SAVING 68 SHELL DRIVE ON CAPE COD
As with a lot of wonderfully historic Cape Cod houses, many are still facing the issues of neglect or being wiped of their original character. 'Protect Our Past' is working diligently to enlighten the people on how a house is more than just a structure. It is full of stories waiting to be told. Read on to learn about 68 Shell Drive, a property in Chatham, Massachusetts in need of our care, as narrated by Joshua Smith- a descendent of one of the home's original owners.
The house described as 68 Shell Drive was invariably referred to as “Sedge Holm” within my family. My great-grandfather, William H. Wentworth, purchased it circa 1906, and my father Stephen H. Smith sold it circa 1974. During most of that time it served as a seasonal home. Sedge Holm, as I will insist on calling it, is a very nice piece of vernacular Cape Cod architecture. That is to say, it is very old, and the product of early Anglo-American settlers with a distinctive style. Notably, its oldest part features a huge beehive oven and a bean-pot cellar. But perhaps more interesting than the architectural details of Sedge Holm are the human relations that ran throughout its history and illustrate the constant change in American society.
The Nickersons constructed it at a time when the Monomoys still populated the area; it may be that Native Americans occasionally visited this home. It remained a “salt water farm” for an astonishing two hundred years. One can only imagine the lives, events, births and deaths, joys and sorrows the structure witnessed during that time. The structure remained a humble farmhouse until the first decade of the twentieth century when my great-grandfather bought it as a summer home and dubbed it “Sedge Holm,” a reference to the shoreside sea-grasses of Pleasant Bay. In this regard the house is representative of a transition in Chatham from rural fishing village to summer community for affluent urban families, a fact that can be partially attributed to the extension of railroad service to the Cape.
William H. Wentworth immediately expanded the house and hired local men to work on the grounds and Chatham women to work in the house. During my family’s tenure, quarter-boards from shipwrecks graced the range of outbuildings, generally over the barn doors. One belonged to the Joseph G. Stover, the other from the Czarina. William H. also constructed a bit of whimsey: a curved brick bench with two small cannons for the bench’s arms atop a small bluff overlooking Pleasant Bay. The writer Edward Rowe Snow even featured a photo of these cannons in one of his books. Rowe, who never let the truth get in the way of a good story, perpetuated the rumor that the cannons were once in possession of the infamous pirate Samuel Bellamy.
The property eventually passed to William H.’s daughter Dorothea, and her husband James Stuart Smith, a Boston lawyer. The Smith family brought African-Americans to work within the home, about whom several ribald tales exist. I mention the fact to illustrate my point that this house is a means to exploring the changing racial, ethnic, and social dynamics within Chatham’s summering community. Many other seasonal Chatham families employed African Americans as household staff, and they had their own distinct culture within the town, a topic that deserves more exploration.
My grandmother, Dorothea Wentworth-Smith, has a two-fold and somewhat contradictory legacy. The family remains very proud that she provided the first land to the Chatham Land Trust: Fox Hill, an island which lay across Pleasant Bay from Sedge Holm. However, she also developed the substantial amount of land surrounding Sedge Holm in partnership with her brother, Reginald. Marketing demanded romantic names like Whidah Road and Bellamy Lane for the streets in the development; while the death of my uncle Andy in 1969 resulted in naming Andrew Mitchell Lane after him. John Yacobian has explored the creation of the Cannon Hill subdivision as a “planned community” carefully controlled by a land trust in a very nice publication that came out a few years ago.
With Granny Smith’s death, my father came into possession of the house at that time and changed it substantially in conjunction with his locally-born second wife. Helen Worthing was born in her grandfather’s medical office on Main Street in 1933, graduated from Chatham High School in 1951, and well remembered the night that the Pendleton and the Fort Mercer sank in 1952. Their marriage also reflected a social transition in post-War America: a summer person marrying local girl would have been unthinkable earlier in the century. My parents also reflected a less happy truth about American society in the 1960s in that they both had failed first marriages, although I will add that this second marriage endured quite well.
My mother had long loved Sedge Holm even before she met my father and was thrilled because she could keep horses there. During my parent’s ownership of the property, contractors re-shingled the house, my live-in babysitter painted large Mandarin phrases and peace symbols on the plank walls, a fact that will undoubtedly confound future contractors. To help pay the bills, occasionally boarders were taken in, including duck hunters. Duck hunting on Pleasant Bay had long been one of the draws of the home. But the 1970s were tough times: taxes rose dramatically in Chatham, and stagflation proved financially crippling to my father, who had little business acumen. Despite their bourgeoise sentimentality for Sedge Holm and Chatham itself, my parents moved to Maine.
I will say that the current issue over preserving the house, moving it, or demolishing it is also representative of the struggles within American society today. The past is both an anchor to windward that provides stability and a burden to the living at the same time. It is fitting and proper that this issue be discussed, debated, and even argued over. In my opinion, the best option is another family buys Sedge Holm and enjoys the property. The prospect of demolishing it is unfortunate, even regrettable, but also understandable. My own intentions are to hand over documents and photos related to Sedge Holm to the Chatham Historical Society to preserve a record or memory that is available to future residents. My hope is that these photos and other items will be of use to those who research and cherish Chatham’s past, and I would be truly delighted if they proved of use in saving this valuable and interesting structure which is so representative of the history of the community.