Building the Homestead

A family pitches in to make a home on Chappaquiddick

Courtesy Margaret Knight

My father grew up in Pittsburgh, and never learned to like the seashore or the feeling of salt and sand on his skin. He would rather have vacationed in the mountains, but my mother had grown up with the freedom of summers on Chappaquiddick, with sisters and cousins, a pony, sailing, and swimming. Her attachment to Chappy went far deeper than my father’s love for any mountain.

Although he was a minister, I think my father’s first love was building things, and that’s how he survived his time on Chappy. After a few vacations with six kids in a tiny rented cottage that had previously been used as a wash house, my father decided it was time to build a place of our own. The wash house belonged to Sally Jeffers, who had married Moses Jeffers, a Chappaquiddick Wampanoag who died in 1919. Over many years Mrs. Jeffers and her stepdaughters Tillie and Gladys farmed the land, and cooked, cleaned, and did laundry for summer people. My mother and her family had eaten meals at their Cape Pogue restaurant, Tillie had spent winters with my family early on, and there was an affectionate reciprocity between our families.

Mrs. Jeffers sold my parents a piece of land covered with low huckleberries and bayberries next to the wash house, on the bluff overlooking Cape Poge Pond. That’s where we were going to build a summer house. My father was not a perfectionist when it came to carpentry, but he was meticulous about planning for the construction of this house, which he planned to get built during his five-week vacation in 1959. It was to be 32 feet by 22 feet, with a steeply pitched roof in order to fit two bedrooms (a girls’ and a boys’) upstairs under the eaves. All the steps were mapped out, and detailed construction plans were drawn on drafting paper, showing every stud, rafter, window, and door opening. My father compared prices for lumber shipped from Amherst, where we were living then, versus buying on the Island. At only a $2 difference, he bought most all the wood, windows, and doors from Tilton Lumber (now gone) in Vineyard Haven for about $3,500. The blocks for the crawl space cost $107, a cesspool $230, a well was driven for $210, and two new electric poles, the lines, and fuse box cost a total of $697, including labor at $3 an hour. The electricity was not connected until September, so all the work on the house that summer was done with hand tools. All this information, every detail of the process, every bill and construction drawing, along with letters and photos, my father kept in a journal which we all looked at over and over through the years, and still carefully preserve.

On July 31, 1959, my family arrived on the Island, and my father stopped at town hall to find out if a building permit was needed. It was not — there wasn’t even any zoning yet on Chappy. That same day he went to see Ralph Grant and lined up the bulldozer to dig the foundation ($8.50 an hour). On August 2nd and 3rd he, my brothers, and a cousin cleared the land and set stakes for the digging.

My father kept meticulous records of how many hours each person worked, so I can see that on August 6, I spent two hours helping to stack blocks in the foundation. My father hired a family friend for 3 weeks to work the eight-hour days with him, but the rest of the construction crew was my three older brothers (ages 12 to 15), my older sister and me (aged 11 and 9), uncles and cousins, and Chappy friends who might have just stopped in to say hello — each one’s name and hours duly noted in the journal. My mother was busy with our younger sister, who was 1, but was credited with “cooking for workers.” My father had never built a house before, and it was all up to him to get his motley amateur crew to accomplish the construction in the given timeframe.

By August 10, we’d finished the foundation, and the first floor joists and the underfloor were laid. This was before plywood was generally used (and there was no power for a circular saw), so spruce and pine boards covered the fir 2” x 4” wall framing and 2” x 6” floor and roof frame. The Tilton Lumber bill shows that the inside fir doors cost $6.40 each, and the front door was $18.95. Wood shingles for the roof and all the outside walls cost $475 total.

The roof shingling started August 20, doors and windows were put in, and the trim painted and nailed on. On Sept. 2 the well was pounded by hand. On the 3rd, water was drunk from the hand pump, shingles went on the north wall, the water side was boarded in, and food for a celebration and thank-you party was set up on a long table improvised from boards and sawhorses. By the time we left on Sept. 5, the house was pretty much closed in and set for winter.

Most of what I remember from that summer comes from the photos in the journal. They have become more real than any scene I can conjure up in my mind. My siblings have similar fuzzy memories about building the house — maybe it was just so long ago. Shingling the roof stuck in everyone’s minds. It happened over the course of nine days, taking longer than anything else noted in the journal. The roof was steep and high, and the wood shingles seemed to go on forever, and we all helped. My sister remembers painting windows before they were installed. I do, too, but only from the photo of us doing it. But she remembers my father’s impatience with her questions after he’d explained how to paint them.

Back then, bills were handwritten, and communication was often by letter. The house journal contains a bill from plumber Major LaBell detailing 130 handwritten line items on his four-page bill, which totaled $977. Since my father had every detail of the house figured out ahead of time, every cost worked out to fit the budget, not surprisingly, he was a stickler about any work or supplies he was paying for. The letter from electrician Brooks Carter makes it easy to imagine the one my father sent him to complain about his bill being too high. Mr. Carter writes back a courteous, detailed letter saying, “You must realize that there is not something for each man to do every minute … However, we can perhaps come to an agreement on cutting down the labor charges if you can let me know about how many hours I should cut off as being unproductive hours.” In another letter, Ralph Grant writes, “We are sorry we dumped the fill where you did not want it. We will be glad to move it where you want it the next time we are over to Chappaquiddick Island.” He credits $13 off the bill of $109, the cost of digging the foundation.

The next summer, work continued on a small bedroom annex and on finishing the inside rooms. A trip to Chappy in September brought furniture and our horse and pony, because in October we were moving to Michigan, where my father had taken a new church posting. In the summer of 1961, our first summer in the house, my mother and six children, plus a dog and ducks, made the first of the two-day drives from Detroit to Chappy. Those long drives, over the seven years we lived in Michigan, were how I learned to drop off to sleep practically as soon as a car started rolling, which I did unless I was galloping on our horse along the side of the road — in my imagination. My father came on his own — he couldn’t get away until later, or so he said.

My father expected the house to pay for itself, so starting in 1962, it was always rented for part of the summer by grateful renters, who came year after year. In a letter from the journal, one renter writes, “When I miss your house most I think is at breakfast — what a heavenly spot to greet the day … We all felt so very much at home from the moment we arrived.” We were lucky with renters, although another renter writes, “Unfortunately our record of destruction surpassed previous performance, and it is with chagrin that I report this carelessness.” He then goes on to tell how he decapitated a small pine, broke the head off a special cane, and that the binoculars suffered from double vision after “an unplanned trip to the floor.” A week in 1980 cost the renter $350.

The Homestead, as the house became known, was enjoyed by family, friends, and renters for nearly 50 years. Its construction inspired five more Chappy houses built by my siblings and me, most when we were in our 20s. One started as an A-frame built by my brother, along with a friend and a cousin, when they were 16. My brother later became a contractor.

In 2009, after both my parents had died, we sold the house and land to the Land Bank. The Homestead was burned to the ground in a practice burn by the fire department. We were all resigned to it happening, but I went off-Island that day. I still miss the house, and especially the people and times there, but now the bluff is open like it was when we built there in 1959. Anyone can walk to the spot where the house was and enjoy the amazing views out over Cape Poge Pond.