One in a series on National Historic Landmarks in
NANTUCKET — “It’s a story of Romeo and Juliet or the Hatfields and McCoys,” said interpreter John Belash as we stood under a big mulberry tree and surveyed the weathered gray Jethro Coffin House. “It’s two families who hate each other.” We had expected a heavy dose of architecture and history on our tour of the property that is also called the “Oldest House” on Nantucket. Belash’s story reminded us that history and personalities are inevitably intertwined.
To be accurate, the Coffin house is the oldest house on Nantucket that was built as a dwelling and stands on its original site. It was a 1686 wedding gift to Jethro Coffin, grandson of Tristram Coffin (one of the original English proprietors who settled the island in 1659-60), and Mary Gardner, daughter of Captain John Gardner, who had led the “Half-Share Revolt” against the proprietors.
“The original owners needed to attract people with skills they didn’t have,” Belash explained. “Not a one of them knew about a boat and that’s not good for an island.” Gardner was invited for his knowledge of cod fishing. The proprietors treated the invitees as second-class citizens with only a half-vote in the government. Gardner led the appeal to the provincial government in New York that established town meeting government with equal votes to all property owners. “They had a revolt,” said Belash. “There was no bloodshed, but it was nasty.”
It’s easy to imagine that neither family was thrilled when Jethro and Mary fell in love. But somehow the differences were smoothed over and the couple married in the house in 1686. John Gardner contributed the 1½-acre plot of land and Jeth-ro’s father, Peter, who had a thriving lumber business, contributed the lumber.
“It was probably the biggest house on the island at the time,” said Belash. “It was very unusual for a young couple to have their own home and not live with their parents.” The classic saltbox structure faces south to take advantage of passive solar heat and to allow the north wind to glide over the roof. A formal parlor was reserved for Jethro’s business dealings and town meetings while most of daily life took place in one room with a big fireplace for cooking. Life wasn’t easy — even in the biggest house in town. “From December to February it was the only room with heat,” said Belash, noting that firewood was in short supply. “They probably had two meals a day.” In winter Mary would have to prepare dinner before dark descended around 4 p.m.
The family eventually moved to the mainland where Jethro helped run the family business. The house was sold in 1708 to a weaver. He and his descendants lived there until the 1840s, when they sold it to a cooper who ultimately abandoned the house in 1867. “It was so well built that it didn’t fall down,” said Belash. In 1881 descendants of Tristram Coffin purchased the property, and in 1923 they sold it to the Nantucket Historical Association. The house was restored at that time and again in 1987 after being severely damaged by a lightning strike. “Now it has a lightning diversion system worthy of the Empire State Building,” Belash said.
In 2006, a kitchen garden was planted behind the house. “It’s a re-creation of the kind of garden that Mary would have had,” said Belash, with vegetables and herbs for flavoring or medicinal purposes or to strew in the house to dispel odors and deter insects. There was also some beauty in Mary’s life. “She would have undoubtedly had flowers.”
JETHRO COFFIN HOUSE
16 Sunset Hill, 508-228-1894, ext. 0, www.nha.org. Daily
11 a.m.- 4 p.m. through Oct. 14. Adults $6, ages 6-17 $3.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris