(Third in a series of guest posts by historian, journalist and author, J. Dennis Robinson)
Every summer my wife Maryellen and I spend a week in the Haley Cottage on Smuttynose Island. We’re headed there now. The boat is waiting. It’s like tenting indoors. There’s no bathroom, no electricity, no working well. There is a pump above the sink that draws water from a plastic container. When the container is half empty we row a boat a quarter-mile across Gosport Harbor to Star Island where we fill up our water jugs and row back.
NOTE: See Dennis and Maryellen talking about Smuttynose Island on NH CHRONICLES Wednesday June 27 at 7pm on WMURT-TV, The show will then be archived on the TV station Web site.
The two-room cottage sits at the rise of a hill just up from Haley’s Cove and only a few hundred yards from the Maine/New Hampshire border that runs between the nine islands at the Isles of Shoals. There were half a dozen buildings on the island in the 1800s, but only this structure and the one-room mid-20th century “Gull Cottage” survive, and thanks to a conservation easement with the state of Maine, no other buildings can be added.
Only people with boats can reach us. Part of our job as volunteer stewards of the privately-owned island is answering visitor questions. I know a lot about the history here (see my book and exhibit UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS at Discover Portsmouth) but no one has yet been able to pinpoint a date for the construction of Haley Cottage. Estimates run from the 1750s, when Sam Haley probably began raising his large family on the island, to as late as 1800. It has been called “the oldest house in Maine” but there are older structures in nearby Kittery. The house was a wreck until a passing carpenter named John MacKenzie restored it in the 1990s. Today it appears on the label of Shoals Pale Ale from the Smuttynose Brewery, a local company not related to the island (but a sponsor of my book).
We know the house was moved, perhaps around 1873, to a point higher on the lawn. Visitors often insist that this is the “murder house” where two women were killed that year, but it definitely is not. The plain two-story duplex that locals knew as the “red house” was the site of the ax murders (hopefully the topic of a future book, now in progress). It stood a few yards closer to Gosport Harbor. That building burned and only remnants of the stone foundation remain. The other Haley House is also gone. That large structure, known as the Mid-Ocean House of Entertainment, also burned and its foundation is hidden deep in poison ivy directly behind Gull Cottage.
Inquiring minds would love to know how old the Haley Cottage really is. Historic records are scarce, but wouldn’t this make a great graduate student project? I’ve attached a few photos, including my crude picture of the inside of the roof which is still exposed in the attic where guests sleep on the wide-planked floor on foam mats. Not exactly the Ritz, and it’s a long walk to the outhouse in the spooky dark of night. The roof reportedly blew off temporarily in the 1930s, but it still keeps the rain and the seagulls out.
J. Dennis Robinson is editor and owner of the popular Web site SeacoastNH.com and author of books about history. His latest books are UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS about archaeology and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER about the War of 1812.