With good reason, we felt a bit apprehensive as we approached the side-door entrance on the covered porch, after walking up from the circular driveway, with its dramatic flagpole in the middle.
Already we were impressed by the almost full acre of well-cared-for lawns and perennial gardens; the crabapple trees and Norway maples; and the assorted ash, cedar, and hickory nut trees, as well as the cedar lampposts and the property’s several benches for peaceful viewing.
We were about to enter–that is, if we dared–what’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Isaac Davis House, one of many historic homes along Old King’s Highway (Route 6A) in Barnstable, Massachusetts, the second-oldest English village on Cape Cod, established in 1639. (Neighboring Yarmouth, we should note, also claims “second oldest” status. The oldest? Sandwich, settled in 1637.)
From an earlier telephone conversation with the owners, we knew that although this house was built by Isaac Davis, the town tax collector, in the early to mid-19th century, with later additions, there are foundation stones in the cellar that date back to the original fort house of 1643 … long before George Washington, for instance, was even born.
Anyway, the reason we were apprehensive was that we felt that if we opened that door, we’d be torn to shreds by a pack of vicious dogs. That’s what it sounded like.
“Don’t worry. They’re all in cages,” said a friendly voice from the fenced-in brick patio beyond the porch. It was our host, Clyde Claus, a retired banker, who, with his wife of 53 years, Eleanor (Ellie), purchased this historic old Federal in 1997. They’ve thoroughly renovated it and now have it on the market for $850,000. (Theirs is the usual reason: “Time to downsize.”)
Sure enough, when Clyde opened the door for us, there were four fairly big dogs–Hungarian Vizslas, he told us–in individual cages, barking their heads off. Amidst the din, Clyde introduced us to Eleanor, who was in their beautiful kitchen–cherry cabinets, granite counters, fancy stainless-steel appliances. Then he escorted us past two parlors, both with fireplaces, into the second of two living rooms, with its plush furniture covered with fabrics in colors replicating those used in New England in 1792. (Same, incidentally, throughout the house with the wallpaper, custom wooden Venetian blinds, and curtains.)
As we settled ourselves into an incredibly comfortable stuffed chair, Eleanor offered us coffee and fresh croissants with almonds. Next thing we knew, those four big dogs–Tago, his younger brother Igor, and the twins Phoebe and Bomber–came bounding in, but at least now, thank goodness, they were friendly. As we conversed, they obediently lay down, content to simply stare at our fast-disappearing croissant.
Over the next half-hour, we learned that both Clyde and Eleanor were originally from New Jersey–although Clyde has Cape Cod ancestors–but lived for years in California, where Eleanor was the CEO of a large hospital in Oakland. They have no children but make up for that with myriad interests.
For instance, both are weavers, and for the past 48 years Clyde has been a beekeeper, tending his three current hives behind the house–resulting last year in no fewer than 109 pounds of honey. “Honey of the Isaac Davis House Apiary” note the labels on his small jars. Eleanor, in turn, is a busy Cape Cod real estate agent. Both remain active in support of their respective colleges, Mt. Holyoke (Eleanor served on the board for 17 years) and Dartmouth (Clyde is class of ’53). Both enjoy boating, too, but recently sold the vessel they used to keep in Barnstable Harbor, just a quarter mile away as the crow flies.
On our subsequent tour of the house, grounds, and outbuildings, we were particularly taken by the beamed-ceiling dining room with all its built-in shelves, and by the sunken solarium with its India-tile floor, skylights, and triple-paned French doors, leading out to a terrace and fish pond.
Two stairways, one of them curved, go to the second floor, where you’ll find four bedrooms, one with a fireplace. (The house has a total of three fireplaces and three bathrooms.) Above that, a large attic is now used for storage but could be converted easily into even more living space.
Once outside in the fenced-in area where the dogs run and play, we walked through a gate to the separate two-car garage, where we climbed outside stairs to a spacious, sunny weaving room. Why two looms? “Well,” Clyde replied, “two people can’t use the same loom. We have different styles.” Oh.
Then to the beehives out on the lawn amidst lovely old maples. “The bee culture is similar to human culture,” observed Clyde, as we stood closer to the hives than maybe we would have on our own. “It’s dominated by females.” We knew by this time to recognize the ever-present twinkle in Clyde’s eye. (Then again, maybe he was serious.)
From there we walked down the sloping part of the lawn to the property’s mystery feature. It’s a tunnel running from the front lawn into the basement. It was probably used, said Clyde, by runaway slaves who’d hidden in ships traveling up to Cape Cod from Southern ports. We walked through the tunnel (we easily stood upright in it), and then Clyde showed us additional evidence that the Isaac Davis House was once part of the Underground Railroad: a hidden-away trap door leading from the cellar up into one of the upstairs closets.
Drifting through our mind during the drive home to New Hampshire that day were several questions–such as, If that trap door wasn’t for escaping slaves, what was it for? And Why was the tunnel built so large you could stand up in it? Why would there be a need to stand? Oh, and one other: Has anyone ever heard of a Hungarian Vizsla?
For details, contact Eleanor G. Claus, P.O. Box 1089, Barnstable, MA 02630; 508-221-0961 (cell), 508-375-6468 (home); firstname.lastname@example.org