02 Aug 2011

Nantucket Captains Houses

Captains Houses

It’s well known that Nantucket was once the whaling capital of the world. Crews would board the large whaling ships and set out to sea in search of those beautiful spouting creatures…their money-makers. Although the boats were not all the same and the crews varied in size and skill, there was one common denominator among them. Every ship had a captain. The man entrusted to chart the course, inspire the crew and command the vessel. The guy in charge – the go to guy.

It’s no wonder these Captains were held in high esteem by the people of Nantucket. Their responsibility was great and the benefit they provided to the community, as the whaling industry flourished, was profound. They would set sail and be out to sea for months, sometimes years, at a time. The lives of the captain and crew out at sea, while lucrative, were wrought with danger, isolation and exhausting labor.

Nantucket has dozens of historic Captains Houses in its registry. Lee Real Estate has many of them in our rental program and periodically available for purchase. For the most part, we know very little about the captains themselves. One of my jobs is to research the properties to unearth the historic background, owners and any interesting tidbits. Recently while digging for some information on our listing on Academy Lane, I found this little snippet about Captain Reuben R. Bunker, the original owner. “Reuben R. Bunker was a whaling captain and an important man in the town, as shown by the fact that his signature appears on many records, petitions, etc.” There you have it. No mention in this journal entry of his ship, his crew or his career or even which documents he signed…just significant that he was chosen to sign them.

I find it fascinating that for all the great feats these captains accomplished, the whales they speared, the ships they commanded…the only real tangible evidence we have left to give us a peek into the lives of these men is their homes – where they lived, raised their families, entertained their friends and enjoyed a little reprieve from their difficult sea lives. The houses don’t tell us everything about the captains, but they tell us something. Some were trendy. Many of their homes were built in the design of the times – Federalist or Greek Revival. They were creatures of innate detail. Many of the homes have customized dentil moulding along the covered porches, crown moulding adorning the ceilings in every room, elegant fireplace mantels and beautiful wood floors. It’s evident they placed high value on the comfort and lifestyle of their wives and children, sparing little expense and few luxuries to ensure they had a functional and beautiful place to reside while the man of the house was away at sea.

There are some questions the house itself cannot answer…..things I wonder about as I walk through to snap some photos or write some ad copy. As I linger in the dining room, I consider who the honored guests were at this captain’s table and who was chosen to fill the coveted seat next to him. ┬áIn the small study, I reflect on the letters he might have penned to the wives of his men lost at sea. As I wander through the children’s rooms, I imagine their delight to have their father home, even briefly, for bedtime stories and goodnight kisses. I envision quiet late night conversations with the wife who held the home together in his absence, as they sit fireside in the parlor…grateful for their time together. (Yes, I’m a romantic, humor me.)

These Nantucket Captains houses are a gift to our island. Beyond the whales harpooned and the ships commanded, we are left with the place the captains and their families lived their lives. On your next visit to Nantucket, why not consider renting one of these historic dwellings. You too can get a glimpse into the lives and stories the homes hold or stop by the Nantucket Historical Association to see what interesting facts you can uncover about Nantucket’s famed captains and their quarters. Step back in time and embrace the islands history.

Aye Aye Captain!

Shellie Dunlap

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