Cape Cod Architecture Update

Last August I did a post about New England architecture specifically to answer a question concerning what are known as “Saltbox” houses. I also rambled on about the house I grew up in and an explanation of the three different kinds of Cape Cod houses…Half-Cape, Three-Quarter Cape and Full-Cape.

Yesterday my brother Jeff sent me a letter concerning the post and included some information that was new to me.

In regards to our old house I was led to believe it had been built before the Revolution and even after Jeff’s letter exactly when it was built is still murky. However, this is what he says about it.

I’ve always had a keen interest in history so about the time dad sold the house I went to the County Registry of Deeds to look into the records on our property.

Where it said “when built” it had 1812 with a question mark which could indicate the original records are missing and the date is unknown.

From what I’ve picked up the ell (kitchen)  (note: that’s the small part of the house on the right side) is actually the original part of the house and the full-Cape section was added on either late in the 18th or early in the 19th century.

I believe I picked up the following information from our next door neighbor Mrs. Williams.

She was a Nickerson from Eastham and a 5th generation descendant of Nickersons who came over on the Mayflower.

Local hearsay dates the kitchen portion prior to 1650 perhaps 1635 or there about.

If you remember, Skaket creek and the Great Marsh of Eastham was through the woods just across Namskaket Road in front of our house. Almost directly across from our house on the other side of the Great Marsh is the old settlement of Eastham. It’s the first settlement on the Cape and founded by members of the Plymouth colony.

Supposedly, a supply ship crossed from Plymouth once a month with trade goods and supplies bound for the Eastham settlement. Because they where using an open vessel and need quarters while in port what became our kitchen where quarters for captain and crew of the supply ship on the Eastham run.

Why they quartered across the creek from the settlement and not in town doesn’t make sense to me. Perhaps, being rude low-class type sailors, nobody wanted them quartered in their homes or visa versa.

I resent the implication that sailors are crude and low-class types. I’ve always tried to be polite whenever possible.

I also remember mom wanting dad to do something about redoing the floor in the living room. She thought they where ugly because they were painted dark maroon with varied colored paint spackles (it’s an old NE method of hiding dirt on flooring) and wanted something lighter.

To save a lot of work dad decided to take up the old floor boards and refinish the under side. Some of the boards were nearly two or more feet wide indicating old growth lumber. The uneven saw markings on the underside indicated they had been pit sawn rather then mill cut dating them possibly very early 1800s.

Dad found several coins under the floor one being a Canadian 1/2 penny dated 1832 I think (which I have but can’t seem to find to verify the date).

There were also roman numerals about 4-6″ high chiseled into the face of several of the boards.

Dad carefully re-laid  the boards then lightly sanded and clear finished them leaving all the markings intact.

Later someone told dad that the boards may have come from the old salt works on the Bay. The works produced salt for salting cod fish and where disassembled sometime in the 1800s. 

Old pictures of the time show the salt vats marked with Roman Numerals. Apparently, boards soaked in salt water when dried are more durable and good for flooring.

Old frugal Yankees wouldn’t let such good tough lumber like that go to waste. So it’s highly probable that the living room floor was from a recycled salt vat.

Years later Jeff visited the house and discovered the subsequent owners had refinished all the floors including sanding out all the Roman numerals in the living room floor. I shocked them when I told them what those markings indicated. In dismay they told me they wish they had found and talked to me before they had done so much damage.

I remember the original floor and how, just after we moved into the house (I was 11 or 12) we had painted them maroon and what fun it had been dipping sticks into small yellow, green, blue and red paint cans and dribbling them all over the floor. I always thought they looked pretty nice.

It was my understanding from the town’s “unofficial” historian that the boards were, in fact, from the old salt-works but I was under the impression that the works had been dismantled before the Revolution and that the timbers had been incorporated into several of the houses around us, including the half-Cape across the street, a photo of which will be shown below.

Now, here’s something I didn’t know that Jeff had in his letter…

A last cultural note that has a bearing on the different styles of the “Cape Cod” house.

In the old days it was the custom for a father to provide a dowry for a daughter. Apparently a common Cape Cod dowry was to provide a half house to the newly married couple.

(A fine example of a half-Cape. It was owned by a tiny woman named Netty Silva and sat across the street from our house. It, too, had timbers from the old salt works.)

As the husband’ s fortunes increased with his family size so did the home they lived in. Thus, a starter half house turned into a three-quarter Cape

Or a full-Cape…

(Note: The difference in the house designations depends on the number and positioning of the windows in relation to the front door. Half-Cape: door and two windows on the side. Three-quarter Cape: door with two windows on one side and a single window on the other.  Full-Cape two windows on either side of the door. A house with a single window on either side of the door is NOT truly a full-Cape. )

Another common NE element is a barn attached to the rear of the house using an ell.

One could do all the husbandry tasks without going outside to reach the barn.

I have been in such houses where one will find a well head and the outhouse either in the passageway to the barn or in a corner of  the barn proper.

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One response to “Cape Cod Architecture Update

  1. I’ve read this several times – it’s just so interesting. A couple of things caught my attention.

    One is the simple phrase “She was a Nickerson from Eastham…” That just speaks volumes about how our society has changed – person and place used to be a lot more tightly woven. And people knew “who people were”. Of course there was a downside to that (or two, or three), but still…

    I remember the times I didn’t ask who someone was when I was a kid, because I knew I was going to get the WHOLE story!

    Love those old boards. Had a table once that was about 40″ x 30″. Two boards. I was too stupid to keep it. 😉

    The Cape, when we moved there and were growing up, was a pretty insular place. “She was a Nickerson from Eastham…” naturally was to differentiate Mrs. Williams from a Nickerson from Brewster or Chatham. Nickerson was one of the “old” Cape names along with Eldredge, Sparrow, Snow, Fulcher Mayo and Swan.

    When I say “insular” I mean it was almost like one of those creepy stories about some small, out of the way place where everyone not born there was looked upon with suspicion. My family started its association with Orleans when my dad opened the first “Snack Shack” at Skaket Beach, then at the end of a dirt road. In 1955 we moved into that house on Skaket Road and the next year it was paved. I won’t go into how my parents insinuated themselves into what was pretty closed society, but they were very successful at it. My dad became Master of the Masonic Lodge there and my Mom the Matron of the Eastern Star.

    I remember the old story about a recent “outlander” who attended the funeral of an old sea captain. “It’s a shame to see the old Cape Codders dying off,” he said to an old man sitting beside him at the service. “Cape Coddah?” the old man sniffed. “He wasn’t a Cape Coddah. His parents moved here when he was three!” And that’s how it was back then, too. My youngest brother, Mark, was the only “Cape Coddah” in the family, born in Hyannis. The rest of us were born in Cambridge and Waltham.