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Room with a View

For 45 years, a one-room waterfront shack in West Dennis provided a getaway for a group of Marlborough outdoorsmen.

waterfront shack in West Dennis

Photo Courtesy of John M. Carpenter

It was called “The Shooting Shanty,” and weathered, sepia photographs taken at the turn of the 20th century tell its story in a series of vignettes. One photo shows a spartan building with game birds hanging over the entrance, middle-aged men dressed in camouflage posing proudly with their heads thrust toward the sky, rifles resting at their sides. In another photo, they relax around a table—playing cards or reading or entering notes into a journal. In still another, they look at the camera, comfortable on rough bunk beds.

The Marlborough Brant Club was a one-room shanty constructed more than a century ago on a prime piece of Cape Cod waterfront real estate. Merely a stone’s throw from the shimmering waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the club once stood on five acres in the middle of West Dennis Beach on a spit of land off Davis Beach Road. But it was a club in name only—there weren’t any memberships, and no one who wasn’t already a member could join. But the five original landowners—all residents of Marlborough, Massachusetts—had access to a mile of beach on Nantucket Sound and the marshes on Bass River for hunting, fishing, and clamming. This was their treasured getaway destination to shoot brant (a kind of geese), play cards, and escape the stress of everyday life.

For nearly 50 years the club stood alone, with no other structure in sight except for the Lighthouse Inn far off in the distance. It survived winter nor’easters that sent the ocean’s waves surging against the structure. But it was blown away by a strong hurricane in September 1944. “I heard people say they saw it floating down Bass River,” says John Mason Carpenter III, 83, grandson of one of the original owners.

The interior of the shanty featured wide pine floors with exposed beams, and included bunk beds to accommodate six people. It had a pump that spewed salt water and a barely functional stove. It did not have electricity. An outhouse in a shed was attached to the bunkhouse, where a dory was stored. “My mother hated the place,” recalls Carpenter, who spent weekends there as a child and later came to the camp with high school friends. “You had to shake the mattresses and blankets when you got there to get the mice out—so we didn’t go much as a family. We thought it was a great place to go as kids; there were fiddler and horseshoe crabs, and a beautiful beach. But we were in the minority.”

Carpenter’s grandfather, the first John Mason Carpenter, purchased the land along with four fellow Marlborough residents in 1899 for $75. The friends built the bunkhouse in 1901. It could be considered one of the first timeshare properties. The five men, either together or at separate times, would drive three hours to West Dennis in the days before highways could slice that journey in half. Their passion was hunting and fishing, and there was ample opportunity to do both at this unspoiled, isolated spot. “He was a real sportsman,” Carpenter says of his grandfather. “We had some of his guns and rifles when we were kids. He owned some beautiful shotguns.” When the sun set, the men gathered around a long kitchen table, broke out the cards and the beer, and told stories late into the night.

waterfront shack in West Dennis

Photo Courtesy of John M. Carpenter

Shares in the club were passed down through the generations when the original owners died. The first John M. Carpenter passed away in 1914 and his share went to his son, John M. Carpenter II, who began traveling to the bunkhouse twice a year for four days in the spring and fall. The owner of a haberdashery he would lock the doors of his business on late Saturday night and depart for Cape Cod early Sunday morning. He would return to Marlborough with a bird in tow, a messy clean-up proposition that greatly displeased his wife, Florence. But shooting brant was no longer a priority by the late 1930s. “They didn’t take the guns anymore, just beer and a deck of cards,” his son recalls.

The occasional Carpenter family vacations during the Depression years were short and challenging. The road into the bunkhouse was little more than a half-mile dirt path and would often be washed out. That meant lugging in cider jugs of fresh water to be used for cooking and washing. Even when the road was passable, the travelers had to catch a ride from a local resident, Mr. Crowell, who owned a pickup truck and lived near the entrance to the path. “He would drive us in, but sometimes he had to deflate his tires for better traction,” Carpenter remembers.

The hurricane of ‘44 spelled the end of the Marlborough Brant Club. There was discussion about rebuilding the modest shanty, but it never happened. “Even if they had rebuilt after the hurricane, there was no way of holding on to it,” Carpenter, who now lives in Hingham, says. “A piece of property like that would have eventually been taken by eminent domain.”

Which is precisely what eventually took place. The Carpenter family retained ownership in some form for nearly 40 years through John M. Carpenter’s heirs and were affiliated with the club until it was disbanded. In June 1948, the five remaining owners, four from Marlborough, conveyed the deed to Helen M. Hall of Dennis. She sold the property one month later, and by November it was in the hands of August A. Kennedy. The land was taken over by the town of Dennis on March 23, 1954, to be used for a recreational land area. Kennedy was awarded $5,000 in damages.

John M. Carpenter III returned to the site of the shanty in the summer of 1945. The photograph above shows him as a young man, hands on hips, standing in the sand, surrounded only by beach grass. The club where he spent those lazy summer days with his family and friends existed only as a sweet memory.

Lou Sullivan is a frequent contributor to Cape Cod Life Publications.

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