An old house in an appealing state of preservation — but not renovated to postcard perfection — is often the sign of long-time family ownership. So, too, is a front yard on Commercial Street where a disc swing for child’s play hangs from an enormous old maple tree. Since 1889, this property has been owned by only two families, having changed hands in 1944 from the descendants of Capt. Michael Joseph Cavanagh (1850-1921) to the family of John William Burt (1906-1996), in whose hands it remains at this writing, through the Burt Nominee Trust.
Captain Cavanagh bought the house — then denominated 153 Commercial Street — from the Swift family. He was neither whaler nor highliner. The one mention I could find about his target species, from 1903, said he was “engaged in the porgy industry.” (Porgies are also known as sea bream.) As his gravestone in Gifford Cemetery makes plain, he was a Mason and a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. He was also a corporator of the Seamen’s Savings Bank.
156 Commercial Street in 2019, by David W. Dunlap.
But it was the captain’s younger sister, Sara Ann Cavanagh (1858-1938), who made the real mark on town life. She attended Provincetown High School and then a “normal school,” an institution that trains teachers, in Plymouth, N.H. (perhaps the forerunner of Plymouth State University). She served as principal of the Western School, 7 Tremont Street, which is now the site of a parking lot. In 1910, she was appointed principal of the Provincetown Grammar School. In that era, grammar school was not synonymous with elementary school; it was the tier between elementary and high school — roughly what we might call middle school today except that a grammar school would include ninth grade. In Provincetown, the Grammar School was housed with the High School.
During Cavanagh’s years as principal, the Grammar School grew to bursting, with more than 100 students. There were three, then four, teachers: Mertie C. Kelley, Katherine MacIntyre, Mary O’Neill, and Nina S. Williams. To handle the growth in class size, prudent Provincetowners did not enlarge the building but instead partitioned the main classroom in 1917. Cavanagh retired in 1925, after a 40-year teaching career. “It is impossible for me to find words fittingly appropriate in commendation and praise for this public servant,” Jerome P. Fogwell, the superintendent of schools, said at the time.
Architectural ornament photographed in 2008 by David W. Dunlap.
The school building was destroyed by fire in 1930. That year, a plan was advanced to eliminate the Grammar School entirely and merge its classes into what would effectively be a six-year high school, from seventh through 12th grades. Cavanagh died in 1938, survived by her sister Celeste (Cavanagh) Sanderson of Detroit. She and her husband, a jeweler named R. Stanley Sanderson, used the 156 Commercial Street as a summer house. He died in 1939, but she held on to the property until 1944.
The purchasers were John Burt and his wife, Elizabeth R. “Betty” (MacKechnie) Burt (1906-1996), of West Medford. To judge from his gravestone, Burt was the great-grandson of Capt. John Burt (1814-1892) and the great nephew of Capt. John S. Burt (1844-1867), who was lost at sea. He and Betty MacKechnie were married in 1931. They had two daughters, Catherine and Margaret. In 1967, Golf Digest cited Betty as one of the two “most improved golfers of the year” at the Highland Golf Club in North Truro.
The Burts, who were born in the same year, also died in the same year: 1996. Two years later, Catherine E. (Burt) Campbell and her sister, Margaret W. Burt, transferred the property to the Burt Nominee Trust, of which they are both trustees.
Photo taken in 2011 by David W. Dunlap.
¶ Last updated on 7 February 2020.
Ruth Anne O’Donnell Hurd wrote on 4 February 2020: They were the corner kids. Loved summer when they arrived and we could play croquet! There was an apartment upstairs back then. The family lived downstairs all summer. Such a fond memory!
Laura Canterbury Parker wrote on 6 February 2020: There is still an apartment upstairs. The daughters, granddaughters, and the great-grandchildren of the Burts come up every summer still. Nice to see the house was kept in the family. Handed down to through many generations to come.
156 Commercial Street on the Town Map.
Also at 156 Commercial Street:
Thumbnail image: Photo, 2008, by David W. Dunlap.
For further research online:
• Elizabeth R. “Betty” (MacKechnie) Burt (1906-1996)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 74798797.
• John William Burt (1906-1996)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 74798761.
• Capt. Michael Joseph Cavanagh (1850-1921)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 120585733.
• Sara Ann Cavanagh (1858-1938)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 120586340.