The World & Nantucket

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The off-islanders who come in search of this relaxation are divided into several different groups. There are those who own their own houses, and these are as a rule the most welcome, because the money they put into maintenance and general living expenses has the widest distribution around the island. Then there are those who rent houses either for a week, a month, or for the season, and they, too, are highly welcome, because it is a known fact that people on vacation tend to buy things they would never look at twice at home. Then come the “trippers,” the people who come over on the round-trip excursion boats from Hyannis; their status is necessarily reduced because they stay only three hours and are of value primarily to the sight-seeing bus lines and the lunchrooms, which work in conjunction with the boats. However, all Nantucketers realize that if one tripper per boatload can be induced to return, either for a weekend, a week, or longer, then his initial trip has been worth the while. Then there is the sleeping-bag set, who bring their own bicycles and sleeping bags and lurk around and block traffic. Of them it has been said that they “come over with a two-dollar bill and a shirt, and don’t change either.” Their retort is that the islanders would prefer to have them stay on the mainland and send their money over by mail. Finally there are the deer hunters, who come over for a week in December, shoot at everything that walks excepting, unfortunately, each other, and behave in a generally disorganized fashion. There are exceptions in all these categories, but a startling and not atypical deer-hunter incident occurred recently when a resident was awakened by gunfire in the night, and looked out to see a car full of hunters blazing away at a deer on his lawn, shooting toward the house. He grabbed a revolver and chased them off, but was unable to hit them. Or if he did, their wounds went unreported.

Of all the off-island visitors, only two groups have been officially requested not to return. One was a clutch of deviates who had the bad judgment to send their rolls of film to a local store to be developed; they were rounded up in a midnight police raid that had every one of them off the island before noon the next day. The other was a family from New York whose stupidity was so towering as to require pity rather than censure; on a day in July, when the island was so dry that fires were forbidden even on the beach, they went into a pine forest and made a picnic fire among the dry needles. Of the island’s 30,000 acres, more than 1,000 were burned before the fire was brought under control, and only a change of wind saved Siasconset from destruction. These people were fined the maximum of one hundred dollars apiece, and asked to stay away. Fire is, understandably, a constant terror in a community where most of the houses are of wood and are huddled closely together and where a brisk wind could spread a blaze across the island in a short time. In 1846 one third of the town of Nantucket was destroyed in a fire that dealt a severe blow to the already declining economy, and there have been fires periodically ever since, but it took an off-islander to start what was almost the biggest one of all.

With the transient population the islanders must be extremely careful about credit, and unless a visitor is known, he has no choice but to pay cash. But even being known isn’t always a help. Many years ago, Lawrence Tibbett came in on a yacht, and went to the bank to get a little walking-around money. He presented a check for one hundred dollars to the teller, who examined it and said, “You got an account here?”

“No,” Tibbett replied, with a smile. “I don’t.”

“Sorry,” said the teller, pushing the check back. “We can’t cash it for you.”

“If it’s identification you want,” Tibbett replied, reaching for his wallet, “maybe this will help.” He produced a shiny leather folder with his name engraved in gold, and this also received the teller’s scrutiny.

“What do you do for a living?” he asked.

“I sing,” said Tibbett, testily. “I make twenty-five hundred dollars a week, and it seems to me that should cover a check for one hundred dollars.”

“That don’t make no odds,” said the teller. “You might make twenty-five hundred dollars, and you might spend twenty-six hundred dollars. I don’t know what you got in the bank, so I can’t cash it for you. Now, if you don’t mind, there’s people waiting behind you.”

The woman standing next in line took Tibbett to the A&P, and countersigned the check for him there.

But the bank (named the Pacific National Bank in honor of the whalers who went to the Pacific) hasn’t always kept such a close eye on its funds. In 1884 a cashier named Chadwick managed to make off with a substantial sum without anybody’s knowledge, and it wasn’t until the following year, when he built a large and ugly house for himself, that people began to wonder where he got the money. They found out, and he went to jail; but the jail was then a makeshift affair, unsuitable for more than quick lockups, and an arrangement was finally worked out whereby Mr. Chadwick was allowed to sleep in his house at night and return to the jail in the daytime. For obvious reasons, the house became known as Chadwick’s Folly. It fell into disuse after his death, and was attended only by a caretaker who shot at people with a rifle if they came too close, and then finally, in 1956, it was torn down. There was a rumor that Chadwick’s ghost haunted the cupola, but nobody was ever able or willing to make sure.