Monomoy Then and Now

by Ken Roman

Hard to believe, but as recently as 1920 much of Monomoy was a dairy farm. It was clear-cut, not a tree in sight. Almost all of what you see now is a second-growth forest. There are photos of cows with the Creeks in the background. Back then, it was swampy and largely uninhabited.

The Monomoy name is a combination of Native American names meaning “deep black” or “black soil” – referring to the wet spongy soil around the Creeks. The area was first developed by Zimri Cathcart, memorialized in name by a dirt road in Monomoy. A 28-year-old seaman on the whaleship Dauphin from 1817 to 1819, Zimri was not on the ship the next year when it rescued two survivors from the whaleship, Essex, after it was stove by a whale an event Herman Melville memorialized in Moby-Dick (and Nat Philbrick in The Heart of the Sea.)

Zimri escaped that drama and retired from whaling to another honored Nantucket occupation, real estate, which was growing even then with new “summer business.” He had dabbled in real estate before his voyage. Upon his return, he bought land all over the island, including the long-gone Monomoy “Bug Light,” a small lighthouse that helped guide whalers entering the harbor.

Monomoy real estate had its first burst of activity in the late 19thcentury. In 1857, Zimri consolidated his holdings in North Pasture, a former sheep common, into one farm. Cathcart Farm was sold in 1873 to Winthrop DeWolf, a Providence banker, and George W. Macy, a descendent of one of the original Proprietors. What followed was a dizzying parade of transactions, culminating in its sale in 1889 to John DeWolf.

Monomoy’s first true real estate boom was ignited when Winthrop’s widow, Eugenia DeWolf, and surveyor William F. Codd produced a plan to subdivide the area into 247 lots on the south shore of Nantucket harbor. Evidence of that plan survives in the “paper” roads that cross properties throughout Monomoy – and are often erased legally.

C.S. “Butsy” Lovelace painstakingly traced the development of what he called Monomoy Heights in his book A Nantucket Enclave, calling it “one of the most successful land developments of that time.” Several Lovelaces owned properties in the area along with the memorably named Lillicrap family.

Among the investors were the DeWolfs, who had grown rich as West Indian traders, including in the slave trade. Another, the pharmacist Charles Jaggar, was noted for a new-fangled soda fountain in his store on Main Street, now Nantucket Pharmacy (formerly Congdon’s).

Monomoy was still sparsely populated in 1927 when lawyer Morris Ernst looked across the harbor and mused, “That would be a good place to have a house.” His friends thought that he was crazy; too many mosquitoes. Unfazed, Ernst bought the land and enlisted the mosquito commissioner to drain the swamp, launching an era of growth. His house on the harbor was modeled on the White Elephant, ranch houses on either side for his children, plus a dock still there today.

Ernst became famous when he argued before the U.S. District Court to get James Joyce’s Ulysses admitted into the U.S., overturning Victorian-era obscenity laws. Known as a public intellectual, he was a confidant of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He championed every major social movement of the time – labor rights, civil rights, free speech, and birth control, and he was an early supporter of gay and lesbian rights.

On Nantucket, he found a way for the state to fund our first bike path, on Milestone Road, arguing that “roads for wheeled vehicles” didn’t specify how many wheels. He was instrumental in getting the ferry to come directly to Nantucket from the Cape, rather than Martha’s Vineyard and New Bedford. He never regretted his decision to build his house at 64 Monomoy Road in 1928: “Every dollar I put into that house would have been lost in the stock market.”

Ernst was one of many notable Monomoy residents.

The list also includes Bill Macomber, who served under five presidents and was U.S. ambassador to Jordan and then Turkey. A great Nantucket citizen, he was Chairman of the Atheneum and active with the School Committee, the Artists Association, Nantucket Historical Association, and the Boys and Girls Club, and was the Whaler’s #1 fan.

Flint Ranney was noted for more than his real estate firm and chairing the Steamship Authority but also for his vintage fire engine that led the Daffodil Weekend antique car parade (and staged the annual water fight with the Fire Department on July 4.)

Monomoy was home to two former presidents of the Nantucket Garden Club, which grants annual scholarships and beautifies the island with daffodils and the Main Street fountain – Pam Halsted and Elizabeth Murray.

Elizabeth’s husband Phil Murray was responsible for creating “Nantucket Reds” as owner of Murray’s Toggery.

Lucile Hays gave the land at the head of the Creeks where she and attorney Bill Hays lived for the new Land Bank park near the Rotary. A major supporter of the Boys and Girls Club, Lucile also backed the Atheneum and sponsored the Weezie Children’s Library.

The artist George Thomas captured Monomoy beaches and sunsets and other Nantucket scenes in evocative pastels. He conducted art classes in his gallery on Candle Street.

Chuck Geschke was a co-founder of Adobe, one of the world’s largest software companies. On Nantucket, he was a major supporter of the Boys and Girls Club and the Atheneum and sponsored its Geschke Lecture Series.

Sue Ottison is famous for her Lightship woven baskets, crafted with husband Karl and sister Susan Chase.

Award-winning journalist Mike Barnicle, a long-time columnist for The Boston Globe and a prominent voice of New England, now appears on Morning Joe and other national media.

A recent arrival in Monomoy, Dawn Holdgate, is chair on the Select Board and it's past chair.

Monomoy has many of the characteristics of a suburb, conveniently close to town with nearby shopping and other amenities, yet also out of the bustle with more dirt than paved roads, wetlands and sunset views over the harbor, two beaches, and open spaces. It is not coincidental that Nantucket’s first bike path originates near the start of Monomoy Road,

There is a strong community feeling engendered by the Monomoy Civic Association, with a sense of responsibility for all Nantucket, evidenced by generous support of the Food Bank during the Covid pandemic. Development with more homes, more roads, and more traffic place pressure on those elements that give it a quasi-rural character.

A proposed move of the Nantucket Cottage Hospital to the water company property on nearby Wyer’s Valley was averted, but the planned construction of 11,000 solar panels on the same property dramatizes the difficulty of balancing environmental sensitivity with development.

Monomoy has managed the balance well … so far.

Ken Roman, a seasonal resident in Monomoy for more than 40 years, is author of several books, a former advertising executive, and past president of the Monomoy Civic Association.


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