Scroll to the bottom of this story for a photo gallery featuring the exhibits at the newly opened Cobb House.
Brewster is the Sea Captain’s town of Cape Cod, and now you can experience what life was like 200 years ago thanks to The Brewster Historical Society.
The Society has reopened the iconic Elijah Cobb House as a living museum after meticulously restoring and renovating the Federal-style, “square rigger” structure built in 1799 with its two-story symmetrical construction, hip roof, classical entry, corner quoins, double chimneys and widow’s walk, where we can imagine Cobb’s wife “watching” for her husband’s return from sea.
Located on Lower Road just off historic Route 6A, the Elijah Cobb House brings to life a Cape Cod community and commerce nurtured by the sea.
Cobb, born in what now is Harwich, was raised in the shadows of the American Revolution. A historic excerpt about this native son encapsulates an entire generation of his peers. “Elijah Cobb is well worth bringing to light because he was so completely typical, from his piety and his eccentric spelling to his mastery of difficulties. The romance of the sea meant nothing to him, although he sailed in constant peril of pirate and privateer and of foundering in a gale of wind. … What he called a good ship was not much larger than a canal boat, with a few men and boys to handle it.”
Just 13 years old, Cobb took to sea for the first time on a packet schooner, becoming a cabin boy and cook. By 23, he was already a master, sailing to the West Indies and South America. On one voyage to Europe, his ship was seized by a French privateer.
Exhibiting an uncanny spirit, he traveled to France, where his cargo of rice and flour was confiscated to feed the starving populace. He eventually finagled a meeting with Robespierre who was duly impressed and helped Cobb be reimbursed for his loss. Only a few days after his successful encounter with Robespierre, Cobb actually watched the architect of France’s Reign of Terror die by guillotine.
In the early 1800s, Cobb was making numerous voyages on his ship, the Paragon, not only to Europe, but also to Africa. He left the sea for good in 1820 to live in his home in Brewster. He served in several town offices including Justice of the Peace, state Representative and Senator.
His 5-bedroom home, built the same year George Washington died, sits on 1.4 acres not far from the Brewster General Store and First Parish Church, which was Brewster’s historic downtown. Back then, his property stretched all the way to Cape Cod Bay and included what today is known as Cobb’s Pond.
When it reopens as early as 2016, visitors not only will experience how Cobb and his family lived 200 years ago, but also enjoy the Historical Society’s entire museum, which will move from its current location on Route 6A.
Restoring the Cobb House has been a true labor of love, as the society’s board and volunteers were cheerleaders for the entire town of Brewster. “We had phenomenal support,” said the Society’s Sally Gunning, a well-known historical novelist, who has written The Widow’s War, Bound, The Rebellion of Jane Clarke, and Benjamin Franklin’s Bastard.
With the help of a $350,000 Community Preservation Act contribution by Brewster, a $55,000 grant from the local Mary Louise and Ruth N. Eddy Foundation and more than 700 individual contributions, the Society was able to purchase the home earlier this year. Now, it is well on its way to obtaining funds for the full restoration, supported by a $150,000 matching grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
Fortunately, the Cobb House never fell into total disrepair because it has been almost always occupied since Elijah’s era, including by one of his great-granddaughters, Caroline Dugan, who lived there until 1941.
“We’ve relied on four preservationists as well as several architects to guide our restoration plans,” explained Gunning. The entire front of the house on both the first and second floors – essentially unchanged for 200 years – is dedicated to the museum, while the current kitchen in the back, which has been remodeled over the years, has become the gift shop.
“We are so excited not only to restore the Cobb tradition, but also to finally have capacity for the museum to fulfill its ambitions. For example, we could only accommodate seven children for our school vacation boat building program at our current location,” said Gunning.
A permanent home for the museum
Now 50 years old, the historical society had been under the Cape’s radar until the acquisition of the Cobb House. It’s never had a permanent home, moving from its original location at the First Parish Church to the town library and then the old town hall.
Despite its somewhat nomadic existence, the museum has managed to expertly preserve Brewster’s treasures – from artifacts of the Cape’s whaling tradition to an actual section of the old East Brewster Post Office – and make them accessible to the public. “Now, our museum building itself will be part of the legacy,” said Gunning.
Brewster is known as the Sea Captain’s Town. If you’re a golfer, note that all 36 holes at the Captain’s Course in town are named after native sonship captains and masters.
Gunning scripted a Sea Captain’s Tour of Brewster that includes tea at the Candleberry Inn. This summer, the Society will be offering this tour, which includes a stop at the Brewster Cemetery on Lower Road near the Cobb House. “All the sea captains are buried there,” explained Gunning. To make the tour as interactive as possible, they have included a scavenger hunt to locate the tombstones of those masters of the sea. The tour also includes a sea captain’s tea at historic Candleberry Inn.
One of Gunning’s novels features a house inspired by an actual home on Briar Lane that is part of The Widow’s War Tour of Satucket Village. (Brewster 1761). The current owner often invites the tour members inside and describes the architecture of the residence that dates to 1717. Other stops on the Widow’s War Tour include the herring run and grist mill, Windmill Village, and refreshments at Hopkins House Bakery.
In the next year, the Cobb House will be a center of activity, with contractors – from builders to painters – restoring the structure with an acute eye on historical detail. Some of them have previously worked on restoring the Bramble inn, Hopkins House, Candleberry Inn and Brewster Store, explained Gunning.
The project manager, Phil Lindquist, is a retired architect and licensed construction supervisor who – along with many others – is volunteering his time to the restoration, which will include the roof; electrical system; conversion to natural gas; heating, cooling and humidity control (critical to preserve museum artifacts), plastering and painting.
When the Cobb House opens to the public, it will exhibit primarily in the two front rooms on both floors as well as a major hallway. Beyond its larger size – up to 2,600 square feet – the new museum has significantly more wall space and ceiling height to accommodate exhibits. Its current location suffers from only 1700 square feet of space and a plethora of windows. The Cobb House’s windows actually feature original interior shutters that can collapse into their borders.
Volunteers drive the museum
At the heart of the Historical Society are its volunteers like Gunning, whose family roots on the Cape go back 300 years. While researching her family tree, she visited the Society’s museum. The experience changed her life in many ways, including a transition from writing mystery novels to writing historic fiction.
Along the way, she was recruited to become a member of the Society’s board. “I saw the Cape’s history emerge before my eyes,” she recalls. “I am now sitting in a room in the Cobb House that is exactly as it was in 1799. It transforms you. It captures your imagination.”
Many board members and volunteers are like Gunning, with a deep and abiding connection to Brewster. That converts a fundraising campaign into something very personal, explains Society member Bill Roberts.
To become a volunteer, please click here.
For more Society events and more about Elijah Cobb please click here.