You might look at this grand Queen Anne-style structure and imagine that it was a captain’s house. You’d be right — up to a point. Capt. William Matheson (1828-1896) did live here briefly in the 1890s. “The beauty of the finish, the elegant appointments, and spacious halls of the house make it an ideal dwelling, fit for the occupancy of the best in the land,” the Advocate gushed in 1895. “It is none too good for Capt. Matheson, however. He deserves what is best, and his friends rejoice that this little gem of a house belongs to none other than him.” But he was dead within two years of acquiring the property, and the house became much more the province of his widow, Mary (Matheson) Matheson (1833-1926), and two of their daughters, Lizzie Leah William Matheson (1872-1957) and Jessie Taylor Matheson (1865-1962). Jessie, born just as the Civil War was ending, resided here until she was 97 years old and astronauts were orbiting the Earth.
The house, as originally constructed, was not nearly as showy. In the 1880s, it was the home of Capt. Gideon Bowly (1816-1893) and his second wife, Laurana M. (Lewis) Bowly (b1819). The house shared a front pathway with the slightly smaller home of Captain Bowly’s slightly older brother, Joshua Elsbery Bowly (1813-1883), at 184 Commercial Street. The path’s existence is recalled to this day by a five-foot-wide right-of-way between the two lots.
Left: In Capt. Gideon Bowly’s ownership, 186 Commercial (numbered “509” for record-keeping) was a one-and-a-half story house, shaped like a backward “L.” Right: Under the Mathesons, a mansard roof and porch were added (shown by dotted lines), as was a corner turret. Details of the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map From Provincetown, Barnstable County, Massachusetts of 1889 and 1912, in the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. Digital IDs g3764pm.g038261889 (1889) and g3764pm.g038261912 (1912).
The Bowly brothers were both born in town, to Mary and Gideon Bowly. They’re best remembered for the exceptionally long wharf bearing their name, at 187 Commercial Street. They constructed it in 1849 and then extended it in 1863 to receive the Boston passenger steamer George Shattuck. With that, it became better known as Steamboat Wharf. The Bowlys’ headquarters were in a wharf-head building at 185 Commercial Street (then denominated 186 Commercial Street). They had one of the more commonly misspelled names in Provincetown; it was not “Bowley” — despite what you have read in Building Provincetown, and other books.
On the death of Joshua Bowly in 1883, Bowly’s Wharf and the wharf-head building were sold to Captain Matheson. Following Gideon’s death a decade later, Laurana sold their home to Mary Matheson.
186 Commercial Street in 2008, before Guillermo “Gui” Yingling and Eric Jansen rebuilt a front porch in 2012, as had been constructed for Capt. William Matheson in the 1890s. Photo by David W. Dunlap.
Mary was the daughter of Elizabeth and John Matheson of St. Esprit, a tiny settlement on the south shore of Cape Breton Island, at the eastern end of Nova Scotia, or New Scotland. “Her parents were among the original Scottish settlers of Cape Breton,” the Mathesons’ great-great-granddaughter, Charlotte Matheson (Moat) Fyfe, told me in 2021. The Province of Nova Scotia was freestanding at the time of Mary’s birth, more than three decades before the founding of the Dominion of Canada.
About seven miles west of St. Esprit on Cape Breton, at Grand River, William Matheson (Uilleam Mathanach in Scottish Gaelic) was born in 1828 to Jessie and Alexander Matheson. They had come to Nova Scotia from around Loch Alsh, in an area of northern Scotland then known as Ross-shire and now as Ross and Cromarty. William “chaidb e do na Stàitean ‘nuair a bha e naodb bliadhn’ deug,” according to his obituary in An Mail; that is, he emigrated to the United States when he was 19. He returned to Cape Breton long enough to wed Mary Matheson. She was obliged to uproot her life to join her husband in Provincetown, but — since they shared surnames — “at least Mary didn’t have to change her monogram,” Fyfe said wryly.
They lived at 10 Conant Street. Mary had seven children: Charlotte, or “Lottie” (later McKay), born in 1857; Georgianna D., or “Georgie” (later Paine), born in 1859; Mary Stewart (later MacMurray), born in 1862; Jessie Taylor, born in 1865; John Alexander, born in 1867; Murdock, who died in infancy in 1869; and Lizzie Leah, born in 1872. Five of the seven are entombed with the Mathesons in one of the most imposing vaults in the Town Cemetery.
The Matheson family vault in the Town Cemetery. 2018, Dunlap.
William assumed his first command, schooner Abstract, at age 21. During the spring and summer, Abstract was a Grand Banker, working the rich cod fishery in the enormous submerged highlands off Newfoundland. The rest of the year, it was a coaster, trading along Atlantic coastal routes, with occasional voyages to the Caribbean and South America.
Profits from Abstract enabled Captain Matheson to construct a schooner fleet of his own, beginning with Lotta Belle, which had a capacity of 2,000 quintals of fish (224,000 pounds). Next came schooners William Matheson and Mary Matheson, both built in Essex, and each having a capacity of 2,600 quintals. Matheson’s partner in these vessels was his son-in-law Capt. Angus McKay. He was married to Lottie Matheson.
Almost all the Matheson children had schooners named after them: Georgie D. Paine, Jessie T. Matheson, John A. Matheson, and the three-masted Lizzie T. Matheson, which was built specially for Captain Matheson’s command. He also owned Addie F. Cole, Belle Bartlett, Lizzie Smith, and Willie L. Swift, and held fractional interests in other vessels.
Left: A newspaper engraving at the time of Captain Matheson’s death in 1896. Right: Matheson sponsored the exhibition of a 65-foot-long whale in Brooklyn and New York City. The creature was dead, so its smell soon overtook its size as the most salient feature, as this contemporary newspaper cartoon attests. Both illustrations courtesy of Charlotte Fyfe.
Captain Matheson last went to sea in 1880. That year, he was persuaded to sponsor a voyage quite unlike any other he’d undertaken: the public exhibition in Brooklyn and New York of a 65-foot-long finback whale that had been taken off Provincetown. Capt. Robert Lavender was responsible for hunting the whale and killing it with two bomb lances. He evidently sold the carcass, for $600, to Captain Matheson and Samuel S. Swift (father of Willie Swift). They, in turn, engaged the tugboat Curtis to tow the whale to New York Harbor, after the creature’s entrails were removed and replaced with water-tight barrels to keep it buoyant.
“The whale is the largest ever brought to New-York, and is well worth seeing,” proclaimed none other than The New-York Times, noting its location in Brooklyn, next to the slip for the Fulton Ferry. The public responded lustily, according to another newspaper account: “The gate tenders could not make change fast enough to satisfy the impatient mob of sightseers. … Occasionally one flourishing a $1, $2, or $5 note would force it on a bustling collector with, ‘Keep it all; I can’t wait for change,’ and struggle excitedly toward the whale tent. Silver and greenbacks, a perfect shower, poured in.”
Even in March, however, a mammal carcass cannot withstand decomposition indefinitely, and it didn’t take long before the size of the whale was not its most salient feature. Another newspaper reported after a few weeks that the spectacle was principally “for the benefit of those people who rejoice in the possession of nasal organs that disdain anything weaker than Limburger cheese.” By then, the partners had more than recouped their expenses.
Quarterboard of the schooner Jessie T. Matheson, named for one of the captain’s daughters, who lived at 186 Commercial until just after her 97th birthday in 1962. Collection and courtesy of Charlotte Fyfe.
Perhaps using some of those proceeds, Captain Matheson purchased Steamboat Wharf in 1883, which is why you’ll see references to it as Matheson’s Wharf (as well as Bowly’s Wharf). The captain made his headquarters in the rear of the wharf-head building. The retail frontage, on Commercial Street, was given over to daughters Mary and Jessie to operate as M. & J. Matheson Millinery & Fancy Goods. William Matheson was a director of the First National Bank of Provincetown, the Equitable Marine Insurance Company, and the Boston & Provincetown Steamboat Company, owners of Longfellow, which succeeded George Shattuck on the Provincetown-to-Boston run.
“He was an adept businessman who found creative ways to keep his family afloat as the fisheries tanked,” Charlotte Fyfe said.
As the 1890s began, cod were scarce on the usually reliable Grand Banks in 1891. Contemporary fishermen blamed the practice of throwing offal overboard into the fishing grounds. Modern historians blame overfishing. “The once vast fleet faded as by magic,” one account stated, but Matheson did not panic. “He rose superior to an adversary that forced ruin upon the mass, and, like the skillful general, who failing to overcome his opponent withdraws his forces without loss from the field, he had, in his later years, gradually reduced his working force of craft methodically and without injury to his business.”
“Of late years he had but few vessels going to the banks, some of them manned by crews from St. Peter’s and vicinity,” the Bras d’Or Gazette said. But that did not curb his charity. “Many a Cape Bretoner in days gone by, on landing at Provincetown empty handed, found in him a ready help.”
Memorial bouquets and wreaths commemorated Captain Matheson after his death in 1896. Courtesy of Charlotte Fyfe.
Eighteen ninety-one was an especially awful year. In the fall, schooner Georgie D. Paine, commanded by the Mathesons’ son-in-law, Capt. Oren D. Paine, disappeared far out in the Atlantic — most likely consumed by a hurricane. Three grandchildren were left fatherless. (More about them below.)
So, this was the William Matheson — diminished but deeply respected — whose wife bought 186 Commercial Street from Laurana Bowly, for $1,250, in 1894. The Mathesons transformed the structure from one-and-a-half to two stories by constructing a mansard roof. They added an octagonal turret to the southeast corner and a deep porch to the front facade.
The Advocate took its readers through the house in April 1895:
“Stepping from the broad front piazza, [the] roof of which is supported on fancy carved pillars, one passes through double doors of hard wood and plate glass into the wide front hall and is at once impressed by the beauty of the finish, which is of elm, elaborately carved. The flooring on this, the first floor, is of beech and maple.
“Opening to the left of the hall is a drawing-room with a room designed for a library in its rear. To the right is the parlor with a spacious alcove, called a music room. [The wallpaper in the halls was olive green.] From the left side of the hall rises a wide staircase, which, having one landing midway, turns squarely back on its upward course to the upper hall. The beauty of this staircase is easier imagined than described.
“At the rear end of the lower hall is the dining-room, a very roomy place finished in ash, with a cunning three-cornered china closet [set] into the corner of the room with a series of drawers for table linen, etc., beneath. A large mantel, with [a] plate glass mirror in [the] colonial style of architecture, is a pleasing feature here. [The wallpaper was a reddish hue.] Back of this room is a fine large kitchen, and opening off it an immense pantry, with pie closets, shelves, etc., ad. lib.
“The second floor rooms are finished in Washington cedar, very handsome. Six large sleeping apartments are on this floor. There is also a roomy bath-room and lavatory, and a finished store-room. The hall and bath-room are flooded with light that enters through richly stained glass windows.
“An octagonal tower that rises on the front of the dwelling gives cozy nooks to the rooms on that corner of the house.”
But the feature of the house that most impressed the Advocate — judging from the prominence it was given in the article — was the furnace, manufactured by the Gurney Hot Water Heater Company of Boston, “which keeps the temperature of the whole house at an equable height.” This early central heating system was connected to 14 radiators throughout the house.
Captain Matheson’s coffin being placed in a horse-drawn, glass-sided hearse in March 1896, outside 186 Commercial Street, where he died. You can see a corner of the front porch at far right. Mourners stood on Court Street, before 188 Commercial, for a better view.
The funeral cortège set off along Commercial Street, perhaps for the Congregational Church of the Pilgrims. Both, courtesy of Charlotte Fyfe.
Captain Matheson made it through only one heating season. In fact, the elegiac tone of the Advocate tour suggests it was known even then that he didn’t have much time. He died in this house. Photographs furnished by Charlotte Fyfe of the funeral procession make plain that his death was a momentous event in town.
Mary Matheson survived her husband by 30 years, remaining closely involved with the Congregational Church of the Pilgrims, 256-258 Commercial Street. In 1909, she deeded 186 Commercial to her daughters Jessie and Lizzie, but remained here until the end of her days. “Her fireside was ever the center of hospitality and good cheer,” the Advocate said. Though Mary Matheson became the oldest citizen of Provincetown — 92 years, 8 months, and 22 days at the time of her death in this house on 8 January 1926 — she would not, as a woman, have then been eligible to hold the Boston Post Cane.
Don’t imagine the house frozen in amber under the Misses Matheson. Instead, conjure the sounds of little feet pounding all that beech and maple flooring. “It would seem that the ‘maiden ladies’ may have raised a whole brood of children in the 186 Commercial Street house long after Captain Matheson died,” said Fyfe, who was herself a childhood guest of Jessie and Lizzie, her great great aunts, in the 1950s and ’60s.
The sisters Jessie and Lizzie Matheson cared for many young members of their extended family, so children were a constant presence at 186 Commercial. Courtesy of Charlotte Fyfe.
Perhaps the first young children to have been reared in the Matheson household were Rufus Matheson Paine (1885-1953), William Miller Paine (1888-1956), and Jessie Lincoln Paine (1892-1968). Their mother, Georgie, was a sister of the Misses Matheson. She was also not only the wife of Capt. Oren O. Paine of Wellfleet, but the namesake of Georgie D. Paine, a two-masted, 100-foot-long, 168-ton schooner built at Bath in 1883.
In September 1891, Mrs. Paine, then pregnant with her third child, took her young sons Rufus and William up to Boston to bid farewell to their father, headed to Suriname aboard Georgie D. Paine with a cargo of ice and a complement of seven or eight men. The ship sailed on the 13th. Five days later, at a point in the Atlantic roughly 835 miles east of North Carolina, Georgie D. Paine was spoke by the brig Rocky Glen, headed in the opposite direction, from Suriname to Boston. With that, Captain Paine sailed into increasingly foul weather, turning from gale to hurricane on the 21st and 22nd. Georgie D. Paine was never seen again. By November, it was given up as lost. Four months after that, Jessie Paine — Charlotte Fyfe’s grandmother — was born, on 15 March 1892.
Rufus, Jessie, and William Paine were the children of Georgie D. (Matheson) Paine and Capt. Oren D. Paine, who was lost at sea in 1891, just months before Jessie was born. Courtesy of Charlotte Fyfe, Jessie’s granddaughter.
The fourth child reared in the house was Janette May MacMurray (1899-1942), another of the Misses Matheson’s nieces. Janette’s mother, Mary (Matheson) MacMurray, was widowed after only two-and-a-half years of marriage. “I’ll bet anything Mary returned home to Provincetown and family to have Janette and raise her there after the untimely death of her husband,” Fyfe said.
The fifth and sixth children raised at 186 Commercial were Janette’s: Mary Stuart Miller (later Henrique), born in 1932; and George Fillmore Miller III, born in 1933. They are both shown as part of the 186 Commercial household in the 1940 census, together with their parents and the Misses Matheson. For the record, Jessie Matheson, then 75, was recorded as the head of the household.
Janette Miller was well engaged in civic causes through her membership in the Masonic organization Order of the Eastern Star; the Nautilus Club, 161 Commercial Street; and the Anchor and Ark Club, another Masonic organization, at 175 Commercial Street. But she came to the fore in the early days of World War II as “particularly valuable worker in the Civilian Defense program,” as the Advocate described her. Because the Cape had been attacked by German submarines in World War I, defense was a matter taken very seriously.
The corner turret and deep front porch, added by the Mathesons, gave 186 Commercial a distinctive identity. Of course, the great elms [?] out front didn’t hurt. Courtesy of Charlotte Fyfe.
It was a special shock, then, on 12 October 1942 when Mrs. Miller died in this house of a pulmonary embolism, at the age of 43, leaving young Mary and George in the care of their father and great aunts. (Mary went on to make an important name for herself in town, as a proprietor of the B. H. Dyer & Company hardware store, 173 Commercial Street, and Dyer’s Beach House Motel by the Sea, 171-173B Commercial Street.)
In one way or another, Jessie and Lizzie Matheson cared for at least six children. “No wonder they never married,” Charlotte Fyfe said. “They must have been exhausted!”
Not too exhausted to involve themselves in the community, though. Jessie was the “J.” in the M. & J. Matheson Millinery & Fancy Goods store, across Commercial Street. She attended the Boston unit of the national Bryant & Stratton College chain of business schools. As was true of the rest of the family, Jessie was involved in the affairs of the Congregational Church of the Pilgrims and — like her mother and sister — belonged to the Masonic Order of the Eastern Star. Jessie served as a delegate of the Red Cross to the Provincetown Tercentenary organization in 1920.
Lizzie died in 1957 in this house. Jessie lived another five years, but finally succumbed 23 days after her 97th birthday.
Althea Boxell took this photograph in 1944, after a hurricane (they were nameless in those days) devastated the town. Imagine the force needed to uproot this elm [?]. And imagine how grateful the Misses Matheson must have been when it landed where it did. Posted by Ben Kettlewell on the Facebook page, Provincetown in the ’40s, 17 February 2021.
The Matheson family sold the property a year after Jessie’s death, for $14,500 (roughly $120,000 today), to Richard Zaunere and John Hanley.
OUTLINE OF THE CONTINUING NARRATIVE
1963-1965: Richard Zaunere and John Hanley
1965-1970: Esther and Stanley Chamberlain
1970-1982: Robert Werner
1982-1983: Richard Karp, Richard Pozenovich, Clement Silva
1984-1988: Betty Adams
1988-1995: Pamela Childs and Frances Allou Gershwin
1995-2000: Linda Chase and Linda Jennison
2000-2005: Ellen Freeman
2005-Present: John Yingling
RESTAURANTS AND BARS (Can overlap; upstairs/downstairs)
1970-1978: S’il Vous Plaît
1976: The Alternative
1981: Mary-Lou’s Backstage Café
1982-1983: Sea Fox Inn
1984: Victor Victoria
1984: Café at the Painted Lady
1986-1987: The Grille (at the Painted Lady)
1987-1993: Franco’s by the Sea
1988-1989: Fiddle Leaf
1998-1999: Cactus Garden
2005-Present: Grotta Bar
2012-Present: Local 186
2020-2021: Sal’s Place Winter Pop-Up
1986-1987: The Painted Lady Inn
2005-Present: Enzo Guesthouse
Five rooms: Herring Cove, Long Point, Beech Forest, Wood End, Race Point