Cape Cod National Seashore came alive this past week. A portion of the Olmsted Center, Minuteman, SUNY-ESF (Environmental Science and Forestry), and Salem Maritime staff and interns participated in a 5-day field workshop – collecting and inventorying Cape Cod National Seashore’s mid-modern homes, Pamet Cranberry Bog, and Baker-Biddle property. Standing on the homestead and experiencing the landscape firsthand invigorates my interest in the site’s history and the narratives of its inhabitants.
The Baker House (ca. 1792): The front of the main house faces south, a feature of a traditional Cape, and is perched on a slight terrace above a wetland meadow. A millstone serves a step and intricate carvings adorn the framing of the door.
My research of the “Cape Cod lifestyle” began before even arriving to the Baker-Biddle site. The readings I completed the week prior told of a rugged landscape that slowly morphed over centuries into the vacation destination recognized today. Once off Route 6, thick scrub oak-pine forests enclose pocketed, sandy drives; as one moves through, Cape houses of various ages peek out of thin openings in the vegetation. It takes a far stretch of the imagination to see the land that David Baker Jr., who built the Baker-Biddle main house, saw when he settled on Bound Brook Island in 1792. He saw cleared land, farms, and an active shoreline. A century and a half later, life on the Cape shifted from homesteads to the seasonal retreats of artists and intellectuals – Jack Hall included. By the time the Biddles called Bound Brook Island (by then, no longer an island) home, forests had replaced fields and gardens contained flowers and ornamentals rather than crucial subsidence for the family. I knew what to expect at the end of the swooping drive to the Baker-Biddle site, but I did not know how I would find it or what had faded into the past.
Debriefing the Inventory Team: Bill Burke (center, with brimmed hat) explains the history of the site to the group in the shade of a large tree-of-heaven. Behind him is the north façade of the main house.
The connection of research-knowledge to experiential, firsthand-knowledge requires you to retell stories in your head. What was this? What was it before? And, why? I found the arrangement of the structures, buildings, and components of the landscape most interesting, because of the intention evident behind the spatial organization. Cleared of objects and all evidence of habitation, at times the site felt barren; nevertheless, there were many moments while in the space providing an ephemeral quality of place – immeasurable even by photograph.
When Jack Hall arranged the outbuildings, and later when the Biddles renovated them to conform to their lifestyle, great attention was given to tiny details that prevail today. We found many of these examples while inventorying the site. A mature catalpa growing from a private patio off the back of the Randolf Biddle Cottage engulfs the converted barn in a veil of privacy. An arbor in a garden hedge, overgrown with wisteria and honeysuckle, continues to create a passage from the main house lawn to the formal garden Katherine Biddle so lovingly maintained. Jack Hall’s reinvented whaling shed peaks out from the west side of the home, where in-between a brick patio shows signs of frequent use – for possibly both relaxation and lively gatherings. From the south side of the house, an overgrown meadow must have held gardens or pastures – possibly during the Bakers’ time, offered a clean view to Duck Harbor and the vats of their saltworks. These snip-its of the landscape anchor themselves in stories from the past – the inventory began to solidify and verify the many tales of Bound Brook Island.
Remnants of Katherine’s Gardens: Little remains of the Biddles’ formal garden, which was located to the north of the main house and extended up the hillside. A brick-lined pebble path circled an elaborate ornamental planting.
Bill Burke, Cape Cod National Seashore Historian and Cultural Resource Program Manager, joined us during the site visit and provided interpretation and narrative, which helped to animate the stagnant aspects of the landscape. By incorporating specific research to the general Cape Code narrative, Bill described the history of the place as it was experienced by the inhabitants. We engaged in a historical photograph activity, which tasked teams to identify the location where historic scenes occurred and to recreate them to match the photographs provided. Although the heat of the day wore on us, the team discovered the photos’ locations and reenacted the (sometimes comical) scenes – family gatherings, lounging in the garden, a candid action shot, and even feeding some goats.
Photograph Scavenger Hunt: Nearly a half-century prior, a lively group posed for a photo in front of the Delight Cottage. Since then, much has changed.
None of the photos depicted the homestead during the Bakers time prompting me to reflect on what I would have seen if such photographs existed. Bound Brook Island provided the Bakers ‘farmstead living,’ a means to survive, and a base for a functional, devoted lifestyle. I imagine Thankful Baker laboring day after day to tend to the needs of her large family, and David Baker returning to his wife after weeks on his packet vessel, but always relieved to find his children working on the saltworks and gristmill. The Cape Cod aesthetics that today we recognize for their sentimental qualities – millstones, split-rail fences, crushed shell drives, and weathered cedar siding – lacked no amount of functionality 200 years ago and carried a far greater weight.
Jack Hall’s head swirled with modernist designs and Bauhaus architectural theory during his occupancy on Cape Cod; nonetheless, his passion for authentic, resourcefully constructed Cape Cod homesteads prevails in the modifications he made on the Baker-Biddle site. The Baker-Biddle home anchored him to Cape Cod and, conversely, allowed him to engage in the intellectual society prominent during the mid-twentieth century. The modern houses Hall designed, like the Hatch Cottage that we visited during the trip, reflects an intentional, deliberate organization of space and functionality. He incorporated this organization, prior, in the way he developed the Baker-Biddle site. Adjacent to the main house, he sited a guest cottage (Delight Cottage); to the north, he placed a barn to be used for his hobby farm; and nearer to the drive, he rebuilt a barn that housed his studio. I journeyed through the Baker-Biddle homestead, just as I had the Hatch Cottage just a day before: feeling an intimate validation of space to its use. The site is cohesive and complete. Additionally, it lends a feeling of expanse and vastness; I cannot imagine living there alone, as Jack did; so, I trust he was the host to many social gatherings, just as the Biddles had in the years following his occupancy.
As the site’s final owners, the Biddles sought to live their golden years (well, just the warm seasons) in the place they could find both respite and entertainment. The Biddles prominent social influence brought numerous “grand…large, and lavish” parties to their residence. However, Katherine and Francis Biddle also allocated a large portion of their time on Cape Cod to a collection of literary novels and poems, which they composed in their barn ‘writing studio.’ Although hardly recognizable today as a formal garden from where Katherine would have gazed out her studio’s window, the landscape is no less than inspiring. I am amazed at how quickly, 50 years, the succession of vegetation in Cape Cod reverts landscape back into wild – a transformation frequently noted by Thoreau during his visits to the Cape.
The Baker-Biddle site prepares to enter a fourth era of occupancy, in a culmination of visitation and adoption as a part of Cape Cod. With its transfer to the National Parks Service, the homestead was spared by the culturally destructive forces of subdivision, and protects a window into the evolving lifestyle of Cape Code settlers.
An Old Road Trace: A popular Bound Brook Island road passed to the west of the homestead, but presents today as only a grassy trail through the forest. We found wooden posts along the trace that marks out a fence line.
So, Baker-Biddle site? What lies ahead for you?
That is the conversation on the table, often followed by the inquiry of ‘how?’ An inevitable side effect of time includes not just our changes to the landscape, but also the changes and maturation of the land independently. Duck Harbor is gone, the vibrant fishing industry dried up, and the Baker’s parcel (once 180 acres total) has been reduce to a mere 10 acres. These changes add challenge to the interpretation and reenactment of history.
I left the Baker-Biddle homestead inspired by the essential ruggedness only found in the Cape Cod National Seashore – whether you fought it for your survival, you explored it with creative vigor, or sought it as your haven. Tomorrow (figuratively) we seek to balance the site’s future between remnants of the past and tangible narratives of today.
Until next time,