"the very fact of knowing and meeting and talking to people who did the work, that was a relatively new experience for young boys like us. We were privileged, I mean, let's face it."
My formal name is Henry Gilman Nichols. My nickname is Gimmy and everybody knows me by the name of Gimmy and I am 90 years old.
I grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut and Lincoln, Mass. for a while and then back in Greenwich, Connecticut.
And so, we loved North Haven and, essentially, I think there's a strong feeling in my family generally that we're not there for the place we're essentially–places are anywhere. But it's the people in the place that make all the difference and that's what's made the difference for us.
The first in the family was my grandmother. We have a picture of my grandfather and grandmother at a house party at Iron Point with some Gastons and some Saltonstalls and that's dated 1898, this photograph is. So, that's the first inkling that we've had that anybody was there. We had no indication for the next 20 years anyway that anybody–at least 20–closer to 25 years. We believe my grandmother came to North Haven in the summers, we certainly think it was in the late-20s, certainly by the early-30s.
But then we, as a family, we weren't there until 1946, nobody was there, except for those spot visits. And that was it.
By the time my family bought that house we had been in North Haven for 10 years.
My father never talked much. But when he did talk it was pretty clear that it was an important place for him. I mean, he'd obviously been back and forth over the years because he used to tell me about coming up on the Boston boat and landing in Rockland at four o'clock in the morning and catching the J.T. Morse over to North Haven as it went on to Bar Harbor. So, he'd done that.
We didn't stand around saying isn't this wonderful. Nobody did in our family. We didn't have time for that nonsense. In the meantime, Ellen and I got married in 1954. When Ellen got into our family it was a great breeze. People actually talked to each other, it was nice.
So, Ellen and I had another 10 years, a little less, eight years or so, of marriage before we built the house. By that time, our children were well in school. Caleb was six, I guess. He's the youngest. It was something we wanted to do, the property was there. My mother said she'd be glad to sell it to us and so forth and so on. I’d say she gave it to us, she didn't really sell it. The kids adored North Haven. They still do.
Leta Your children.
Gimmy My children and my grandchildren do too, obviously.
I've always felt that I was–privileged–that may not be the right word, lucky, I guess, because of my family associations to have found a place that was so different than other places.
Leta So, can you explain, kind of like, what a typical day was like for you in the summer on North Haven?
Gimmy It was mostly all sailing or certainly in the early years it was all connected with the water. We knew how to sail already because we'd done that down in the Cape. We weren't very good racers, but we could sail alright.
It was all built around boats and what we were gonna do, where are we were going to go for a picnic. When I think about it, we must have a been picnicked to death, but that's neither here nor there, which is tough in our family because the great gift from my mother for all of her sons is a very short attention span. When I say short, I mean short. She couldn't boil water because she couldn't wait. It was fantastic. And I have it to this day. I, you know, it's all right if I'm doing something but standing around I want to do something else. And so, if we hadn't had a cook in my family–my mother and father hadn't had a cook–we would’ve died because my mother couldn't wait for anything to be cooked.
And so, we’d go off on a picnic as a family and if one of us didn't say it, my mother certainly would, "OK, we’ve eaten. Let's go." And off we–so picnics were a lot shorter than other people's picnics. Gradually, we kind of realized that we were out of step with the rest of the world and if we went on other people's picnics we had to grit our teeth a little bit, hang in there.
I don't know. That was–it was all that all built around the water.
Leta I am curious about–so kind of the general dynamic or relationship between the year-round community and the summer residents when you were first there. What that was like.
Gimmy Well, for us it was–we didn't really have any relationship. There wasn't any. And it was only when we acquired property that we all of a sudden had a relationship. I think my father and mother were, I suppose, a little bit old school and treated people differently than Ellen and I would.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the very fact of knowing and meeting and talking to people who did the work that was a relatively new experience for young boys like us. We were privileged, I mean, let's face it. We'd gone to prep school, we'd gone to good colleges, all this kind of stuff. We were carefully fed and monitored. I know my father was, which is why he wanted to get us to North Haven.
I didn't find out there were really many poor people on North Haven until, I guess I was hiring people for the golf course or something like that and I found out then. I guess I knew in the back of my head there probably were but I just–it never occurred to me. I thought there were–if I gave it much thought, which I didn't, I said, well this place has been ticking along forever there must be something that works. So, I never gave it a thought after that, which is wrong of course. But it was probably the way my mind worked at the time.
When Ellen and I built a house, then it became a different world, a completely different world, and a better world, actually. And so, we got to know the people who built the house and many of are still lifelong friends today.
Over time we got to know some of those people like, Sonny Grant. We had a–I got to know those guys more at the party we had for all the guys who built the house. I remember Eddie Beverage just playing the piano. We had a player piano and he'd love to sit there at the player piano and play. Watch the rolls go around, drinking.
And that was all entertaining but I remember Sonny Grant sitting with me, sitting on the hearth of this nice new house I'm sitting in. And he said, “Gimmy, I think this house is going to fall down.” And he was right. Ten years ago, I had to have Elliot and his crew go and put twelve posts and a whole bunch of structure under the house to keep it from falling down. He knew, Sonny knew.
Ellen and I used to have–we used to stay up in the fall and we used to have some wonderful sailing matches. We'd get some people to leave their boats in. We'd have Neil Burgess, who was captain of the ferry boat, we had Bud Thayer, we had a number of other people. We had three or four or five Herreshoffs left in. So, in late-September when everybody had gone away we had a bunch of races out there, just among these–among our people in the Thoroghfare. It was quite fun. It was good fun.
When I first came to North Haven in my early years I said, gee, this is crazy. I own property. I ought to have a vote. And I quickly came to realize that wasn't crazy at all. It was–I did not deserve the vote. I didn't live there all winter and the people who did, that lived there all winter, deserved the vote. It was their land. And we're just–we're just occupiers of the land.
And, we used to keep a little bit involved, but that's doesn't–it's no substitute for being there in the winter. It's a different island. It's taken me years to realize it. It is a different place entirely. And there's just no way around it. There’s just no way around it.
Leta When did you start to realize that difference?
Gimmy Oh, well, I always knew there was some difference, obviously, because I've been there a little bit. But I think the real significance, I suppose, about the time I retired from working, somewhere along in there. I always knew. I always knew it was there. I just–it's got me thinking about how impermanent the summer people are on the island. And we are, we're not permanent folk. We really aren’t. No matter how much we love the place and so forth and so on. It's–we're different. And we are different because our sources of income are different and there's more of it and I must say some people are not well-behaved about it. You know, that's the way the world is.
I've done enough screwy things to endear myself to them, like blowing up my septic tank on my boat. You know, that's a winner. That gets them every time and they never forget. There’s not one guy on that island who knows that story that ever forgets and it comes up once a summer, at least once a summer. And this is–this happened in–this is 26 or 27 years ago.
We were off on our cruising boat. And the reason this all happened was that Ellen and I had been away and Nibbs and some friends had brought the boat up from Massachusetts and somebody hadn't paid attention to the handles on the plumbing. So, the holding tank was being filled all the time and we never knew it. So, we were off on a picnic with the Macombers and their motorboat. They had a motorboat. We went over to the Bard Islands. And I had Lansing and Ada Lamont. I had Stephanie Cabot and her brother, Chris.
In any case, I hate to describe this, but anyway, I noticed some seepage. I said, "I don't think I ought to take this cap off," when I had the cap off, and then it blew. All over everything and everybody. And so, I can't tell you what transpired. But, Chris Cabot, as a nice smart boy, said, “I think the shit has hit the fan,” and dove overboard. And people were sick, oh jeez, it was the worst scene you ever–you can't imagine a worse thing. Anyway, we got people–some people off-loaded. I gotta admit Lansing Lamont was terrific, helping me clean up.
And we got back to Pulpit and Ellen was driving the boat, some guy had taken our mooring. And Ellen was trying to tell him, that's our mooring and the guy said, “Well, you didn't leave a rowboat here.” And then she got up wind of him and he left. Then we parked the boat there and [the] next morning at the crack of dawn I went over and got it, brought it around to our house, put it at the dock. And we had a hose down there then and I was going to do my best to clean it up.
And I went down to the market, the old market, with the swinging door and the bench out front. I walked in there, three guys sitting on a bench. We hadn't told anybody about this story, no. This happened over on the Bard Islands for Christ's sake. I reach–my hand is going to the door because I'm going into buy Top Job and all this. I was going to take an arm load of this stuff back. And I reach for the handle and there's voices–one of those three bastards sitting on the bench behind me, "There's a fella gonna have a shitty day." I just–you know–I love some of this. This stuff is good. So, you know, they haven't forgotten and, you know, it's always, somebody will reference that every year. They never forget.
Leta Do you have a similar attachment to any other place?
Gimmy No, no, no. I've been to other places and I've liked them but North Haven is very different. And it's not the place, it's the people. Places are places. It would be impossible to have any place like it. It's totally different.
Leta How often now do you spend on the island?
Gimmy Well I spent two months last summer and I hope to spend about two months this summer. And if I had my druthers, I'd be there for three or four months. I had a couple of summers, after I retired, two summers in a row where I was there for three months, never went off the island. I can't do that anymore.
I love September. But September can get awful cold and I get–old people get cold easily. And people with kids have all gone, so there’s not much of my family around anywhere. So, I says, well I’m rattling around in this house all by myself and there’s nobody here to call the medics if I fall down.
So, it’s fine when the kids are rattling around or somebody's–the rest of the family is rattling around at the other house, but now my eyesight is such that I gotta a little careful about what the hell I'm doing. It's kind of lonely. It’s nice to have all these old memories.
Unless otherwise notes, photos courtesy of the Nichols family