Perhaps not until the days of Grace (Gouveia) Collinson was there ever a more popular teacher in Provincetown than Phebe Elizabeth Freeman (1865-1962), who owned this house for 33 years. We know about her revered standing because in 1901 she was named one of the 30 most popular teachers in all of New England — and the single most popular on Cape Cod — by The Boston Post. As a reward, she was The Globe‘s guest at the second inauguration of President William McKinley, to whom she was personally introduced. After her retirement as a teacher, “Miss Freeman” ran 165 Commercial as a guest house (unnamed) until she was 90 years old, “caring for everything herself, including climbing ladders to replace light bulbs and painting the porch,” The Advocate said.¹
Phebe Elizabeth Freeman at 165 Commercial Street. The undated, uncredited photo comes from a digital album in the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 5281.
The distinctive house, with its turret and deep porch, is not that old by Provincetown standards. It was constructed shortly before 1910 for Dr. Edward A. Todd on the site of William H. “Harry” Herbolt’s blacksmith shop and merry-go-round. Dr. Todd bought the lot from Harry and his wife, Joan Freeman (Loring) Herbolt, in 1906. He was a native of New Hampshire and a veteran of the Union Army. (And his wife happened to be named Mary Todd.) He was already in his later 60s when the house was constructed, and did not have too much time to enjoy it. Dr. Todd died in 1913.
Mary Todd sold the property that year to Catherine A. Burke of Worcester, who owned it for 10 years until selling it to Phebe Freeman in 1923.
Here’s how big a deal Freeman is: she warrants her own digital album — photos and documents — in the Provincetown History Preservation Project.
Freeman was descended from Cape Cod royalty: Edmund Freeman, a founder of Sandwich and a leader of Plymouth Colony, was one of her direct ancestors, in a line that ran through Prince Freeman. But Phebe was born far from where her family’s roots were so deeply sunk, in the still-young city of San Francisco. Her father, Capt. Calvin N. Freeman, was engaged in the Pacific coastal trade. He died in his early 40s of what was then called “coast fever” — perhaps scrub typhus? — leaving Elizabeth (Moore) Freeman to care for their three children, including 7-year-old Phebe. Soon after the family returned to Massachusetts, Phebe’s mother died in her early 30s.
Nellie, who sent this undated postcard, crossed out the name of Dr. E. A. Todd, builder of 165 Commercial Street, and replaced it with that of the next owner, Catherine A. Burke. (It’s a “C” on the deed.) Posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on his My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection Facebook page, 22 April 2019.
An undated, uncredited photo from the digital album, “Miss Phebe Elizabeth Freeman,” in the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 5281.
This unusual beachfront view is worth contrasting with a similar view below, taken in 2019, to get an idea of how the building has expanded. The undated, uncredited photo is from a digital album in the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 5281.
A 1970 postcard noted on the back that the Sandpiper Beach House had 12 rooms and offered amenities like “free T.V.” Made by Aladdin Color and posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on his My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection Facebook page, 22 April 2019.
A 2004 view for the Massachusetts Historical Commission reveals the large addition to the back of the original house.
That left Phebe and her brother John in the care of Marshall L. Adams, a Provincetown selectman, and his wife, Mary A. Adams. (Phebe’s last name was given as “Adams” in the 1880 census, when she was 14.) Adams served on the Building Committee for Town Hall, so talk of its construction must have filled the household when Phebe was a teenager. (His name can still be seen chiseled in the panels outside the auditorium.)
In 1888, after graduating from Salem Normal School in Salem (now Salem State University), Freeman began what was to become a 46-year career at Provincetown High School. “Mostly she taught languages; French and German and Latin, but there was really no subject she could not teach,” The Advocate said at the time of her death, “and in the early years of her career, when teaching was less specialized, she taught everything. Teaching was her whole life.”
A dozen years into that career, Freeman was boosted by the 14-year-old Chester H. Smith into statewide prominence. Young Smith somehow managed to gather 230,390 Boston Globe “Favorite School Teacher” ballots naming Freeman. (“Vote early and often,” as we used to say in Chicago.) Modestly enough, she attributed her success to her first and last names, acknowledging implicitly that Cape Cod was lousy with Freemans.³
“I am well pleased at having received a benignant smile and firm hand-clasp from our gracious President McKinley,” Freeman said at the end of the Washington trip, “and visited the most beautiful library on either side of the water.” She was surely referring to the Library of Congress, and Freeman spoke with authority since she’d been on the other side of the water, studying German in Dresden.⁴
Her civic service did not end with her retirement from teaching in 1934. Freeman continued until 1950 as the secretary of the Cape Cod Pilgrim Memorial Association, an office she had already occupied for eight years.
Accommodations at 165 Commercial Street seem to have been in charge of Nellie G. (Nason) Adams (1868-1948), at least in the years Freeman was still teaching. Adams lived at No. 165 and was a member of the Research Club of Provincetown, as Freeman was. An insightful document in the digital album is Freeman’s 1942 registration with the federal Office of Price Administration, in which she noted that charges for the eight transient rooms in her nameless “tourist home” ranged from $1.25 a night for one person (about $19 today) to $17.50 weekly for two (almost $270). Meals were not included, at those prices. Nor were private bathrooms. All 15 guests shared one bathroom and one lavatory.
Left: Phebe Freeman in 1901, from The Boston Globe. This and the right-hand photo are from the “Miss Phebe Elizabeth Freeman” digital album, Page 5281 of the Provincetown History Preservation Project. Center: The students of Provincetown High School dedicated the 1932-1933 Long Pointer to her, but misspelled her first name. From the School Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 5523.
The 1955 lodging house license issued to “Phobie” Freeman, who was then 90 years old. From her digital album on Page 5281 of the Provincetown History Preservation Project.
Left: Under wartime restrictions, Freeman was required to tell the Office of Price Administration what she was charging for the eight rooms she let. From her digital album on Page 5281 of the Provincetown History Preservation Project. Right: An ad placed in The Advocate on 8 August 1957 noted that one of Freeman’s watercolors was still in the house.
The Sandpiper advertised in the 1975 guide published by the Chamber of Commerce. From the Municipal Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 5851.
Left: Charles “Chuck” Mehr in the lobby of the Sandpiper Beach House, which he owned and managed, in 1980. Photo posted by DGB on Find a Grave Memorial No. 138383046. Right: An ad in the Provincetown Business Guild’s 1990 guide, from the David Jarrett Collection.
Insatiably curious and apparently indomitable, Freeman learned to walk all over again in her 90th year following a three-month hospitalization for serious injuries she sustained in a car accident. “She was an avid reader,” The Advocate said, “and in the last few years an equally avid fan of professional basketball, rooting for her favorite team, the New York Knickerbockers, whose games she would watch on television. Miss Freeman was also a proficient painter in oils.”⁵
She sold 165 Commercial Street in 1956 to Eilena M. Winter of Westfield, who — with her husband, Henry — transformed the place into the Harbor Terrace guest house. They ran a series of ads in The Advocate during the 1957 season describing the eclectic décor. They had an 18th-century rocking chair that the Winters said had belonged to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, Walt’s mother; windows, paneling, and a fireplace from the tavern in Tappan, N.Y., in which Major John André of the British Army was held prisoner during the Revolutionary War; and a sofa from the demolished Colonial Inn of Westfield.
Far more touching were these: an “exquisite floral watercolor,” dated 1905 and signed by Phebe Freeman; and a sea chest and ship log chronicling a 178-day sailing voyage in 1864 from Boston to Honolulu. They had belonged to Captain Freeman, Phebe’s father.
Harbor Terrace lasted only a few seasons. In 1959, Robert B. Frederick, the new owner, renamed it the Sandpiper Beach House, a name the building has kept ever since.
Frederick sold the Sandpiper in 1964 to Ralph W. Williams and Dene Rowe Williams. Four years later, now widowed and living in West Dennis, Dene Rowe Williams sold the property to Jacqueline S. Keen and Pamela R. Genevrino, who is best known for having transformed the Ace of Spades bar at 193A Commercial Street into the Pied Piper.
Roland L. “Chick” Chamberland (1920-1990), one of the owners of the abutting Boatslip, and W. Keith Brickel, soon to be co-owner of the Sunset Inn, 142 Bradford Street, purchased the Sandpiper in April 1971. Later that year, the property was transferred to the Boatslip Realty Trust, whose partners included Chamberland and Charles E. “Chuck” Mehr (1919-2014). Mehr was a 22-year Navy veteran whose service in World War II included tours in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters. After just a few years in the corporate world, he moved to Provincetown in 1967 and got into the hospitality business. Mehr had an interest at one time or another in four or five motels and guest houses, including the abutting Boatslip Motor Inn, 160 Commercial Street.
David W. Dunlap portfolio
The Boatslip-Sandpiper partners sold the properties in 1986 to a Boston developer, Edward F. Simpson. He tried to divide the Boatslip into a 51-unit condo of investor-owned transient rooms. By 1991, however, he’d sold only 18 units and was insolvent. In 1993, Simpson’s mortgage on the Sandpiper was foreclosed. Eventually, title to the Sandpiper wound up in the hands of Simpson’s wife, Joan Beard Simpson; his brother John “Peter” Simpson (1951-2017), and Peter Simpson’s partner (later husband), James F. Carlino. They also controlled the Boatslip.
In 2002, they sold 165 Commercial Street for $1,700,000 to Stephen J. Zemo, of Ridgefield, Conn. Together with Michael J. Taylor, Zemo prepared a condo plan for the Sandpiper in 2003 that called for 15 small units, ranging from 172 to 619 square feet. A revised plan in 2005 created four much larger apartments. Unit 2, for instance, which included a 10-foot-3-inch-wide room in the octagonal corner turret, had 1,715 square feet.
At this writing, two units are owned by Boston residents; one by residents of Stamford, Conn.; and one by a resident of Buckhurst Hill, England, northeast of London.
Is it too much to hope that somewhere at the Sandpiper — in a crawl space or attic — there might still be the floral watercolor that Phebe Freeman painted, and the sea chest that belonged to the seafaring father she lost when she was just a girl?
¶ Last updated on 26 July 2020.
Ronald Pavao wrote on 25-26 July 2020: My dad [John Pavao] was a caretaker for this house — repairs and painting — for many years. I worked along with him in my teens around the ’50s, before the Boatslip Motel was built. He was also asked to quote a price on the Boatslip. After seeing the plans, he decided not to do it as he did not like all of the valleys in the roof and said they tend to leak after a while. But the designer did not want to change plans and it did leak badly a few years later. He took care of and built many properties in Provincetown and Truro, including repairs to the Provincetown Post Office.
165 Commercial Street on the Town Map.
Also at 165 Commercial Street:
Thumbnail image: Photo, 2008, by David W. Dunlap.
• Nellie G. (Nason) Adams (1868-1948)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 167674546.
• Phebe Elizabeth Freeman (1865-1962)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 167674896.
• Charles Edward “Chuck” Mehr (1919-2014)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 138383046.
¹ “Miss Phebe Freeman Dies at 96; Taught School Here for 46 Years,” The Provincetown Advocate, 13 January 1962.
² “Miss Phebe Freeman Dies at 96; Taught School Here for 46 Years,” The Provincetown Advocate, 13 January 1962.
³ “Vast Vote / Result of Balloting in the Globe’s Teachers’ Contest,” The Boston Globe, 20 February 1901.
⁴ “From Teachers and Pupils / Guests of the Globe at Inauguration Write of What They Saw and Enjoyed,” The Boston Globe, 10 March 1901, Page 16. Inauguration Day was formerly in March.
⁵ “Miss Phebe Freeman Dies at 96; Taught School Here for 46 Years,” The Provincetown Advocate, 13 January 1962.