July 3, 2014

Nantucket's Chicken Box Hits All the Right Notes

photo by: Beth Lennon

The traditional weathered cedar-shingle exterior belies the informal interior.

On an island known for its reserved and decorous New England ways, The Chicken Box is an unpretentious change of pace.

The Chicken Box was the idea of Willie House and his wife, an African-American couple originally from Kentucky, who came to Nantucket in 1948 as domestic servants for one of the many wealthy families that summered on the island. An ambitious man, Willie found a modest shack on a sparsely populated area of the island and opened the original Chicken Box. It was a place where their fellow chauffeurs, maids, and cooks could congregate and relax on their days off, catch up with friends, and enjoy some famous fried chicken—the meal that gave the place its name.

photo by: Beth Lennon

The Chicken Box got its name from the Southern fried chicken it originally sold.

Although it was originally just the size of the current center bar, the Chicken Box building itself has been expanded throughout its 66-year existence because of its growing popularity with both residents of and tourists on the island. The addition of a stage in the 1950s led The Chicken Box to become the island's go-to destination for blues and jazz music, with owner Willie House booking musicians, using his off-season connections to the New York City music scene. One of the first of many nationally known musicians to play at "The Box" was bluesman Muddy Waters.

photo by: Beth Lennon

The original building was no wider than the current bar.

Willie owned The Chicken Box until the mid-1970s when he sold it to patron and friend Robert Reed, who is affectionately known as "Cap'n Seaweed" for his inability to keep a number of his boats from sinking. Reed, who had spent time in Jamaica, made the bold move of introducing the then-little known style of music known as reggae to The Chicken Box, much to the enjoyment of its patrons. The current owners continue the musical tradition with live music seven nights a week and pride themselves on booking nationally known bands throughout the summer season.

photo by: Beth Lennon

Nationally known acts continue to grace the stage where Muddy Waters once performed.

The third and current owners of “The Box” are a trio of friends: Thomas “Packy” Norton, John Jordin, and Anthony “Rocky” Fox, who purchased the bar from Reed in 2000. While they were not the highest bidders, Seaweed knew that they would keep the place true to its down-to-earth roots, which the trio continues to uphold. As times have changed, they have had to make some changes to the building itself—adding a smoking deck and ensuring the bar is handicap-accessible, for example—but they're committed to maintaining the traditions and fun atmosphere that make the place "Internationally Infamous.”

photo by: Beth Lennon

Local memorabilia line the walls—and ceilings—of The Chicken Box.

While they no longer serve fried chicken or any food, The Chicken Box is still a place where locals, summer folk, and day tourists gather around the horseshoe-shaped bar during the day, hands wrapped around an icy beverage, swapping stories, and relaxing in the unpretentious establishment. At night, they return to the roadhouse-like atmosphere to let loose and let their hair down, dancing to the energetic music that plays every night of the week, playing darts, or huddling around the billiards table.

"This thing that makes this place special," says co-owner Packy Norton, "is that it doesn't matter what you wear or where you're from. At The Chicken Box, everyone is equal, and everyone has a good time."

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