Photo by Salt Water New England

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Henry Beston's Outermost House, Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Photo by My Father 
Henry Beston Sheahan, Harvard Class of ’09 (Beston dropped “Sheahan” in his thirties), had built the house in 1925 on the Atlantic-facing stretch of beach on Cape Cod  (in Eastham) as a retreat,  spending time there in all seasons, and then writing about it in The Outermost House.  He donated it to the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 1959, and it is said that his writings were instrumental in JFK's establishing the Cape Cod National Seashore40 miles of protected beachin 1961.   

Henry Beston spent the rest of his life on his farm in Nobleboro, writing about that as well in Northern Farm.  His legacy is perpetuated today in The Henry Beston Society.

Beston called his house The Fo'castle, and his descriptions of it included this passage:

I wanted a place to come to in the summer, one cosy enough to be visited in the winter could I manage to get down... It consisted of two rooms, a bed-room and a kitchen-living room, and its dimensions overall were but twenty by sixteen.  A brick fireplace with its back to the wall between rooms heated the larger space and took the chill off the bedroom.

When I was a child, my father took me on many treks to visit Henry Beston's Outermost House, including this one in February of 1973.  (We also visited his farm in Nobleboro, Maine.)  The Outermost House was a favorite of his, so of course our house had at least five copies of it floating around.  This is how books were rated before Amazon.

On this visit, the weather turned nasty.  It would recall, if not match, this Beston passage:

I woke in the morning to the dry rattle of sleet on my eastern windows and the howling of wind. A northeaster laden with sleet was bearing down on the Cape from off a furious ocean, an ebbing sea fought with a gale blowing directly on the coast; the lonely desolation of the beach was a thousand times more desolate in that white storm pouring down from a dark sky. The sleet fell as a heavy rain falls when it is blown about by the wind. I built up my fire, dressed, and went out, shielding my face from the sleet by pulling my head down into the collar of my coat. I brought in basket after basket of firewood, till the corner of the room resembled a woodshed. Then I folded up the bedclothes, threw my New Mexican blanket over the couch, lighted the oil stove, and prepared breakfast. An apple, oatmeal porridge, toast made at the fireplace, a boiled egg, and coffee.

Sleet and more of it, rushes of it, attacks of it, screaming descents of it; I heard it on the roof, on the sides of the house, on the windowpanes...

A scene of incredible desolation and cold. All day long I kept to my house, building up the fire and keeping watch from the windows...

For a mile or so offshore the North Atlantic was a convulsion of elemental fury whipped by the sleety wind, the great parallels of the breakers tumbling all together and mingling in one seething and immense confusion, the sound of this mile of surf being an endless booming roar, a seethe, and a dread grinding, all intertwined with the high scream of the wind. The rush of the inmost breakers up the beach was a thing of violence and blind will. Darkness coming early, I closed my shutters on the uproar of the outer world, all save one shutter on the landward side.

With the coming of night the storm increased; the wind reaching a velocity of seventy to eighty miles an hour. It was at this time, I am told, that friends on the mainland began to be worried about me...

The house was moved back from the water a couple of times,  and finally washed away in the Blizzard of 1978.

13 comments:

  1. Oh, what a joy to read this today as the snow falls softly outside my window.

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  2. Always such a great comfort to read, and enjoy! Thank you so very much!

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  3. Thank you Mr Beston. Say what you want about ACK and MVY. Nothing compares with Cape Cod National Seashore’s magnificent, towering, dunes - and soothing kettle ponds!

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  4. Great story, i'll have to read that book. There are photos online of someone standing on the floor of the Outermost House after the blizzard - all that remained.

    Reading this post reminded me a little of the cabins maintained in New Hampshire's Northern Presidentials by Harvard Mountaineering Club and Randolph Mountaineering Club. A couple of very sturdy structures, Harvard Cabin below Huntington Ravine and the Randolph huts, Grey Knob and Crag Camp, on the shoulder of Mount Adams. i prefer tents for winter hiking but have stopped in at these huts to get out of the cold & brew some tea on particularly frigid days.

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  5. There is something exciting about severe storms, especially at the beach.

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  6. I didn't know about Henry Beston or Outermost House. Thanks for the post. Reading this reminds me of Innermost House, which I first read about on a tiny house blog some years ago. Diana Lorence and her husband, formerly of Northern California (where Innermost House sits in the woods) and now of colonial Williamsburg (or so I gather from an online search today), built Innermost House using old world construction techniques. It's composed of beautifully-finished wood and plaster, has room for two chairs and a fireplace in the main room, and has no electricity. It's worth looking up for anyone interested in a simpler life engaged with the present moment.

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  7. Thank you for devoting a post to one of my most treasured books.

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  8. “Into the vast, bright morning I go.”

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  9. I grew up summers on Cape Cod and riding our bikes with friends to the Outer Dunes was an annual summer adventure. Beston's cabin and book were/are great. I've got my copy on the bookshelf in back of me. Now we live about twenty minutes from his Nobleboro Chimney Farm, in need of supporters.http://www.henrybeston.com/savechimney.html

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  10. I’ve started reading this book, having found a copy in the local library. Although I haven’t got very far into the book, comparisons with Walden, as mentioned in the introduction, do seem appropriate. I like some of his phrases, like when mentioning birds, he said he “didn’t want to crowd my chapter.” At 32 pages, I thought the introduction was a little on the long side.
    I’d like to recommend a few other books of similar style. Most of you being New Englanders, you’ve probably read Walden several times. Probably some of you have read the works of Louise Dickenson Rich, who wrote a couple of decades later than this book. I especially liked “We took to the woods,” and “My neck of the woods.”
    Another book I enjoy, though set in New York, is “An Adirondack Passage,” by Christine Jerome. She writes about a kayak journey retracing the steps, or rather, the canoe journey, of the outdoor writer George Washington Sears. The book is filled with stores of the people and places along the way. Another book that I heard about because it was a premium on membership week for PBS is “One Man’s Wilderness,” a heavily edited and condensed version of the journal of Richard Proenneke. Proenneke wanted any future publishing of his journals to be in his own words and they make better reading anyway. He built a long cabin in Twin Lakes, Alaska, and lived there for about 30 years. In spite of living alone, he had a steady stream of visitors but most of his writings are nature-oriented. Although I’ve lived in a log house (Not a cabin!), I’ve never experienced an Alaskan winter, so I enjoyed those parts the most. We might get some more snow this weekend, although not northern style. But that’s okay.

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  11. I have been re-reading the copy given to me by my daughter for my birthday last year. At one point over the summer I started sleeping on the Cape with the East-facing bedroom window open, wondering if like Beston, I could hear the roar of the ocean from the bay-side (or in his case, when he went into Eastham village). I enjoyed this discussion, especially remembering an excellent b&w photo my late mother had made and printed of the Outermost House. Thank you!

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  12. I've just about finished the book, with one chapter to go. Comparisons with Thoreau aren't as strong as they first seemed. Beston writes more about the wildlife, mainly birds and fish, as well as the beach itself. I don't think many have written about beaches, meaning about the sand, the dunes and the surf. Beston doesn't mention people so much, but his descriptions of the Coast Guardsmen are interesting. His descriptions of the weather are vivid.

    Although the book follows the seasons, it's also the sort of book you can pick up and start reading at just about anywhere in the book. It seems like a short book, even though it's over two hundred pages long. Walden is half again as long.

    There were a couple of surprises in the book, too. Apparently at the time, there were still working sailing ships in use, although he was writing a long time ago. Not so long ago that dumped oil fouling the beaches wasn't already a problem. But he expected that to be taken care of in the near future.

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