1: Early Years on Cape Cod
CAPE COD. THE SEA. Since the last Ice Age they have always gone together, one sculpted by the other after the glaciers retreated until it resembles a giant arm bent upwards at the elbow—or in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts.”
Adorning the bicep of this metaphorical arm is the picturesque village of Yarmouth Port, with gray-shingled cottages and white-clapboard colonials lining its gently meandering main street. Founded in 1639, the village is one of the oldest in New England, and lies almost exactly at the midpoint of today’s Old King’s Highway Historic District. At thirty-two miles long this is the largest such district in the country.
Many of the houses in the village carry a distinctive oval plaque, with a schooner silhouetted in gold against a black background. The plaque identifies the former homes of sea captains, and is a particularly common sight along a section of Main Street known as the “Captains’ Mile.” With good reason: a recent survey of historical records confirmed that fifty-five houses in and around the village center once belonged to shipmasters.
One plaque-bearing house at the western end of the village is of special significance for this narrative. At the turn of the nineteenth century it was the home of a captain named John Eldridge and his wife, the former Betty Hallet. The Eldridges had many children, the first and the last of whom—John and Oliver—became well-known international seafarers. Neither, however, could match the fame of a third seafaring brother born almost halfway between them, eleven years younger than John, nine years older than Oliver. His name was Asa. And in the view of Cape historian Henry Kittredge, he became “the most distinguished shipmaster that the Cape ever produced… among the world’s half-dozen greatest shipmasters.”