History Beneath Our Feet

By: Desmond Curran

Topics: Local History

An old postcard view of the Crosby Mansion. COURTESY PHOTO

She held out the small silver disk on the edge of her index finger and, instantly recognizing the arced outlines of the coin, I beamed. A Seated Liberty dime! Our first relic on the grounds of the historic Crosby Mansion situated off of Route 6A in Brewster.

She is Christina and I am Desmond, and we are artifact hounds. We look for extremely old structures that might give up pieces of their past in the form of buttons, coins, bullets, and jewelry – items we hope to discover using a metal detector and a hand trowel. The romance and intrigue of these objects is what drives us, often to knock on the doors of strangers to gain permission to scan their properties. This is how, one morning in late July, we met Richard Archer, property and events manager for the Crosby Mansion. After granting our request to search the grounds, Richard gave us a brief history of the Crosby family, which is as fascinating and storied as the Mansion itself. 

Albert Crosby was born in 1823 to Nathan Crosby Jr. and Catherine Nickerson Crosby, who moved to a small Cape farmhouse in Brewster in 1832. In 1846, Albert moved himself and his first wife Margaret Henderson to Chicago, where he found success distilling alcohol, eventually operating the largest distillery in the West. At the onset of the Civil War, Albert marketed his alcohol to the Union Army; claiming it was necessary for “medicinal purposes,” the businessman shrewdly avoided the government’s alcohol tax and amassed a fortune. In a subsequent series of life events which (for better or worse) encapsulate the American Dream and include the Chicago Opera House, precious artwork, a disastrous fire, financial ruin, divorce, and burlesque, Albert Crosby returned to Brewster after the death of his parents with his second wife Georgia Matilda Sourbeck. Mathilda was a burlesque performer 21 years younger than Albert, and the former Chicago dancer was not eager to live in her husband’s quaint childhood home. In order to impress her, Albert designed an 18,000-square-foot “addition” to the homestead which engulfed the original farmhouse. Construction began in 1885 by John Hinkley and Sons and included 35 rooms; a 65-foot viewing tower (toppled by the hurricane of 1938); 15 fire places decorated with imported tile; hand-carved mahogany walls and oak floors; a parlor duplicating the one at the Palace of Versailles and an entrance foyer inspired by Buckingham Palace; a two-story billiard room; an art gallery; marble sinks and floors in the bath; and gas lighting and heating throughout. Local legend had it that the raucous young Matilda held wild parties on the front lawn, bringing many of the mansion’s expensive oriental rugs outside for the comfort of her guests. The couple also hosted well-known guests such as Mark Twain, Anne Sullivan, and Helen Keller. Despite her popular soirees, Matilda was never accepted into polite society due to her previous profession. As a result, she felt more comfortable with her working-class maids and made sure their third floor rooms had majestic views overlooking Cape Cod Bay.

 Albert died in 1906; following Matilda’s death, the mansion was purchased in 1928 by Martha Atwood and housed the Cape Cod Institute of Music, where it is said Kirk Douglas studied. The mansion passed through several hands and underwent many transformations, and became vacant in 1978. It had suffered from severe vandalism and disrepair when the Friends of Crosby Mansion intervened in 1992, and over the ensuing 25 years the group restored it to its former elegance. The mansion is now open to the public for tours through the summer every Sunday and Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 134 Crosby Lane. The docents are extremely dedicated and knowledgeable in the mansion’s history. Parking is free.

Fast-forward to June 2022, and to the gorgeous 1843 Seated Liberty Dime. The coin was minted more than 40 years before the mansion was built. Perhaps Albert’s father dropped the coin playing with his son outside of the original farmhouse, or maybe Albert himself lost the dime as a youngster while shooting marbles in the yard? It is the lost answers to these questions that compel us to search. Towards the end of our hunt, beside a small tree, I heard the sweet sliver of a sound through my head phones denoting a coin approximately 10 inches below ground. Sure enough, after digging almost a foot down, we discovered an 1835 penny. The copper was somewhat encrusted with the slightly green patina of oxidation, but it was certainly recognizable as an American Coronet Head Large cent. The small five-foot space to the left of the front of the house was the only section of yard which yielded antique goodies, as we realized the majority of the lawn had been excavated and landscaped years ago. Thrilled, we shared our recovered relics with Richard who, as a part-time magician, demonstrated his excitement by showing us his sleight-of-hand, making the coins we had just labored to unearth momentarily disappear.

The Seated Liberty dime and Coronet Head Large cent now rest above ground on display inside the Crosby Museum. It is remarkable to bring history to life with artifacts from the past, and imagining that Albert or his father could have held these coins in their hands adds to their allure. Christina and I hope to have more properties to explore and adventures to share. If you have an historic home and are curious about what artifacts may be on your property, email us at desmond.curran2@gmail.com. There could be rich Cape Cod history right under your feet, right now!