About Me

Growing up in a small New England town with a mother who was an antiquarian it was inevitable that I would be exposed to old things. After graduating from UMass/Amherst I lived in Connecticut, taught school, married, and raised three children in suburbia. A move to Newburyport MA renewed my interest in all things old. This background has now evolved into research, writing, consulting and all the things I love to do.

Prudence Fish

Monday, October 10, 2016



Cape style houses with gambrel roofs, now known as "Cape Ann Cottages" are what I call the signature houses of Cape Ann.  These are the modest little houses that the Cape Ann fishermen and farmers called home.  They dotted the shoreline beginning in Manchester by the Sea and continued around Gloucester and Rockport never too far from the shore.  Most were built between 1740 and 1790.

Gloucester's great historian, John James Babson, stated that at the height of their popularity there were about three hundred and fifty of these little houses.  For many years now I have been recording the ones that exist, the ones that are now attached to larger houses and the ones that were moved to a new site.  I have also recorded the ones of which I have been made aware but no longer exist.  

The count now stands at only fifty nine and not growing very fast these days. In March of 2014 I did a blog post on these little cottage houses which you might want to check out.


A few years ago knowing that I had an interest in these little houses, Fred Buck, the photo archivist at the Cape Ann Museum sent me a scan of a 19th century watercolor painting of one of these cottage houses.  It was on its last legs and to see it you would immediately know that it wouldn't be there much longer.  The big chimney was missing with just a gaping hole in the roof, one corner of the house was missing and the window sash was just hanging or missing..
Circa 1774 Cape Ann Cottage originally built across the street from Plum Cove Beach in what was then called Plum Cove Pasture  Artist unknown.  Courtesy of Cape Ann Museum.
Even so the painting was charming.  It had been a very sweet house sitting  up on a small knoll. There was a stonewall and an outcropping of granite for which the neighborhood was famous. On the back it indicated that it was Mr. Griffin's house near Plum Cove.

I really wanted to know where it had been.  With a friend we searched for a similar outcroppings of rock.  She thought it was in one area and I thought another.  Turns out it was neither.

Last weekend I was doing my volunteer shift at the first period White-Ellery house. An interested visitor struck up a conversation and told me about her house that was built in 1878 and she was only the third owner of the property.  
This very sweet Victorian house was built by Austin Griffin of
Lanesville in 1878. Who knew  the secret hidden under the house? 
She then told me that local historian, Barbara Erkkila had told an interesting story in the 1980s. According to the story which was published in the Gloucester Times the first owner of her house was William Northway, a man with a family who had come from England to Cape Ann and worked in the granite quarries. Barbara Erkkila quoted him as saying that when he was digging a cellar hole (probably for an addition) he came across another very old foundation, the base for a chimney and a threshold. (possibly a door stone?)

Immediately I had a thought.  What if her house was built on the site of the long gone Cape Ann Cottage?  I couldn't wait to check the deeds.  I quickly found Mr. Northway in 1878.  He had bought it from Austin Griffin, a "house carpenter".  Griffin!  The name on the back of the painting.

I thought I was on a roll but that would have been too good to be true.  I struggled through so many deeds and probates with complications I almost gave up.  Here are the basics.

Peter Sargent married in 1774 and probably built his "homestead" as it was referred to, shortly after if not before, placing date of the house right before the Revolution   Since these houses were mostly built between 1740 and 1790 this date would be exactly right.  Peter lost his first wife and then married "Lucy" his second wife. 

Peter died in 1811.  At that point the house was divided.  It was customary for the widow to get 1/3 of the marital property.  Usually the wife could live there until she died or remarried.  In other words she did not have outright ownership but what today we would call a "life estate".  After her death the title of the house would revert to other heirs.  The deeds referred to the "reversion of the dower" or the widow's third reverting back to others and by doing so the entire house would be whole again and no longer encombered by her dower.

Here is the description of the house in 1813, one third  of which went to Lucy, the widow, as her "widow's third".  From the inventory of Peter's estate comes this description of the house.

"Also, one small dwelling house standing on said mowing land one story high with a gambrel roof, only one room tenantable , all the rest unfinished."

This portrays the house perfectly.  There were only two rooms downstairs,one for the widow.  The front room was the only one plastered and finished.  The rest of the house was probably whitewashed on the interior.  Perhaps there was one "chamber" whitewashed on the second floor and the rest was garrett.

This portion of the division of the property described the house as it was divided in a way that is hard to understand but must have made sense to those involved.

 "The wall which divides the fore room from the back room as it now stands together with the fore entry also the cellar from the fore side  sill as is plumb with the northeastern side of the third sleeper the whole width of the cellar from end to end.  Also a privilege to wash, bake and brew in the back room as there is no oven only in the back room , also a privilege to the well, there being none in her enclosure, the dwelling house standing partly on the third.  There being no way to go  up to the chamber or garrett only in the fore entry and the way down cellar or attic in the fore entry so that whoever shall own or occupy the remainder of the dwelling house is to have the privilege of going up stairs and down cellar in the fore Entry which  parts of the dwelling house privilege amounts to $33.00".

So Lucy had the front room but had the right to use the back room which would be someone else's part of the two family house.  That is where the cooking fireplace was located and she could use the fireplace with the bake oven for "washing, baking or brewing".  Makes one wonder what Lucy was brewing!

The people with whom she would share the house had the right to go through her room if they needed to go upstairs or down to the cellar from the entry near the front door.

What is astonishing is that this was a typical arrangement and a typical household.  Many rooms were not plastered and during the time the widow lived in her third of the house others were occupying the rest.  It seems like an impossible arrangement when you think of the discomfort, the close quarters and what they had to put up with but this description is reality.  In many instances the families were large, cramming a lot of people into a tiny house.

Lucy was awarded her third when her husband's estate was finally settled in 1813.  She lived there until she died in 1835.

Lucy's son by her first marriage was living there but in 1838 he died and his wife, Hannah then got her widow's third of the house. The estate appealed to the court saying that Hannah was in frail health and had no friends or relatives.  But by 1839 she appears to have vacated and apparently got married.

The next owner, William Langsford, held it from 1839 to 1863.  In 1863 it was purchased, both land and house, by people named Lucas.  In 1877 the property was sold to William Northway with no mention of a house.  The shaky, worn out old house seems to have disappeared.  

Mr Northway purchased the property from Austin Griffin, a house carpenter.  Probably he is the one who tore the cottage down to build the new house that is there today but already an antique itself at one hundred and thirty nine years old.

Now the present owner of the house who thought only three families had lived on that land knows that a lot more went on there before Mr Northway owned his little Victorian house and while digging in the cellar found the old foundation and chimney base.

And now I know the story of Mr. Griffin's Cape Ann Cottage.

So the cottage mystery came to an interesting conlusion but there was one more watercolor of a similar Cape Ann cottage.  It was sitting close to a road.  I have no idea where it is or most likely where it was! I really don't think it has survived.  Maybe some of you who read this will have a clue. 
This quaint old house by the side of the road has not been identified .  It may not exist.
Courtesy of Greg Gibson and the Ten Pound Island Book Company
As in the case of the cottage at Plum Cove I am hoping that someone, some day when we least expect it will come forward with a story and another mystery house will be identified.

For now: one down, one more to go!

Note:  The present house was built by Austin Griffin.

The Samuel Griffin family came from to Annisquam from Newbury in the early days of the 18th century. Samuel was a housewright. His son, Oliver, lived nearby also in Annisquam but his grandson, Tristram Griffin, settled in Riverdale in another Cape Ann cottage on Washington St. now gone.

The next generation, Tristram Griffin, his son, was born there in Riverdale in1840 in his words "in the shadow of Pole Hill".  After the Civil War the second Tristram became an early architect, living and working in Malden but always interested in the history of his home town.  After Gloucester High School burned Tristram designed Central Grammar, later renovated by another well know architect,  Ezra Phillips.

Tristram's brother, Thaddeus, born in 1842 was a house painter.

Another brother, Austin Griffin, was born in Riverdale in 1846 and built houses.  He settled in Lanesville and most likely built his own house on Washington Street with remarkable woodwork.

A talent for designing and building must run in the genes of this old Cape Ann family! 


  1. We have a couple of gamble roof Capes in Ipswich. The Nathaniel Hodgkins house on Turkey Shore: https://storiesfromipswich.org/nathaniel-hodgkins-house-48-turkey-shore-road/ and the Joseph Fowler house on High Street.https://storiesfromipswich.org/joseph-fowler-house-100-high-st/

    1. Hi Gordon, I had completely forgotten about the Hodgkins house on Turkey Shore. I was in it a long time ago. I was also in the Wade house on Wood's Lane when it was empty. Jim kyprianos and I argued not to tear off the ell with the only cooking fireplace. I loved the story of the letter from Washington to Col. Wade sending him to West Point when Benedict Arnold defected. I have never been in the one on High St. As for as I know there are none in Essex or Rowley.

  2. Hello Prudence, In 1876 the Centennial caused a lot of interest in the Colonial period. Occasionally I find 19th century photos of early houses, sometimes in ruined condition (the houses, that is). Unfortunately, if the photos are not labeled, or even have a photographer's stamp, it is difficult to ascertain where they were, especially if there are few distinctive details.

  3. Hi Jim, From time to time I see old house photos at the flea market and wonder where they are. In 1883 a company, Corliss and Ryan, came to Gloucester and photographed most of the houses in the central city usually with the owner standing in front. The Cape Ann Museum has a huge collection of these photos that so interesting and helpful in doing research and homeowners are thrilled to see a old picture of their house. Gloucester is lucky to have access to so many.

  4. Hi. I grew up in the Nathaniel Hodgkins house in Ipswich. It had a tunnel going down to the river, as was true of two other houses in town, 19 North Main (where I was an au pair girl) and the Heard House (where my sister was a tour guide). So I got to go inside all three tunnels. They were used to smuggle taxed goods to the colonists before the Revolutionary War and as a hiding place for escaped slaves in the Civil War.

    1. Hi urbangipsy, I was so interested in your comments. I sold RE in Ipswich for a long time specializing in old houses so I immediately looked up your addresses. Of course I have been in the Heard house many times but did not know about a tunnel. I also was in the house on Turkey Shore once and sold the Emerson Howard house facing the bridge to the people who own it now. I looked up the house on North Main and although I was never in there I sold my Peugeot wagon to the owners. I have never heard of any of these tunnels! I know of some in Newburyport and the subject of those comes up often but not in Ipswich. I was at the house on Turkey Shore with other brokers because I have had a special interest in gambrel capes. There is another on Woods Lane and one on High St. On Cape Ann there were many but less than 60 remaining in various states of repair and altered. Thank you so much for calling this to my attention. Very interesting.