THE HISTORY OF THE CAHOON MUSEUM BUILDING
This handsome colonial building was built during the American Revolution. Some people thought it was early as 1775, but Harriet Ropes Cabot, former head of the Bostonian Society, and local historian, concluded that it was built in 1782, the last year of the war of Independence. So that is the date shown on the plaque outside .
The popular Georgian style house of two stories presents a formal façade to the passing travelers: a centered front entryway between two windows on each side, matched by windows on the second story. The side-gabled roof is crowned by a large brick chimney.
This is the fourth oldest house in the village of Cotuit, preceded only by the place next door (1739), the Rev. Gideon Hawley House (1758), and Alvan Friday Crocker’s home across the street (1769).
This house was built in anticipation of the wedding of Zenas Crocker the First (1761-1807) in 1790 to his neighbor Hannah Bourne, of the distinguished and wealthy family that had established the first Indian church in Mashpee. Zenas’s namesakes still live nearby: Zenas VII recently died, leaving his home on Grand Island to his son Zenas VIII. But the first Zenas was the only one with the middle name Friday, named like his eight siblings after the day of the week they were born.
Zenas’s occupation was yeoman, that is, a farmer of his own land. In addition to this house he owned the ¾ acre orchard across the street, 50 acres of woodland by the Cotuit River, land next to Fuller’s Pond, the north end of Rushy Marsh cedar swamp that became the first Nickerson “Oregen”al settlement, a third of the Rye Field, woodland and meadow on Little Neck including the salt marshes that supported profitable raising cattle for beef .
An indication of Zenas’s prosperity and education is his hosting of the first meeting to establish a library, the Second Social Library of Barnstable in 1796 .
Four years later the famous President of Yale University, Rev. Timothy Dwight (1752-1817) visited here. In his Travels in New England he tells of calling on an old family friend in Mashpee, Rev. Gideon Hawley, missionary to the Indians. “The inn at which we dined was kept by a respectable family, who entertained us with great civility and kindness.” . Historian Cabot supposed that this may have been the Zenas Crocker place, which became a popular inn 20 years later. President Dwight then tells of going to Rev. Hawley’s house, which we know to be a few hundred yards away.
After Zenas’s death in 1806 it was the home of his nephew Ezra Crocker (1775-1843), who carried on the farming as a gentleman farmer, but also worked as a blacksmith, numerouswe do not know where, though there was an active blacksmithy on the river nearby. He also was a carpenter, who headed the town committee to build the first town hall, at the corner of Race Lane and Oak Streets, where it still stands as the Veritas School .
In 1821 Ezra opened a wayside inn, on this well-traveled highway halfway between Falmouth and the shire town of Barnstable. Tradition has it that Daniel Webster, the famous statesman and Secretary of State stayed here on his visit while fishing in Mashpee. Evidence of the popularity of the inn can be seen in the hooks on the attic rafters which held leather partitions to separate the beds of overnight guests.
On Ezra’s death in 1843 we do not know if the tavern continued, but the house was inherited by his son Captain David Crocker (1802-75), who was probably at sea. His obituary gives a praiseful tribute to his character: “to his friends, he was a man loved, trusted and honored as few aare, or deserve tobe. His ever ready response to the poor and needy was so prudently practiced that none but the eye of God, ‘who notices the sparrow’s fall,’ can over know of the many acts of benevolence he has performed. From his lips and daily life have been many enduring examples of truth and morality.” David had no sons, but three daughters: Julia who died young, Ellen who was left a widow with two young children after the death of her seafaring husband Capt. William Gage in San Francisco. The surviving sister, Susan Crocker lived until 1933. “Susie”, as she was called, owned much of the idle farmland and woodland of Cotuit, and sold off small portions to the Portuguese immigrants from the Azores who turned the land into rich market gardens after 1897.
Susie had retired to city life in Somerville, and in 1922 sold the old farmhouse to Frank L. Handy, a descendant of the old Cotuit family that had built ships at Little River since 1800. Frank’s daughter Florence Handy open a tearoom in the west parlor of this house, serving drinks, cake and cookies to the passing tourists of the new automobile age when thirsty travelers stopped for refreshment on the state highway between Hyannis and Falmouth. Florence was an accomplished musician who taught piano lessons after teaching fourth and fifth grades in the Cotuit School.
In the 1920s the Handys removed the ell on the west side, and moved it to the west side of Main Street near the Santuit Post Office as a home for a widow Lovell and her numerous children. This house was later demolished.
After the Second World War Florence Handy and her father had died, and widow Alice Handy sold the old house to the artists Ralph and Martha Cahoon. Martha described its condition: “For heat, Mrs. Handy burned coal in a kitchen range and a round tin parlor stove. The bathroom and bedroom over the living room also had registers which took the chill off the rooms. Kitchen pipes would freeze in zero weather. When the wind was strong it blew up through the cracks in the floorboards and actually blew a bulge in the carpet!”. .
The artist Ralph E. Cahoon (1910-82) was native Cape Codder, born in Chatham, descendant of Scottish immigrants whose name we recognize as Calhoun. He was married in 1932 to Martha Farham (1905-99), daughter of a Swedish immigrant furniture painter, who came to the Cape in 1910. After Ralph and Martha’s wedding, in 1933 she bought the old Bennett House on west Main Street in Osterville, where they painted and showed their furniture (Barnstable deed 493/559). The move to the Crocker House in Cotuit gave them an outlet on the new highway 28.
The Cahoons’ first show on Long Island in 1953 launched a successful career, which featured Ralph’s mermaids, and Martha’s scenes of rural life as it was in Cotuit in the days of Crocker’s Tavern.
After Ralph’s death Rosemary Rapp, wife of the Cotuit physician, bought the house in 1982, with Martha continuing to live and paint in the east wing until her death, at 89. Mrs. Rapp opened the Cahoon Museum of American Art on 19 Sept. 1984, featuring the work of the Cahoons. In 1984 the house was placed on the register of National Historic Places.
National Hist. Register CTA 3.
. Barnstable Deeds, town book 5/144-5, 3 June 1800.
minutes in Sturgis Library.
1 Oct. 1800, p. 68, 1969 edition; original vol. III, letter XI, pub. 1822
Barnstable Patriot 29 Feb. 1837.
Barnstable Patriot 1 June 1875.
Cindy Nickerson, “History of the Building and Museum”, c. 2006.
Archive for July, 2013
THE HISTORY OF THE CAHOON MUSEUM BUILDING