This Old House: Fisherman Brown’s Cottage
The day my husband and I bought our house, the real estate agent gave us a loose-leaf binder with copies of maps and deeds dating back to 1735, when a fisherman named Joseph Brown built the Cape Ann Cottage.
For years we had looked at houses. We’d hoped to find a roomy, if neglected, Victorian that, with our efforts, might one day resemble one of the Gloucester houses celebrated by Edward Hopper. But “an antique?” That’s how our agent described the tiny gambrel-roofed cottage. Seeing its exposed adze-hewn beams, wide pine floorboards and fireplace, we said yes immediately.
I had lived in other people’s homes all of my adult life. Suddenly, I was not only a homeowner, but a steward of a piece of Cape Ann history. What does it mean to acquire a building with an historic marker posted on its clapboards? Does one’s responsibility go beyond keeping cedar shingles on the roof and a satellite dish off it? When you buy a house, do you inherit a responsibility to its history as well?
The documents compiled by agent Prudence Fish, an architectural historian and the author of “Antique Houses of Gloucester,” made me curious about the dozen families who had owned the house before us.
Fisherman Brown was likely shorter than my five-foot eight-inch husband, or he, too, would have struck his head on the beams in my attic-like office. He and Mrs. Brown must have been agile, for the stairs are narrow and steep as a ship’s companionway. The house itself is like a ship, snug and tight. Now six rooms (it was originally four) and 1,000 square feet, it may be one of the smallest homes in town, as well as one of the oldest. It is not a good place to spread out, gather, or entertain, except in the most intimate circumstances.
As writers, my husband and I tend to accrue books, papers, and ephemera, a habit possibly shared by John S. Rogers, a 19th-century glue manufacturer. He bought the house in 1858 and moved it several hundred feet in order to build a larger structure, which now looms over us like a cruise ship over a dory.
We share our house with the presences of, among other owners, Rogers, Brown, and Zachariah Dalton, “a free black man and native of Gloucester,” and his son, Thomas. Also Israel Trask, a butcher, who may be responsible for the Federal period woodwork, and Bob Molinski, who, in the 1980s, rescued and restored the building following a fire and years of neglect. Molinski received a Massachusetts Historical Commission award for his work.
We’ve done what we can on a more limited budget. Before moving in, we hired a contractor to pour a cellar floor and structurally reinforce the wood-frame building with new Lally columns. Since then, we’ve stripped the floors, replaced rotting sills, re-pointed brickwork, and planted a traditional New England flower garden of lilacs, daylilies, and hollyhocks. Soon, we will replace the kitchen’s weakened floorboards. As stewards, we’ve learned quickly: maintaining our historic cottage requires constant vigilance.
We’ve also tried to keep the prior inhabitants alive in our imaginations. Yet, sometimes I feel crowded out by their presences: I imagine Brown’s footfall on the creaky stairs, the aroma of his wife’s codfish stew brewing in a large iron kettle in the fireplace. (I do not know her Christian name, as the deeds don’t mention wives, but I think of her as Patience Brown.) Meanwhile, I picture Butcher Trask driving through the neighborhood, his cart filled with sausages, pigs’ feet, and freshly killed chickens and rabbits.
We chose to live in Gloucester because it is still a city of working people, like those who owned our house. Although the portraits of Brown, Trask, Rogers, the Daltons, and Molinski do not hang in City Hall, these residents are as essential to Cape Ann’s history as the mayors in the hall’s portrait gallery.
On warm summer evenings, when we walk to the end of our street and down the 57 steps to the harbor, I think about Fisherman Brown plying these waters in a small boat with a makeshift sail. At the time, wolves still roamed this hill, and water lapped at wharves just below us. Brown lived a generation before the American Revolution and a century prior to the era of the famed Grand Banks schooners, but even then, life in Gloucester was shaped by the sea, and those who work upon it. It is a legacy we now share as the latest inhabitants of Fisherman Brown’s cottage.
This post originally appeared on WBUR's "Cognoscenti" blog.