The house that came to be known as Starboard Light was built in Chatham, MA in 1800. In those years, the concept of a summer home was almost unheard of and there was no interest in Cape Cod. In fact, by 1860 Cape Cod’s population had begun to decline. A map of Cape Cod actually indicates individual dwellings by name.
Back then Cape Cod was a rough, undeveloped peninsula. Within striking distance of both Boston and New York by train, it became an attractive destination for those who wanted to escape city life and live simply in and around the beach and the sea. And Cape Cod farmers and sea captains were delighted to sell those Bostonians and New Yorkers what they considered to be worthless coastland for $30 an acre. The Forbes family bought Naushon Island in its entirety. Secretary of State Richard Olney bought a place in Falmouth. And in 1890, ex-President Grover Cleveland settled in Wings Neck and others began to follow.
In 1925, my great-grandfather William W. Fitzhugh bought Starboard Light. It was built in 1800 along with two others on Stage Harbor by Captain Harding–one of the founding fathers of Chatham–for his three sons. Even by 1925 it was one of just three houses in eyesight.
Today there are over fifteen houses and seventy boats in view, evidence of the sevenfold population increase on Cape Cod over the past century. Tourists cram the towns, the beaches and the roads. Most newcomers love and embrace the old Cape Cod culture yet the many old Cape families, both blue collar and white, who established that culture, can’t afford to stay. They also can’t bear to leave. That old Cape Cod culture was about simplicity, modesty and stoicism. But with the natural fragmentation of familial wealth and the growing value of waterfront property, these families are increasingly forced to sell their multi-generational homes. New families with new money erect new homes whose size and cost emphasize a new value for luxury that never before existed on Cape Cod.
And yet in the summer of 2010, Starboard Light still stood as one of the few remaining icons of the previous century and its values, and it was still owned by the Fitzhugh family. Particularly when compared to the newer, larger homes that increasingly surrounded it, Starboard Light seems unchanged. The evidence of age is everywhere and enchants family and guests alike.
Moss-covered sea gray shingles. Impractically small beds full of bumpy springs. A permanent odor of moth balls. Yellowed and peeling wallpaper. Warped floors speckled by hand with paint. Shelves full of dusty hardcover books. Walls lined with family photographs that look as though they belong in an American History book. A wooden wheelchair. A porcelain wash basin. A workshop crammed with tools for a hundred years of projects. And small, storm-battered windows looking out over the harbor.