At Home with the Duck Inn

Some Aquinnah firsts: the first bed and breakfast in town, in a house with one of the first flush toilets, and containing the first enterprise consumed with canards.

Elise LeBovit arrived in Aquinnah in the 1970s as a singer and saxophone player. She came to the Island to record one song – and never left. “Back then everybody scalloped in the winter and went to the beach in the summer,” Elise remembers. With a couple of friends, she bought the abandoned fifteen-acre Belain farm and farmhouse off State Road, where the open hillsides give views of the lighthouse, Philbin Beach, and Noman’s Land on the horizon.

At first she wanted to farm the land, but at the time, gaining status as a farm for tax purposes took too long. Instead, she decided to start a business, an enterprise that didn’t already exist in town. Elise had attended the San Francisco Art Institute, started her own preschool, and been a dancer and fabric designer in New York City. Her mind works creatively. There was no bed and breakfast in Aquinnah – known then as Gay Head – and certainly no business with a duck motif, so the Duck Inn was born.

The old Belain farmhouse, probably first used as a barn, has a foundation of huge granite stones moved to the site by teams of oxen that used to haul tourists from the town pier to see the Cliffs. Two families lived here, one on the first floor and one in the basement, which has windows on three sides. In winter, the sun warmed the south-facing granite wall, and the southern windows, along with the fireplaces on both floors, provided heat. In summer, the stone helped to cool the house. The family on the main floor had one of the first flush toilets in town, run by a generator in the days before the town had electricity (which it did not get until 1951). The other family had an outhouse, which is still used and lovingly maintained by Elise. “It’s very beautiful, with clouds on the stuccoed walls and a moon cut in the door.”

Elise augmented the original heating and cooling design when she renovated the house in the 1980s. She calls it a “natural envelope house,” because of the way the air circulates: opening a door downstairs makes one upstairs slam shut, unless it’s held open by a heavy metal duck. She doubled the width of the walls and extended them upward to make a full second floor. A small attached shed, now a guest room, was separated from the house by the addition of a glass entryway that brings in light and heat and circulates the air from the cellar by way of a granite staircase made from one of the foundation boulders that fell into the cellar during the renovation. The stone was too large to remove, so it was broken into pieces for the steps. A door in the shape of the boulder leads through the cellar wall to a guest suite beyond.

Even before opening the inn, Elise and her friends referred to the old home- stead as the Duck Inn. Ducks were always wandering around the land, and of the friends who bought the property with Elise, “one was an artist that painted ducks, and the other spoke perfect ‘Donald Duckese.’” When it was time to name the roads in town, her neighbors asked if she minded if they called theirs Duck Pond Lane. It turned out that the little pond nearby had always been known as Duck Pond. The fact that the homestead’s low ceilings made people duck going up and down the stairs only confirmed the rightness of the name.

Ducks are an enduring theme; Elise says the house is filled with “duckaphernalia.” There are so many odd ducks in unusual settings that returning guests tell Elise they start “seeing ducks” as soon as they get to Woods Hole, and others declare that they “really quack-up when they stay here.”

Next to the basket of purple pansies in the entryway, a large Donald Duck sign welcomes guests to the open main room, which is made up of six tiny rooms from the original homestead. The room has an eclectic, up-Island, ’s decor, an unself-conscious blend of colors, styles, and eras that invites weary travelers to leave their everyday lives behind.

This is a place to revive your imagination and sense of fun. A huge, elaborately carved duck next to the piano looks about, and a Buddha, with the sea to his back, gazes serenely into the room from a porch railing. The deep windowsills in the pale pink plaster walls frame spectacular views in all directions. A worn plank floor below the dark-beam ceiling is softened by a scattering of Navajo and floral rugs. Potted plants that may have started out their lives as ordinary house plants were perhaps affected by the bohemian spirit of the room and grew profuse, as if they were thought up by Dr. Seuss. A bouquet of flowers, surrounded by five or six different duck- shaped sets of salt and pepper shakers, gives the dining table a homey feeling. In front of the large open fireplace stand a couple of rocking chairs and a huge pillow-covered sofa. In a corner of the room – the kitchen corner – a black Manx cat sleeps on a hooked rooster rug in front of the deep enamel sink.

An old Glenwood cookstove leans against the back of the fireplace, and a long slab of wood with the bark still attached serves as desk and counter, curving across the open side of the kitchen. (On the counter stands a full-sized sitting duck telephone, whose message starts off, “Hello, Quackers.”) Elise presides over breakfast here. With her slight form, quick movements, and willingness to be helpful, she seems almost like a good elf or a Brownie, someone who’s always ready to do kind deeds for others. In fact, that is her heritage, passed on from her mother. Elise, fifty-seven, was brought up in the Unitarian church tradition of activism for social rights, living in Washington, DC, and going to protests in the ‘50s and ‘60s. She says, “I thought restaurants were places to picket to see if blacks could eat there. I never knew they were places to go out to eat. We always brought bag lunches.”

Elise kept up her activism after moving to the Island. Her belief in equality is partly why she runs a summer camp for the kids in town – “to prevent prejudice and keep everyone together: rich and poor, tribal and town, winter and summer. It’s a place to get together and have fun.” The camp grew from being something for her boyfriend’s kids to do in the summer to being a town-sponsored program for about forty children. She says, “It’s my belief in the future.” A certified Montessori teacher, Elise started her own school after running the Vineyard Montessori School and working as a counselor for Martha’s Vineyard Community Services. For years, Elise has held an Easter egg hunt at the inn – 700 eggs are painted, hidden, and found again. It’s a tradition that has taken on a life of its own. “Whoever needs it seems to find it. It’s great because people don’t get into politics like any two Gay Headers will do. And the teenagers still come too!”

Elise’s concern for her town is not unlike the care she takes with guests. People return summer after summer and feel like family members. Two women who come every year told Elise that they have a picture of one of her waffles on their bulletin board at work. The heart-shaped organic waffle, smothered in whipped cream and fruit, reminds them of the nurturing they receive at this, their home away from home. A few years ago, Elise wanted to take a break from innkeeping, but felt too guilty to shut down the inn. Instead, a couple of long-term visitors now rent the whole house for July and August, letting out rooms to other old-time guests and friends. Elise takes over again during the shoulder seasons.

The inn’s five guest rooms have their own character, each a variation on the duck theme. Ducks show up as parts of lamps, rugs, and coat hangers; ducks bob in water sealed into the bottom of wastebaskets, and a “Quacker Oats” savings bank sits on a bureau top. One of the bedrooms requires a certain level of intimacy: there is a bathtub (with an ocean view) in one corner and a glass door on the tiny toilet compartment in another corner.

The bathrooms have blue and yellow duck-patterned towels, and in one bathroom, a gaggle of rubber ducks squats around the sink, including a couple of devil ducks with red horns and slanted eyes, and others covered with red hearts. Elise loves to shop, and she finds treasures on the Island as well as in her travels. The inn has the feel of belonging to a world larger than the small town of Aquinnah. Asian cloths, photographs of a seashell-shaped house in Mexico, portraits of Native American elders, and a pagoda bird feeder mix the heritage of the Vineyard with the world beyond.

Elise is a quiet entrepreneur. As well as the inn, she runs Gay Head Realty and a massage business, all advertised primarily by word of mouth. The inn is at the heart of town affairs. Friends drop by to discuss Aquinnah matters or receive some of Elise’s nurturing by word, hand, or food. Although she has always been community-minded, Elise thinks about her own future, too. Her ideal is that the inn becomes a health spa in which groups will stay and use her newly renovated barn for workshops. Last year, she had the first photography show of her own work at the inn, and she’d like the barn to become a community space for art shows, performances, and movement classes. Her dream to farm the land around it may come to fruition in a plan to propagate bamboo to build furniture as a cottage industry. As to who would do the building, Elise says,  “I’ll see who needs work at the time.” ◆