Friday, February 4, 2011

Guest Post: The Wharf Rats of Nantucket

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.


whattokeep said...

This was an interesting post, and very well written. I laughed out loud at Mr. Stephenson's story of the NFL owner. But I have to wonder, even given Mr. Stephenson's assurances that those who are full of themselves need not apply, whether this club welcomes people of all classes. I don't mean to insult anyone; just a mild curiosity!

Pink One said...

How wonderful that so many people pulled together to save something that has so much meaning. It sounds like a great group to be a part of.

Pete said...

Our last trip to ACK was in Mid May a few yrs ago before the summer crowds hit; it was simply a wonderful place to celebrate our anniversary (we honeymooned at the Jared Coffin House a decade earlier). We almost believed that we had the island to ourselves. One night, I stumbled upon the WarfRat and was warmly welcomed and thoroughly enjoyed the company and the humor that was shared that evening.

Wharf Rat said...

whattokeep, excellent question:

No short answer. Every strata on the Island is present. We have reached the point in life where no one is working on their resume, or is very impressed with much that took place in the working years.

The Vice Commodore who runs the place is a retired taxi driver, a superb leader, an excellent judge of people, and a delightful guy.

In 10 years, only once did anyone ask what I did in my working life. No one cares. The standard apparel is neo homeless, so that we all look like we dressed at the same thrift shop.

At that point in life, there is humor in almost everything. Every 4th we have a party on the deck, and a small cannon is fired to salute Rats that have departed since last summer. The year that we lost so many that we ran out of ammunition drew a huge laugh.

Pink One said...

Ahhh!!! So, Wharf Rat, that's where you get your name??? Wonderful...lucky you to be a wharf rat. It's nice to put two and two together. I won't ask if that's you in the picture...or, should I? :)

Muffy, are you a wharf ratette?

James said...

Wonderful beyond belief. I was trying to think of a place to take my wife, I may have found it. Thank you Muffy!

Preppy 101 said...

Sounds like heaven . . . xoxo

whattokeep said...

Wharf Rat, thank you so much for your reply! It is good to know that there are still places where character counts more than wealth. Congratulations on having a fun group of excellent friends.

Mummy said...

What a lovely guest posting! Nantucket IS heaven and now I know the name of it's angels!

Christina said...

I love "clubs" like this! We have a group of military folks who gather at an Irish pub in my hometown on Saturday evenings, after drill. I started attending about 5 years ago and about 18 months ago, I was told I could buy a round of Guinness for the group, which meant I was "official". It was a pleasant surprise and I love the sense of belonging and camaraderie.

Thanks for this guest post; I know where I will be between 10-noon one day in Nantucket! :)

Pink One said...

It's wonderful to have the opportunity to see you, Wharf Rat.

Okay, I'll just come right out and ask...Will you adopt me? ;) After reading your comments, and now this post, you strike me as being a wise, strong, yet gentle man who would be a great father, which I did not have growing up. Sadly, the longings (needs) of our heart don't go away with age. Just the thought of that depth of belonging puts a tear in my eye.

Okay, sorry, I'm done.

Wharf Rat said...

Pink One - I am sincerely moved by your kind comment!

As I told Muffy, here are some negatives about net postings, but one of the real pluses is getting the opportunity to share true feelings, without having to worry about the judgments of friends, in real time.

As with most things in real life, I'm afraid that I might be a disappointment, but your sincere comments are very meaningful!

Christiana - It is amazing how bonding takes place in life. With social friends it can take years. In military situations, like yours, bonding can take place, in a mater of days. You may look back years from now, and find that your military bonds are the closest ones that you will ever have developed.

Pink One said...

Wharf Rat,

Because it's the internet, and the likelihood that I'll never have the chance to meet you in person, I have the luxury of believing that your humility hides more than it reveals, but I do appreciate your honesty. I do understand that nothing and nobody is perfect, but imperfection is not what defines the quality of a person. This I know for a fact.

Having grown up where the grass was mostly brown on my side of the fence means that the percentage of chance goes up that the grass is actually greener on the other side of the fence, even if it's only slightly greener.

That being said, and knowing that the internet reveals little of the person behind the words, I choose to believe that you are a greater man than you lead on, and there's nothing you can do about what I choose to believe, right? :D Seriously, I'm happy to be among so many gentlemen who frequent Muffy's blog, and I can only go by how they present themselves as well. James comes to mind immediately as being another wonderful gentleman, not to leave anyone out, who is a class act. I choose to believe that you are all wonderful men in real life. Imperfect? Probably, but still wonderful. We need more men, like those of you who frequent Muffy's blog, in this world. From what I can tell, you guys are the cream of the crop, and it's refreshing to be among such company.

I did not intend to be one sided in what I've, but I am speaking from the perspective of a Father/Daughter relationship. I know that there are many wonderful ladies that frequent Muffy's blog as well, and quality men most surely reveals equally wonderful women who are a part of their lives.

Sorry to be so wordy, but this post struck a deep chord for me in a way that I did not expect it to.

LPC said...

Bill, Thank you for coming by! Wonderful to hear this history. We're a Martha's Vineyard family, but still. I am glad you like the Princeton auditing opportunity. I was sitting in on a class with my son, last year, and I think I might have seen you:).

Billsburg said...

What a delightful post, Wharf Rat. I too wondered about your name.

Your picture, story and response to questions have reminded me of my dearly beloved uncle who passed away many years ago. You (and your friends) sound so much like him; he didn't care about who people "were" or how much they (supposedly) "had"; he judged them by their character, their sense of humor, and (most importantly!), their ability to tell a great story. I've enjoyed reading your comments in the past and will continue to do so - especially after reading about the Wharf Rats today.

Lisa said...

Love the motto "No Reserved Seats For the Mighty". Although I suspect they'd never accept me as a card-carrying member, I would love to be a fly on the wall at one of their am get-togethers. They 'Rats' sound like my kind of people.

j.mosby said...

ACK What a great place to visit and live! my college roommate bought a lovely house out past the airport, did great restoration to the property with a lap pool on the lowest level of the home. Fantastic views all around the property, he worked as the director of the Whaling museum on the island. I also ask my wife of 20 years to marry me on the Ferry to Nantucket from Hyannis, MA.

Wharf Rat said...

LPC - I am gratified that this worked for you. I was initially hesitant to suggest this to Muffy for fear that it was too pedantic.

If we do cross paths in Tiger town, I would love to meet you and your son. He is blessed to have a fantastic educational opportunity. 27,000 applicants to select a class of about 1,300. He is indeed special, but you knew that.

Billsburg - your kind words are greatly appreciated! Your loving description of your uncle's outlook would describe the Rats that I have been privileged to know, and learn more about life from.

One of the Rats works at the recycling facility. He brings in all kinds of treasures that people have discarded. The real treasures are his life experiences, that he shares with us. One member wrote a neat book about the guy.

Another Rat spent his career as a pediatric surgeon, essentially doing pro bono work in Qatar. After he moved to Nantucket, he was the animal control officer for a number of years. Stuff you learn from these guys isn't in books. You get the picture.

Lisa - you will find that when you enter the door, you are welcome to participate, if you like. No need to be a fly on the wall. If you like the motto, the Rats probably are your kind of people.

Eli said...

Sounds like one of the last few bastions of meritocracy! I love it!

itztru said...

I've often wondered if I was the only person who did not care what someone's profession is or what family they came from. Of course, now being "of a certain age", I may not remember even if you told me! What really matters is whether someone kicks the cat when they come other words, show me your soul! And what a great group of souls the Wharf Rats are! Thank you for sharing - and I tip my Murray's Toggery Nantucket Red cap back at you! P.S. Upon my first visit to Nantucket, I truly felt I was "home" and always look forward to returning.

Wharf Rat said...

Izittru has a great comment. (Kicking the cat.. neat expression.)

Another thing that demonstrates the irreverence present with the Rats, is an early attempt to see if you can take a little ribbing.

In one of my early days, one of the guys referred to above, heard that I had just arrived the day before and he said; " While you are here, stay away from my wife." The best I could come up with on short notice was; "I wish you had told me yesterday."

If someone pokes on you like that, it is usually a good sign.

old said...

Kudos to Bill Stephenson and the Rats for holding character and gravitas in high esteem. Parodying the wittiest Marc, Groucho, I would perfer not to be a member of any club that also includes any NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB owner as a member.

Had the chance to make the acquaintance of a man who happened to be a fellow alumnus of my undegraduate school and a one time owner of a very prominent NFL franchise a few years back. Given this scoundrel's misdeeds, all of America would all be much better off if he were still in prison.

Possession of a boodle of money, power and hubris do not a gentleman or lady make.

Hope the launch of "Unschooling Rules" was a smashing success. Please update us soon!

Pink One said...

Great comeback!

Sartre said...

Bill -- I have enjoyed your comments as Wharf Rat in the past -- nice to see the curtain lifted.

Wharf Rat said...

Sartre - Thank you for your kind comment!

I looked at your blog. Man, we have enough in common to bore normal people to death. Great shot of Alden 986s in your OBX article.

Ever look at "Ivy Style"? You might enjoy it. A lot like us gather there from time to time. We might end up exchanging posts. My user name there is my real name.

Sartre said...

Bill -- I think the blogger has two finite resources, time and ideas. I ran out of both right around the same time. I'm less the artist and more the critic anyway, so the commenter role suits me.

I do look at Ivy Style occasionally and in fact dropped a comment there just today about the link between Ivy and football. Thank you.

Jordan Owen said...

Dear Mrs. A -- I hope that sometime soon you'll post on the greater subject of Nantucket Reds. I've been loyal to Brickman's of Vineyard Haven, but would love to hear views. Thanks!

W Murray Lockwood III said...

My grandfather and uncles sat with the Rats occasionally - after reading this I might pop in and visit next time I am on the island.