The author Bill Stephenson, in his Wharf Rat Hat, on Nantucket Sound. Photograph courtesy of Bill Stephenson. Used with permission.
Nantucket has become a Mecca over the years. It is the home of classic New England architecture, abundant (and only partially vestigial) sailing icons, Jared Coffin House Bar and Murrays Toggery’s "Nantucket Reds.” And it is still far enough off the beaten path to dissuade many casual tourists.
Many ultimately do make it to Nantucket. However, there is one part of the Island that is an integral part of the culture, yet is seldom experienced by tourists or even long-term summer denizens.
That part of the culture is Nantucket's Wharf Rat Club. It was founded almost a century ago by a small group of men gathered around a potbellied stove in an Old North Wharf fishing shanty. Although the founders are long gone, the members still gather in the same shack, open from 10:00 until noon, 6 days a week from May until October. There is no agenda, and the conversation is free flowing and spontaneous, with a heavy emphasis on jokes and very little in the way of political discussion.
The membership is a blending of backgrounds and experience from all over the world. The roster has included a US President (FDR), a US Supreme Court Justice (Brennan), ambassadors, admirals, generals, artists, writers, pilots, clamdiggers, scallopers, craftspeople, scientists, government officials, elected leaders, and captains of industry. Phil Murray, the founder of Murray's Toggery, was a Rat. His widow Elizabeth, is also a Rat, and still lives on the Island. (And women are now an integral part of the club.)
The shack itself is in the midst of multi-million dollar properties on the waterfront. The property had been owned by the Stanford Trust for years, and they let us use it because we kept it from being abandoned. One day they approached us and said that they were going to sell the property for $1 million, and we could buy it if we wanted it. We may have had $500 in the kitty to buy coffee at the time. We went on a frantic drive to get as much as we could from members. Everyone stretched, but we were still about $250,000 short. We were about to give up when the wife of one of the Rats, Betty Constable, showed up one day. Her husband George (now deceased) had been a very successful lawyer in Baltimore at the time. Betty asked the Commodore how much we needed to put the deal together. When he told her, she wrote a check for the needed funds. The Commodore said how grateful we were. Betty said that it was worth every penny to get George out of the house in the morning.
The club motto is "No Reserved Seats For the Mighty." It simply means that one who is terribly impressed with his resume and accomplishments probably won't feel at home over the long term. Anyone with a love of Nantucket and good fellowship is welcome to attend the sessions. But the club is known as the most exclusive on the Island. The reason is that it is not possible to apply for membership, and the process by which members are selected is secret. The usual procedure includes for a person to attend meetings for a few years. After about 3 years, some receive a membership card in the mail. Others never do.
A few years ago, the owner of an NFL team, whose name you would recognize, came down and was shown around by the Vice Commodore. At the end of the tour, the owner said he would like to buy one of the Rat caps as a souvenir. The Vice commodore said that they weren't for sale. The owner said that he would pay $100 for a cap. The Vice Commodore said, "Mr. Owner, you don't have enough money to buy one of these." This is a perfect look at what "No Reserved Seats for the Mighty" means.
The next time you are in Nantucket, head out on the North Wharf until you see a shack with the Wharf Rat burgee flying from the flag pole. You will be very welcome. You may come back if you are invited, and you may even end up staying for years.
- Bill Stephenson
Bill Stephenson is a 78 year old graduate of the University of Oklahoma, and settled in Princeton, after a 40 year career in the insurance industry. Aetna Life and Casualty was where he spent most of his career, and was the Marketing Vice President before retiring. Now, Princeton University furnishes a multitude of opportunities to audit classes. Bill's love of the community, and interest in revolutionary war history, leads him to leading walking tours of the Historical District for the Princeton Tour Company.
The Wharf Rate Club Burgee Coaster. Photograph added by The Daily Prep.
The lore of the Wharf Rats, including history, ethos, and stories, is passed on from member to member, and examples were collected in the Nantucket Historical Association's excellent article No Reserved Seats For the Mighty By Robert F. Cross, originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Vol 41, no. 2 (Summer 1993), p. 24-26, which was one source for this piece.