The Maggie P…“ Was and Is, Home”
Profile & Photos by Caryn B. Davis
There is a very intriguing red, ramshackle structure that sits among multi-million dollar houses in one of the most well-heeled and exclusive neighborhoods in the country. And while this tiny summer home may not be considered as grand in scale as the pristine estates engulfing it, it is big on character and beloved by the family who owns it.
The Maggie P was originally built as a houseboat by a man named Peterson. Although not much is known about Peterson such as who he was or where he hailed from, it is known that the boat was named after his daughter, Margaret.
The Maggie P spent her early life floating around South Cove in Old Saybrook. No one knows the exact date she was built; however, there is a reference in the 1974 book, “The Fenwick Story” written by Marion Hepburn Grant (and yes, that is Katharine’s sister), that residents first recalled seeing the Maggie P in 1900.
Houseboats on South Cove were not an unusual sighting. They were a respite for city dwellers who flocked to the shoreline to escape the oppressive heat of summer.
In 1910, the Maggie P was caught in a storm and drifted to her current location in the Borough of Fenwick. She was beached on a small island that is submerged twice daily with each tide. Abandoned, Al Butler, a local carpenter, moved himself and his housekeeper aboard and began fixing up the place. (There was some speculation about whether or not Butler’s lady friend was really just his housekeeper, but that is another story)! Butler removed the original pontoons on which the Maggie P sat and set her aloft upon wooden pilings as she remains today.
“Al Butler was a man to take things as they come, doing odd jobs around the community,” wrote Grant in her book. “Since he paid no taxes and was a good fisherman, he and his housekeeper managed. In the summertime they sold bait fish. To say the least, the Butlers’ casual lifestyle was quite a contrast to that of other more affluent Fenwick residents!”
The next person to occupy the Maggie P was a river pilot named Michael Doherty.
“We still have his pilot license hanging on the wall in the Maggie P,” says William Wightman, the current owner.
One day, Doherty simply disappeared. It is presumed that he fell overboard and drowned since he was around water all the time. But he never did resurface (no pun intended); and after seven years, he was legally declared dead, leaving behind an estimated $500 in unpaid grocery bills and back taxes.
In 1938, Mrs. Mabel Porter discovered the Maggie P while on a bird watching trip at Fenwick. It was love at first sight. She envisioned a cozy cottage that was easily accessible to her home in nearby Higganum in which to her spend summers at the shore. She made inquiries regarding the Maggie’s P purchase and was directed to speak to Houghton Bulkeley, who was the Warden for the Borough of Fenwick during that period.
According to what Grant wrote in her book, the story goes like this: “Mr. Bulkeley had been a captain in the 101 Machine Gun Battalion, 42nd Division during World War I. Mrs. Porter’s brother Hezekiah, a member of the same battalion, had been killed at Chateau Thierry. Houghton was sure that the sister of such a fine solider would be good Fenwick neighbor.”
In good faith, Mrs. Porter promptly paid off Doherty’s debt and agreed to pay yearly taxes unlike the Maggie P’s prior owners. And with that, Mrs. Porter found herself the proud owner of a houseboat, which has remained in her family now for four generations.
“When Mrs. Porter bought the Maggie P in 1938 there was no catwalk, so the only way you could get to it was by rowboat. She wanted to be able to walk to the road, so she went to the Warden again and asked for permission to build it; and that is how the Maggie P got her catwalk,” says Wightman.
Also in 1938, Mrs. Porter happened to purchase hurricane insurance from a salesman for the princely sum of one dollar, even though her children, Wallace and Alice balked at the idea. “They all laughed at her and told her not to bother. No hurricane has ever come to Connecticut. Hurricanes belong in Florida. But since it was only one dollar, Mrs. Porter bought it anyway,” Wightman says. “Well on September 21 came the 1938 Hurricane, and the Maggie P survived. Some of the decks around her got busted up, but the insurance company fixed up what was damaged. She has survived all of the hurricanes ever since.”
Aside from the addition of the new footway, Mrs. Porter decided early on to preserve the look and feel of the Maggie P because she considered her just fine the way she was. Therefore, the Maggie P has never been updated, and the only changes that have been made during her 118-year history are some minor repairs and reinforcements and a refreshing of the paint.
After World War II, William Wightman returned home to his parent’s house in Old Saybrook when his tour of duty with the Navy had ended. He had to make a living, so he became a fisherman, fishing for scallops, oysters, and shad. When the fish weren’t biting, he built skiffs in a shop that also fixed boat engines. One day Alice Porter entered the shop.
“She lived in Fenwick with her mother at the Maggie P of course. She had an outboard motor in there for repair, and it was finished. I was taking a break on the workbench and she asked if her motor was ready. I said, ‘It’s right next to the door’. She said, ‘If you were a gentleman you would bring it out to the car for me.’ So I hopped down off the bench and brought it to her car. When she got back over to the Maggie P she told her mother I wasn’t much of a gentleman because she had to ask me to carry her motor,” laughs Wightman.
Even if the young Miss Porter’s first impression of Mr. Wightman wasn’t the best, she did eventually marry him anyway, and they had two children together, Prudence and Porter. After quitting the fishing business, Wightman completed college at The Rhode Island School of Design where he majored in textile manufacturing. He was fortunate to land a job as a textile engineer with the Albany Felt Company, which manufactured industrial felt for the paper industry. His job took him to Mexico, Holland, Brazil, France, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Canada, and South Carolina.
But of all the places in the world the Wightmans have lived, for this family, the Maggie P was, and still is, home.
“I cannot explain really how fond our family is of the Maggie P,” says Wightman.
Nowadays the small sleeping cabins are filled with great-grandchildren who spend their summers swimming, boating, bird watching, and learning about their coastal environment just as Mrs. Porter’s children and grandchildren did.
“It’s one big playground. There’s no place else like it in the world that I have ever seen. It’s home. It’s our roots. It’s always been there for us,” says Prudence Wightman Sloane.
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