At Large: Nearby, but far away

At Large: Nearby, but far away

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This old house is not far away, but in every sense except geographic, it is remote. Its frank exposure to the wind from every compass point is commanding, an inescapable reminder that the whistle, moan, and screech now could become a howl at any time.

The west wind accelerates as it flows over the long, mown field toward the house. There is a modest rise from the bottom of the field to where this eighteenth century Nonamessett Farm house stands. Wind-shorn moors surround the fields and the house. There is not a tree nearby. No leaves rustle. I suppose the field grasses chafe noisily against one another as the wind passes, but that sound cannot survive the hooting of the wind.

It may be that when the earliest settlers here built their house in the 1760s or 70s, then enlarged it, there were sheltering woods nearby. Perhaps the building was hewn from those woods and later heated from the remains. I don’t think so. I think the builders floated the materials, except the stones for the foundation, from the mainland nearby, dragged them over the beach and up to the clearing and began work. For so simple a structure it was an immense undertaking in design and construction, yet as an early history says, “of the whole there is a rough perfection.” It is the oldest, plainest house in its island neighborhood.

It was built, according to the same history, for Paul Robinson, who moved to the island from Waquoit. His son Samuel reports that his father “lived and died there,” though he was buried in nearby Woods Hole.

Before Robinson, in about 1724, a family called the Tuppers with about 20 men “took forcible possession” of the property on which the house stands. The Tuppers built a shack and began a dairy goat farming operation. Legal action ensued, at the court in Plymouth, and a late report to the governor of the Bay Colony expressed some hope that the Tuppers had been “subdued.”

The foundation of this very old house reminds me of a house I owned in Vineyard Haven in the 1970s. It was very old too, not as old as the Nonamessett house, more nineteenth century. According to legend, the house in Vineyard Haven was built at Huzzleton Head and later floated intact on a barge into the harbor, dragged by teams of oxen up the hill from the beach and set into the slight hillside overlooking the water. Over the years, its original simplicity gave way to architectural embellishments – thickened two-over-one window sashes instead of thin twelve-over-twelve originals that had eroded over the years, hefty exterior window trim, corner returns on the sofits, gutters and wooden downspouts, and it had been painted white. When I owned it, those changes seemed obvious and undesirable modernizations, pretending the house was something it wasn’t.

The house in Vineyard Haven had no cellar. In so many ways, it was not up to code, as we know it today. As in the Nonamessett building, the wooden sills were set on a stone rectangle made of granite blocks and fieldstones dry laid. This foundation of sorts sat on the ground, and the floor joists laid to support the floor ran in shallow channels scooped out of the dirt. Neither of these two houses should have stood the test of time passing, but did.

At Nonamessett, a diesel generator makes electricity for this wind-tortured old pile, but there are very few circuits, just some lights and the well pump. The stove and refrigerator, a Scandinavian creation, run on LP gas. These few accommodations to modern living are convenient, but their modesty leaves the essence of the place and the building unmolested.

Here, you can imagine, and I do, that you are living in the eighteenth century, that the Revolutionary War is raging around you, that your goats, pigs, and chickens may be stolen by the British to feed the crews of their predatory warships patrolling the nearby sounds, bays, and anchorages, that one night you may be called upon to board a fishing sloop, reimagined as a Colonial warship, to help Colonial raiders spike the guns of the man of war at anchor on the other side of the island, and maybe sink her.

The men who built this house may have gathered in the great room at the long table where we eat, before a fire in the nine-foot hearth, to plot the attack. Today, all these possibilities and more whisper in the woodwork of this old house while the wind moans outside.

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