History's haven: A week in a 19th-century house in Cape Cod's Barnstable

A Cape Cod house, a family's legacy and a famous writer's beginnings: Travel journalist William Powers takes a week's trip to a 19th-century house in the Cape Cod town of Barnstable.
By William Powers
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 18, 2010

"Barnstable?" my friend exclaimed over cups of coffee at a Lower Manhattan cafe. "Be sure to bring a white suit and an attitude."

I was heading off for a week's vacation in a 19th-century house in the Cape Cod town of Barnstable. (The house has a name, of course: "Packet Mail.") I'm not entirely new to the Cape Cod universe. Growing up in a New York City suburb, I windsurfed off Wellfleet during high school summers and escaped to Provincetown B&Bs during college at Brown. Even so, Barnstable and Packet Mail sounded classy and historic enough to make me feel intimidated.

Historians speculate that the Mayflower would have chosen Barnstable over Plymouth as a landing place -- had the crew spotted its well-protected harbor. Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Grover Cleveland summered there. Even more famously, the Kennedys still live in their compound in nearby Hyannis Port. This was John F. Kennedy's summer home during his administration, and the last residence of Sen. Ted Kennedy.

We all know about Cape Cod and its wealthy Yankee liberals. But the Cape has also fostered an eclectic mix of artists, bohemians and writers. Back around 1950, tourists came to Provincetown to rub elbows with Tennessee Williams and Norman Mailer while watching Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg compete for John Dos Passos's former fiancee, who would eventually ditch them both for folk singer Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Yes, all this happened in little old P-town.

Around the same time, down in the quieter village of Barnstable, another writer arrived on a far less glamorous mission: to manage America's first Saab dealership. Over the next few years, he would live a stone's throw from Packet Mail -- the house where I'd be staying -- failing miserably at selling cars and writing some of the most famous and controversial fiction of the 20th century. His name was Kurt Vonnegut.

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At first glance, Packet Mail doesn't look extraordinary. Yellow clapboard, trimmed in white, a two-story Federal-style home. But take several steps to the house's left or right, and you see its history layering through all the extensions it has accumulated since it was built in 1829, right back to the barn and to the "corn crib" retreat at the far back of the lawn.

Indoors, I felt immediately at ease. Packet Mail's rambling arrangement of rooms and winding and hidden stairways take you back to a time when houses were as idiosyncratic as the people who custom-built them. I looked out the back window in the final room on the second floor and gazed all the way across Barnstable Harbor toward the lighthouse on Sandy Neck, that seven-mile spit of land that hid this harbor so well from the Pilgrims. I was so enchanted that I temporarily forgot I wasn't alone. I heard a floorboard creak and turned to see my blond, green-eyed friend, Melissa. Though Packet Mail is available for rent through Vacation Rentals by Owner on the Web, I wasn't renting it. I was Melissa's guest.

And she was no monthly tenant. Melissa Crane Draper is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Matthias Hinckley, the man who built the place. The name Packet Mail is after the ship that Hinckley captained to and fro across Cape Cod Bay, delivering mail from Boston. It has remained in direct family ownership since the day it was built.

Looking at Melissa surfaced some of the "elite radical" paradox I'd experienced just up the road as an undergraduate at Brown. Though an Ivy and the country's seventh-oldest university, its affluence blends with radical politics -- witness President Jimmy Carter's daughter, Amy, chained to CIA agents to protest their recruiting on campus. Melissa's parents grew up spending summers on the Cape, her father and brother were Princeton men, and she's a Dartmouth alum.

Yet now, at 32, she had just returned from five years in Bolivia where -- with Che Guevara gusto -- she had selflessly drawn a peasant's salary and served as a close informal adviser to Casimira Rodriguez, a leader of Bolivia's domestic workers and the country's first Quechua indian minister of justice in the leftist Evo Morales government. She'd contributed to and co-edited a book titled "Dignity and Defiance," about why Bolivia has so fiercely challenged the policies of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

But Melissa wasn't speaking truth to power at the moment. She looked more Marcia Brady than Amy Carter, in her cloud-white running shoes and shorts. "I'm taking you on a run down Rendezvous Lane," she said.

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