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The Living Past

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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