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Old-Timers Drop Anchor at the Nantucket Cribbage Club

Charles Hillinger's America

February 14, 1988|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

NANTUCKET ISLAND, Mass. — Whalers and seafaring captains started a cribbage club on this wind-swept, crescent-shaped Atlantic island in 1854.

And 134 years later, cribbage is still the card game of choice at the Pacific Club here in Nantucket Town.

Not much about the red brick clubhouse has changed since it was built in 1772. There are the same low ceilings, oiled hardwood floors, pot-bellied stove, captains' chairs and an ancient wooden card table.

The walls are cluttered with harpoons, lances, blubber spades, scrimshaw, ship models and portraits of 19th-Century whalers and their ships.

Even cribbage, the 17th-Century game invented by English poet John Suckling and scored on a pegboard, remains much the same.

Scrawled on one wall is a quote from Herman Melville's 1851 classic "Moby Dick": "What wonder, then, that these Nantucketers, born on a beach, should take to the sea for a livelihood!"

"Scratch us and our blood comes out blue," said Gene Brooks, 77, a long-time member of the Pacific Club.

Today, the old clubhouse is the gathering place for nearly 200 old-timers, men averaging 70 years.

"Many of us are descendants of these old whalers and sea captains whose portraits you see on the clubhouse walls," said Jack McDonald, 82, a life-long captain of a fishing boat.

McDonald said he and his father were fishing for flounder, cod and haddock in the Atlantic in 1927 when Charles Lindbergh, en route to Paris, flew over their trawler and wiggled the wings of his Spirit of St. Louis at them.

John Egle, 101, the club's oldest member, is still young at heart. He bought a new car when he was 94 and started painting when he was 96. And he's been known ever since as the Grandpa Moses of Nantucket Island.

Located 30 miles from Cape Cod, this 13-mile-long island has a year-round population of about 5,000. Nantucket is Algonquin Indian for "land far out to sea."

For 1 1/2 centuries Nantucket was the leading whale port in the world. The first whale was taken by a Nantucket ship in 1659. By 1840 more than 70 whaling ships sailed from here.

When the Atlantic waters were depleted, the whalers sailed off to the Pacific Ocean, leaving their families behind and returning to Nantucket with their catch several months later. Hence the name Pacific Club.

Over the doorway to the club are the names of three Nantucket ships that took part in the Boston Tea Party--the Dartmouth, Beaver and Bedford.

Under paintings of whaling ships in the clubhouse are the unique flags of each vessel, the dates the ships sailed and their ultimate fates: "Sunk, broken-up, sold-off, stoved by a whale. . . ."

A page from a whaler's diary is reproduced, telling of cannibalism aboard the Essex when food ran out and as sailors died of starvation.

"Every member has a key to the clubhouse," noted Al Lavoie, 87, a 50-year member. Dues, he added, are only $25 a year.

"With the key we can come in here any hour of the day or night to play cribbage," said Roger Young, 63. "Some members get down here at 6 in the morning. They're the early birds. Scores of the important games are published every week in a local paper."

The clubhouse is down the street from the home of Marie Mitchell, America's first woman astronomer who discovered the Mitchell comet in 1847 from the roof of the local bank.

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