Much of “old Cape Cod,” meaning in significant part the kind and gentle people who once populated it, is now gone. They, the place, and their lifestyle, became victims of the automobile and the desire for summer houses by the sea. However, from some of those Cape Codders including the Eldred family of Quissett a legacy of building and designing boats remains.
The Eldreds originally settled in Falmouth in the 1700s after purchasing land on and to the north of Quissett Harbor. Quissett, shortened from the original native Wampanoag name of Woquamquissett, is a scenic and well protected harbor located on the eastern shore of Buzzards Bay. For almost two hundred years the Eldreds lived on and farmed their seaside land of “pastures and orchards.”
Lemuel Eldred, the patriarch, was a retired sea captain and respected Falmouth business man. In 1790 he built the house that still stands near the head of the harbor, the homestead of subsequent generations. His grandson Lorenzo, introduced cranberry growing to Quissett in the marshland to the north. Lorenzo and his wife Mercy, who at the time were childless, adopted young Charles Fish soon after the Civil War. Charles, while still a toddler, had been orphaned when his mother perished in a house fire. Before that his father, while serving in the Union Army, had died from disease on campaign in Louisiana. Charles, after settling into the family, officially became Charles Henry Eldred.
While working the land with his new father and viewing the passing scene on Buzzards Bay, Charles became enamored with ships and boats. His older brother Jean, who had declined adoption, had shipped out on a whaler and done well. Charles also longed to go to sea and become a sailor but his new parents, who had lost their natural son when he fell from aloft on a sailing ship, forbid it. Charles was forced to content himself with smaller boats and sailing in the local waters of Cape Cod.
Charles stayed in Quissett, inherited the Eldred homestead, and married the local schoolteacher. He worked hard on the farm and saved up money selling milk and eggs, enough by 1896 to purchase a proper catboat, 26 feet long and built by Hathaway in Fairhaven. He used the boat, which he named Addie after his wife, for fishing, hunting, and taking out sailing parties from the local hotel. He also competed in sailing races in nearby Woods Hole. As a result of these activities and having befriended a few summer residents who noticed that he stored Addie in his shed on the harbor, he was asked if he could take care of their boats also. This became the starting point for a family vocation in boats. Charles soon needed help and asked his friend and cousin Joseph Fish to join him in partnership. The little boatyard became “Eldred & Fish.” Not only did they maintain boats they also built skiffs and small cat boats. Charles, or “Captain Eldred” as he would become known, continued to sail and race and, with his friend Steven Carey, Jr., owner of the Quissett Harbor House Hotel, was instrumental in forming the Quissett Yacht Club in 1911. Charles was appointed regatta chairman and ran the club’s races from his venerable cat boat for the next 16 years.
Charles Henry Eldred died unexpectedly in January 1927 after falling into the harbor and contracting pneumonia. His son Charles Lorenzo, feeling the pressure of family obligation, took over the responsibility of the boatyard at Quissett upon his father’s death. He was just twenty-six years old. Young Charles continued what his father had started, storing and maintaining boats, which included numerous Herreshoff 12 ½ s and S boats, and running the yacht club races. In addition he owned several Herreshoff 12 ½ s that he chartered to customers for the season and rebuilt several that had been damaged in hurricanes. Known as “Charlie” by the people of Quissett he was widely trusted and loved. He could be relied upon to hire the local boys for seasonal work and was always willing to help out boaters.
Charlie had two daughters. The older one, Judy, married Bill Cooper in 1947. Bill had come to Quissett as a hand on a schooner in 1944. Ostracized by his own family, after his widowed father re-married, Bill found his home at Quissett, a sentiment which became a reality with his marriage to Judy. After a short career as a deep water sailor Bill took up the trade of boat building, a decision that no doubt pleased his father-in-law. Bill and Judy would eventually have five children, two of whom would become instrumental in the continuing family legacy of designing and building boats.
By the late 1950s, emotionally taxed after three decades of the annual burden of preparing a large fleet of wooden boats for the season coupled with the financial uncertainties of the boat business, Charlie Eldred began to waiver in his commitment to running the boatyard. A few concerned summer residents, noticing his distress and aware of his increasing debt, began to fear what might become of the boatyard upon which they all depended. Somehow this group purchased Charlie’s mortgage from the bank and in due course foreclosed, forcing Charlie to sell the yard and his adjacent house.
Thus began the Diaspora of the Eldred family (Charlie had nine grandchildren) separated from the land of their ancestors by the priorities of others and their own complacency.
Charlie would continue his trade as a boat carpenter well into his seventies working for MacDougalls on Falmouth Harbor, his son-in-law William B. Cooper, and finally Ballentine’s Boat Shop in Bourne. Having previously suffered a heart attack he had a relapse and died suddenly while playing golf in 1977.