WHAT NANTUCKET MEANS TO ME

Today’s post is a long one, but one that holds a lot of meaning for me and my family. I asked my mom to help write about our family’s history on Nantucket, where Will and I will be married this September. I know Nantucket has become a hot vacation destination in recent years, but to me it is the place that connects my siblings and me to our parents, our grandparents, and their parents and grandparents dating back to the 1880s.

It’s the place I visited the summer before I was even born, the place I learned to swim with all my siblings and cousins, the place where I’ve ordered the same ice cream flavor the past twenty-seven years and counting. It’s where my parents were married and where I grew up knowing I’d want to be married too, the place where we scattered my grandfather’s ashes, and the place that Will and I will become husband and wife.

It’s a place that is never easy to get to but always worth the trip, a place with a rich history and incredible natural beauty. It is so much more to me than a pretty backdrop for our wedding and so I asked my mom and Grandy to help tell the story of my family and our favorite place. I’m so happy to have a digital home to record all these stories and I hope they will interest some of you as well. I hope you enjoy!

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Walking into ‘Sconset Chapel, circa 1994. Here’s hoping I look this good come September! 😉

– – –

Our family’s love affair with Nantucket started well over a hundred years ago.

Dr. Charles Oliver, my great-great-grandfather, was an eye surgeon at Philadelphia Wills Eye Hospital. It was 1887 and he had just completed a fairly new procedure called cataract surgery. In those days, patients recuperated for days in the hospital with sandbags positioned on either side of the head to ensure immobility. (Today this same surgery takes no more than 30 minutes and you can be out the door 15 minutes later, according to my mom, a peri-operative nurse.)

Dr. Oliver’s patient informed him that he couldn’t afford to pay him for the surgery, but that in exchange for his new eyesight he would give him two plots of land on the North Bluff of an island off the coast of Massachusetts.

My great aunt, Katharine Stanley-Brown Abbott, wrote that Charles Oliver visited Nantucket for the first time in 1887. To get there, he took the train from Philadelphia to New York, sailed on an overnight steamer up Long Island Sound, arriving in Fall River the following morning. From there, he took two more trains to reach New Bedford, traveling via the paddle wheel steamer Nantucket to reach the faraway isle. My siblings and I used to complain about the four hour drive and two hour, 15 minute slow ferry from Connecticut — imagine an almost two-day trip!

After seeing his land in Siasconset, Dr. Oliver asked his driver for the name of the best builder on the island and was told George Gibbs. For $1,200, Gibbs would build my family’s first summer house (1889-1979) called Sunnycliffe on the North Bluff, halfway between Sankaty Light and the village of ‘Sconset. This would be his wedding present to his then fiancée, Mary Henry (Will, are you reading this? 😂).

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Sunnycliffe as seen from the ‘Sconset Bluff Walk, one of my favorite ways to spend a summer afternoon.

Charles and Mary arrived at their new “cottage” in June 1889 with their two month old son, Norris. The house was much bigger than the Olivers had imagined: three stories, six bedrooms, several balconies and porches that overlooked the Atlantic. The interior was pine tongue and groove with no visible nails anywhere. Three fireplaces warmed the home, together with a coal stove in the kitchen. Gibbs claimed that the $1,200 allowed him to build the house like the ships he was accustomed to building and to completely furnish it with beautiful rugs, painted wooden furniture, and elaborate wicker pieces that my grandmother still owns today. “On the floors there were hooked rugs. Thin, ruffled curtains fluttered at the windows, light enough to let in sunshine without spoiling the view. An atmosphere of summer pervaded the house. Mr. Gibbs had thought of everything,” Katharine Abbott wrote.

With the industrial surge of 1870s, people wanted to escape the heat, filfth, and disease pervasive in American cities. The Olivers were no exception: from June until August each year, they would entertain a constant stream of guests at their home on Nantucket. In 1895, Mary acquired a guest book and encouraged all visitors to enter a line or two reflecting on their stay. Segments of songs, stanzas of poetry, and original prose fill the early pages. Full page watercolors and caricatures emerged during the twentieth century. The guests’ comments share the feeling that “‘Sconset and Sunnycliffe offered a special, elusive ambience that would remain in their minds and hearts forever,” wrote my great aunt Katharine. When my grandparents sold Sunnycliffe in 1979, there were several volumes of the guest book, featuring hundreds if not thousands of entries. My parents have preserved this tradition with their own guest book that sits on the entry table of their home. We have a long way to go to get to thousands of entries, but we did just need to order a second volume!

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Mary and Charles Oliver had two children, Norris and Katharine. Katharine was my grandfather’s mother, a musician, and an author. My mother recounts nights spent around the Steinway grand piano during her childhood summers on Nantucket with her grandmother playing showtunes and all the adults drinking and singing. The piano was in a beautiful panelled room that was intended as the formal dining room, but Katharine preferred the room for a different type of entertaining. As a teenager, her son Edward Stanley-Brown (my grandfather and my mom’s dad), built a bar for this room. He and a friend, Bob Benchley, painted the facade of the bar during a three-day Nor’easter with different images of drinking terms: dead stiff, hollow leg, and under the weather to name a few. The bar was left in the house when my grandparents sold it, but was acquired by the Benchley family when one of the new owners of Sunnycliffe was going to renovate. This bar hasn’t been seen by my mom, her siblings, or their mom (my Grandy) for over thirty-seven years, but it will be at our welcome party at my parents’ house in September, on loan from the Benchleys. I can’t wait to see it in person!

My grandfather Edward (whom we called Grandpeter for reasons unclear to this day) was a pediatric surgeon at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City. He spent every summer of his life on the island except for the year he served in the Korean War. He worked all year to be able to savor the thirty days of rest he got on Nantucket every August. He was an avid reader, fisherman, and chef. One of his greatest joys was to wake early and visit Bartlett’s Farm and Glidden’s fish market to see what had been harvested or caught that day. Grandy, my mom, and her siblings would often return from a day at the beach or the tennis court to elaborate dinners prepared by Grandpeter in the kitchen at Sunnycliffe.

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Grandy with all her grandchildren on ‘Sconset Beach, circa 1998.

My mom has spent time on the island every summer of her life as well. As she and her brother and sister grew up, they worked several jobs on the island over the years. Both my mom and Aunt Jill worked at Moby Dick, a series of small cottages and a restaurant on the southeastern shore of the island in ‘Sconset. That business was sold in the 1980s and was renamed the Summer House, where Will and I will have our wedding reception on September 2. We feel so lucky!

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My cousin Emily stuffing rocks in my diaper at Windmoor, circa 1991.

My grandparents bought their own house, Windmoor, in Tom Nevers in 1980. Grandy started going to the island with her husband in 1952 and continues to spend the summer and early fall there each year. She is a very active needlepointer (even as she approaches her 90th birthday!) and was part of the original group of women who started a project to replace the old brown vinyl kneelers at the ‘Sconset Chapel with beautifully needlepointed kneelers designed by one of Nantucket’s most cherished artists, Erica Wilson. It was a project that was slated to take five years, but Grandy and her friends had all 200 kneelers completed in less than two. The kneelers feature Nantucket birds, fish, flowers, and historical buildings and are truly the crown jewel of this quaint chapel. Will and I will kneel on two of these needlepoint kneelers during our wedding ceremony. My mom and dad were also married at the ‘Sconset Chapel almost 31 years ago to the day. (I’m told their knees got stuck on the old vinyl kneelers, however.)

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siasconset union chapel needlepoint kneelers

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Our rehearsal dinner will be at the Chanticleer, where my parents had theirs as well. My dad’s parents, Liz and Ted Horan, hosted that special event, recounting their own memories at the Chanticleer, which was once a series of cottages and a restaurant where they had spent their honeymoon in the 1950s.

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The entrance to The Chanticleer.

My sister, brothers, and I have also grown up spending summers on Nantucket. We started staying at Grandy’s home with our cousins. As all of our families grew, my parents felt it wasn’t particularly relaxing to have eight adults and nine grandchildren staying under one roof. They started renting houses when I was in elementary school and ultimately purchased their own home fifteen years ago.

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design darling what nantucket means to me baby pictures

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design darling what nantucket means to me sconset chapel

I remember bringing Will to the house about six months after we started dating and praying he would love Nantucket, knowing full well it would be a deal-breaker if he didn’t! Thankfully he fell in love with Nantucket (and ultimately me! 😉) and it has been our favorite escape together ever since. Our welcome party the night before our wedding will be held in my parents’ backyard, with a food truck from the restaurant in Madaket where my sister, brothers, and cousins have worked for the past several summers. The whole weekend will be a joyous celebration in a place that means so much to Will, myself, and my family. Will’s parents have also been out and, while a long way from Texas, I think the island has found a special place in their hearts as well. After all, what’s not to love? ❤️

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95 thoughts on “WHAT NANTUCKET MEANS TO ME

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  1. Love the photos! I noticed that the chapel has our Presbyterian hymnal, i’m a Presbyterian minister, former design darling shopper and a fan of your blog! If you need help picking out hymns/songs for your wedding ceremony, let me know!

  2. Hi Mackenzie, loved reading your post on Nantucket – and your sweet comment about my grandmother Erica Wilson and her kneelers! Her ashes are actually in the wall at the Sconset chapel. I will be getting married in Quaise the weekend after your wedding to a man whose grandmother originally came to Nantucket to do needlepoint with my grandmother. Best of luck with wedding planning – would love to compare notes if we bump into each other over the summer!

  3. Mackenzie, this is a beautiful story of your family’s long history on
    Nantucket. And I know there is so much more…. Your Grandfather’s s frequent trips to the Nantucket Atheneum, his morning trips to Polpis to cut the best vegetables for dinner, , and GrandPeter’s putting together the, best most fresh meals in the world for us lucky guests. Not to mention hearing about his stellar career as a pediatric surgeon in NYC.. Such happy days with your wonderful Dad…

  4. What a beautiful family history! I loved reading about each place and how it is meaningful to you. You are very fortunate to get married in a place that incorporates so much family history!

  5. Beautiful story! We had our honeymoon on Nantucket in 1975 and have sailed our boat over often, my favorite place with lots of great memories.

  6. Wow, what an amazing story! I recognize Sunnycliffe from my many years of Sconset bluff walks – so glad I now know the house’s history!
    I’ve spent many summers (and crisp Fall weekends, freezing winter days, and dreary spring weekends) on Nantucket myself and know just how special the island can be. My family sold our house on Orange Street several years ago, so I’m always scheming how I can get back and dream of having my own house there someday. Nantucket is so magical, and my absolute favorite place in the world. Thanks for sharing your story and best wishes on a beautiful wedding!

  7. What a beautiful post! I enjoyed reading about your family ties to Nantucket. The kneelers are absolutely stunning!

  8. Reading about your family’s roots in Nantucket was so interesting. How lucky you are to have such happy memories with your family. Your parents and grandparents and their grandparents gave you a gift that has lasted many lifetimes😊 As we say in Texas, “Felicidades!” -Congratulations on your upcoming marriage.🌻

  9. Thank you for the wonderful story of your family’s history on Nantucket! This is quite timely as I am vacationing on the island this week from Maryland. We had dinner at Millie’s tonight and I spotted your brother and told him to say hello. Thanks again, as this too is now my happy place!

  10. Mackenzie, what a wonderful history! Thanks so much for sharing. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog for many years and have always particularly loved when you shared about your experiences on the island. I visited Nantucket for the first time last year and finally understood what all the talk was about. It’s a truly special place that I found myself wanting to return to as soon as I left. Hope to make it back soon. Best wishes for a beautiful wedding (btw, those invites were incredible).😊

  11. How funny – my grandfather was an Edward who went by Peter as well! Loved reading your family history of Nantucket!

  12. Mackenzie!!! I am totally in tears over here. I love your your family so much already that I didn’t think I could love them more until I read this. What a great idea to sit down record this. As your wedding photographers, we consider ourselves family historians…we just tell the story in a visual way. I’m so grateful for your blog to allow us additional insight. Cannot wait. I do feel like I need to sign that guest book over at your parent’s house. I’ll never forget that night and I’m already looking forward to more of that ice cream. I love your family and cannot wait to meet Grandy!

  13. Wow I am teary eyed reading about what Nantucket means to you! I had no idea that your family’s history there went so far back! How delightful to have that connection with all your family in such a special place. The wedding will be so memorable!

  14. Ok I did not intend to read that entire post because it looked so long, but I got sucked in! What an incredible story and such a special place for you and your family. Can’t wait to see photos of what I know will be a gorgeous wedding!

  15. What a wonderful story – I love that there is so much meaning in all of the wedding festivities! Also, that story about the bar and y’all having it for the wedding – amazing!

  16. I loved the post Mackenzie!! I spend summers on Nantucket too and this place has a very special place in my heart as well:) your wedding sounds like it will be beautiful!!!

  17. Mackenzie,
    This story warms my heart. Thank you for sharing your family’s history on Nantucket. My dream home is definitely by the water. Can’t wait to see your wedding photos.

    Take care,
    Sarecia

  18. Mackenzie! I LOVED reading this… as it is our family history 🙂 Very beautifully captured! We visit Sunnycliffe every time we are in ‘Sconset. So many incredible memories, so exciting to be getting married there. Sounds like a great weekend, hope it is amazing!!

  19. Love this. What a sweet history! My family has a similar story, with a house in the mountains of Georgia and it wasn’t until last year I really understood and appreciated the beautiful history and tradition of going there. Thanks for sharing!

  20. I love this!! You’re the OG Nantucket gal. So many bloggers are going nowadays and I don’t so much love it. :-\ I want it to be kept a sweet secret! We will be there the first week of August. Would love to grab coffee or a cocktail with you! xx

    1. Aww so good to hear from you! I know what you mean — it makes me happy to know tourism is helping so many local businesses, but it also means the island has changed a lot in our short lifetime! Maybe one day it will revert back to the good old days 🙂 Would LOVE to see you in August — keep me posted on dates, etc.!

  21. So what’s the favored ice cream flavor? My husband and I are headed to Nantucket next month for our 10th anniversary. He’s never been and I can’t wait to go back.
    My family has a home on the water near Stonginton, CT and the RI border. It’s been in the family for over 60 years and we’ve created so many wonderful memories there (weddings, honeymoons, my husband even asked my father for my hand at the house). There is something special about New England!

    1. Cookie dough and waffle cone all the way! Bonus points for hot fudge and/or rainbow sprinkles 🙂 I love your story about your family’s home in Stonington — that is exactly how Sunnycliffe was for my mom’s generation and a tradition I hope we can keep alive for our children and our children’s children! Happy tenth anniversary and have an amazing trip!

  22. Mackenzie, what a meaningful post! This is a wonderful tribute and will be a great digital footprint for many generations to come!

    My family spent summers in Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard but we never owned a house. My dream wedding would be on the island at one big house to host family and friends!

    Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thank you so much — I’m so happy to finally have the story typed up and in one place! I’ve actually never been to the Vineyard (so ridiculous, I know!) but I imagine it’s an equally charming place for a wedding!

  23. You and Will have great taste! My mom and stepdad had their rehearsal dinner at Chanticleer, married at Sconset Chapel, reception at Summer House – but that was 18 years ago! This post made me extra excited to get out to the island over the summer – hope I run into you there at some point 🙂

  24. what an amazing story, mackenzie! you’re a wonderful writer — i think you have the beginnings of a book with this post. wishing you all the happiness on your wedding weekend. i’m sure it will be absolutely magical!

  25. This just made me so happy at work! As someone else who grew up spending summers on island, and later working as a lifeguard at Jetties, I can totally relate to how captivating the island can be. Although so funny how Sconset seems like a world away from Monomoy, haha. Now that my siblings and I are all grown up, my parents rent their house out every summer, but I still love the week or two we all go bACK.
    Congrats on your wedding!

    1. Ahh what a small world! We spent so much time at Jetties growing up. Crazy about the ferry accident last week, no?! I used to babysit for a family in Monomoy and the house had the most incredible views of the fireworks on the Fourth of July. Enjoy your trip this summer!

    1. What a special place to grow up! I need to do some more exploring on the Cape as I always view it as a stepping stone to Nantucket and know it has so much more to offer. If you have any recommendations, I’m all ears!

  26. Mackenzie, this is so sweet to read! What a joy and blessing to be able to be married in a place that has such a beautiful place in your life. Also I’m now *dying* for a beach trip. Thank you so much for sharing!!!!

  27. Mackenzie, what a beautiful tribute to what is clearly such a meaningful and magical place for you and your family! It was so enjoyable to read. I love the way you and Will are going to be adding yet another chapter of your family history in Nantucket through your wedding! 🙂

  28. How incredible to have this family jewel! What a treasure! Thanks for sharing this heartfelt story! Congratulations and best wishes on your upcoming wedding!

  29. What a wonderful family history! It is so wonderful that you have been able to gather the stories from your older relatives, no wonder it is such a special place for you. I have always wanted to visit Nantucket and this just makes me want to even more! Enjoy your summer planning your wedding!! Thanks for sharing!

    1. It’s amazing how much my Grandy knows about our family history — so thankful to have gotten it all written down! Love that Nantucket is on your list of places to travel. I know I’m biased but I’m certain you will love it!

  30. Wow Mackenzie! I loved reading this post! Nantucket sounds like paradise! What wonderful memories your family has and how special you get to incorporate those into what will be your most precious memory of your wedding day! Cannot wait to read/see more! Thanks for sharing!

  31. Oh my gosh! I absolutely love love love this post! I always knew you were the queen of Nantucket, and it is so fun to read all about your family’s rich history on the island! Have a lovely day ahead! xx

  32. Oh this is beautiful. I could read this over and over again. Nantucket sounds like a beautiful place, rich with history. I hope to visit there someday. I absolutely can’t wait to see your wedding pictures, especially now knowing the story behind the place you chose to hold your wedding. Much love to you all!!

    1. Aww thank you, Alyssa! I’m so glad Nantucket is on your list of places of travel — it really is such a special place whether it’s your first or fiftieth visit. Thank you so much for reading!

  33. This is a beautiful post, Mackenzie! Thank you for sharing your family traditions and history. Your upcoming wedding weekend will be so special and another page in your family’s rich history on Nantucket!

  34. What a wonderful narrative about your family’s connection to the island! The rich history will make your wedding day even more special. I think that this is my favourite post to date. I’m just curious, however, about why your grandparents chose to sell Sunnycliffe and purchase Windmoor? It seems like such a shame to let a historical family property like Sunnycliffe go!

    1. Oh I agree, it must have been heartbreaking for them and for their children! It’s definitely not a happy part of the story — my grandfather’s sister felt Nantucket was too much of a hassle to get to and wanted to sell the property. Sadly my grandfather couldn’t afford to buy out her half, so he was forced to sell. My cousins and I used to brainstorm how we could buy it back someday! 😉

      1. I was wondering the same, and that breaks me heart! Of course your family has been able to keep creating amazing memories in a new home, but a place with that much history!!! Incredible. I hope one day in makes its way back into your family. xx

  35. I was looking forward to this post!! Loved it, thank you for sharing! Great great grandparent #goals for sure.

  36. This was a beautiful post, Mackenzie. How lucky to be married somewhere with so much family history and love.

    I can’t stop staring at those kneelers. It’s beautiful to have something hand made by your grandmother supporting you as you get married. I remember you saying she’s making a leash and collar for Rory- you should frame them after the wedding madness dies down!