The Living Past
Cape Cod Life / September/October 2011 / History, People & Businesses
Writer: Jill Jansson / Photographer:
The Osterville Historical Museum’s Cammett House enshrines the life of Cape Cod villagers centuries ago.
At first glance, the house at 155 West Bay Road looks like just another building in Osterville nestled off of the village’s quiet, shaded town center. But beyond its picket fence, behind its crimson front door, and underneath its classic Cape-grey shingles, the Cammett House reveals its true nature as a one-of-a-kind architectural wonder that has survived decades of change and development. Those who take the time to look beyond the house’s modest façade will find themselves taking a step way back in time.
The Cammett House became part of the Osterville Historical Museum’s educational compound 30 years ago when it was saved from demolition. Characterized by unique “one-room-deep” architecture—a narrow foundation, measuring one 16 ½-foot beam from front to back that is native to the Cape, yet rare to find in its original form—the house serves as the perfect emblem of historical Osterville’s humble beginnings. Cathy Wright, the museum’s curator, says, “The things from history that get saved are the things that represent power and wealth because they tend to be more durable and appreciated. It is wonderful to have an example of how most people lived.”
The Cammett House, a petite, unadorned, quaint structure has been traced back to the house’s first known residents, John and Eliza Cammett and their son David, who occupied the home during the early to mid-1800s. The home offered a simple lifestyle for the fisherman’s family. In the poor farmer’s village Osterville once was, the residents were rarely sea captains or wealthy merchants. More often than not, they were ordinary families making a quiet living off of the coastal trade.
The house stayed in the Cammett family for three generations, then was home to a litany of village families for another century or so. During that time plumbing, electricity, fireplace mantles, modern day appliances, and a kitchen ell were all added to the home to make it livable through the 20th century, but the core construction and architectural character of the “one-room-deep” house fortunately remained intact and visible.
As it stands today, Cammett House is a four-room structure sitting atop the museum’s two-acre lot overlooking the golf course greens of the Wianno Fairways, which were once rolling hills of farmland. One step inside and visitors slowly move away from Osterville’s upscale surroundings, and seaside village life from long ago floods back from the past. The main entry way is situated behind a colonial herb garden, where Mrs. Cammett once harvested her lavender, thyme, and rosemary for meals and medicines. Through the doorway is the kitchen ell, an 1840’s addition, complete with a beehive oven and a cool, underground, whitewashed root cellar, where the family would store their herbs, spices, and butters. To the left is the main, original living room with low ceilings, which retained the heat from a central fireplace. In this room, the Cammett family would have spent the entirety of their days cooking, spinning cloth, eating, playing, and washing, and then at night they would retire to the lofted sleeping area up above. Adjacent to the main living area is a former parlor, a sitting area with two adjacent bedrooms, which were added years after the Cammetts lived in the house.
For the museum’s exhibition purposes, one of the bedrooms was turned into a stairwell, leading to the basement viewing area, which offers a close-up look underneath an 1840s post and beam foundation, which is essentially made up of crisscrossed oak logs—still bearing visible bark on the undersides—running 16 ½ inches horizontally, the optimum length for sturdiness. Any longer and the beams would begin to sag and require a joist or second supporting beam. The basement offers a fascinating firsthand look at a 19th-century builder’s handiwork.
The Cammett House is believed to be the second oldest house still in existence in Osterville, dating back approximately 250 years ago—but no one seems to know for sure. It is a historical mystery that requires some further digging to uncover the exact truth—maybe even an unexpected truth, says Wright.
Phyllis Cole, the museum’s former curator and a historical society board member during the acquisition of the Cammett House, has been doing her fair share of research over the years and says that despite the 1728 marker on the house’s original chimney, there is no way the Cammett House, in its entirety, dates back that early. Today, Cammett House’s puzzle pieces are still falling into place.
Cole’s deep connections to this historical treasure began when she received a call from Agnes Crocker, a family friend, alerting her of the plans to wreck the Cammett House. The elderly woman who had owned the home passed away and left the property to her niece, who sold it to developers looking to turn the property into condominiums. Crocker told Cole the developers would give it to the historical society for a buck, but the catch was they needed to remove it from its original location on 914 Main Street in 10 days. “Ten days?!” Cole exclaimed, alarmed by the news and the urgent deadline. Without a second thought, she took action. “I wanted to see the historical society save the Cammett House,” says Cole.
As a result of Crocker’s phone call to Cole, the historical society sprang into action and pulled out all stops to save the house. Cammett House’s stone foundation was removed and the house was lifted onto wheels and carted to its new location at the museum. Those 10 days were a flurry of building and zoning evaluations, planning meetings, and spreading the word to rally support among villagers to raise funds for the move. Before they knew it, happy historical society members watched the Cammett House be towed behind a tractor-trailer truck to its new home on West Bay Road.
That move was only the beginning. There were still mountains to climb in terms of preservation: Cole oversaw the reconstruction, which lasted through the summer of 1983. “You can’t beat moving a house to see how things are put together,” she says. Working with Cape builders, John Mackenzie and Ray McKeon, Cammett House was restored to its original 1840s glory. The builders stripped the Cape classic of its modern-day amenities and sanded through years and years worth of paint and wallpaper to expose the home’s original gray interior walls.
This level of accuracy and untainted historical architecture makes the Cammett House an educational treasure. Bob Frazee, a historical preservationist consultant who was also a board member during the move in 1981 says, “People who enter the house can smell it, feel it, and see it in its original form. It is an in-depth educational opportunity to see construction preserved through the years. It’s a study house for both adults and young people to be introduced to preservation.” The Osterville Historical Museum share this hands-on educational experience community-wide by hosting local schools’ historical field trips such as “A Day in the Life of Mrs. Cammett,” where a costumed Mrs. Cammett brings her home to life, guiding the students through her herb garden and then to her rocking chair, where she spends her day spinning.
Last year,the museum received funding to renovate the Cammett House from the Community Preservation Coalition, the founding group of the Massachusetts Community Preservation Act. Through March 2011 Cammett House was under construction to make improvements to the foundation and kitchen ell and to repair more than 10 windows.
At last, Cammett House is safely preserved as a showcase of Cape Cod’s history. Today, it is protected by the Historical Preservation Restrictions of the Massachusetts Historical Commission, meaning Cammett House is immune from any future surrounding development. This gracious old house is untouchable forever—a historic Cape Cod gem for generations to come.
Jill Jansson is an editorial intern at Cape Cod Life Publications.
By Jill Jansson
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