only after the Queen’s commander, first mate and nine crew members had been killed. At that point the ship and all its bounty became a prize worth more than $40,000.

Trailing clouds of glory, the commandeered Queen set sail for America. But fate is fickle in its affections and our beloved Nantucket suddenly found itself favored above both contenders. Off the island’s south shore, the ship broke apart and scattered its booty all along the beaches from Sconset to Miacomet Pond.  Hundreds of islanders lined the shore, day and night, with fires burning and carts a-wheeling, socking away all the hogsheads of porter and whatnot they could lay hands on. In any year this would have been a boon for the island’s population, but in that particular year many Nantucketers were nearly destitute. Not only had the British destroyed their whaling ships but, by constantly trawling the shores along the Cape, they had made the waters too difficult for transport of important island staples like corn, grain and wood.  Imagine what it was like for them to see a nice cured ham heading their way in the curl of a wave.

By the time The General Armstrong’s agents came to the island to recover their lost prize, all had been secreted away.  Gardner reports that law suits ensued but to no avail: "what became of them all does not now appear." The mahogany door latch on Maria Mitchell’s house is said to be salvage from the Queen..and of course Sans Souci 's brick fireplace. What better way to hide a prize than in plain sight?

I hope the little Moore twins hear the tale of the Queen in front of a roaring fire in their sweet Sconset cottage. And then I hope they wake up the next morning and scavenge the beach for treasures.

Sherry Lefevre teaches in the Creative Writing Department at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pa.  In 2009 she bought and refurbished a house on Pine Street in Nantucket town that she made the subject of a book called The Heirloom House.  It is published by Skyhorse Publishers, N.Y., and will be released in October 2015.