4 Aunt Sukey’s Way

4 Aunt Sukey’s Way. [2016, Dunlap]

Though the houses on Aunt Sukey’s Way generally date to the 1980s, the subdivision of which they are part was begun in the 1950s by the developer Robert Elisha Collinson (1920-1978). He assembled parcels in and around what was long ago intended to have been the enormous Provincetown Heights neighborhood, stretching from Bradford Street across the Old Colony Railroad tracks and into what is now the Cape Cod National Seashore.

The Provincetown Heights project sites were owned by the Cape Cod Land Company, whose most prominent partner was Maj. Sylvanus Bourne Phinney (1808-1899) of Barnstable. He was one of those 19th-century figures whose fingers seemed to be in every pie. As a six-year-old, Phinney was briefly a prisoner of war in 1814 when the packet on which he was traveling with his father to Boston was captured by the British frigate Nymph in Massachusetts Bay. Later, he met the Marquis de Lafayette and, during the Civil War, witnessed the battle between the ironclads Monitor and Merrimac. Beside being a land speculator, Major Phinney was the founder of the Barnstable Patriot, in 1830; customs collector of the District of Barnstable from the 1840s to the 1860s; president of the First National Bank of Hyannis and the Hyannis Savings Bank; Chatham’s representative to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1853; Provincetown’s representative to a White House conference on fisheries; secretary of the Cape Cod Central Railroad, before its merger with the Old Colony; and president of the Barnstable County Agricultural Society. He was commissioned in 1830 as a major in the First Regiment of Infantry, Third Brigade, Fifth Division of the Massachusetts Militia. He was an early advocate of a monument in Provincetown to the Pilgrims.

Left: Maj. Sylvanus B. Phinney, in the frontispiece of the Biographical Sketch, Personal and Descriptive, of Sylvanus B. Phinney, of Barnstable, Mass., on His 80th Anniversary, October 27, 1888. [Google Play] Right: Areas in pink indicate the full extent of the unrealized Provincetown Heights proposal of 1873, by Major Phinney and others, superimposed on a modern map. What is now Harry Kemp Way was then the Old Colony Railroad right-of-way.

Isaiah Gifford of Provincetown was another investor in the Cape Cod Land Company, as were F. L. Ames of Easton, Col. J. H. Benton of Boston, and E. N. Winslow of Boston.

Provincetown Heights would have created nearly 30 new streets. Aunt Sukey’s Way was one of them, though it was platted as “Central Avenue.” Running roughly northwest-by-north, it picked up where Pearl Street left off, just south of the railroad tracks (now Harry Kemp Way). After crossing the Old Colony right-of-way at grade, Central Avenue would have formed a T-shaped intersection with “Carver Avenue” (now Old Colony Way), before petering out after passing in front of five house lots on either side.

Provincetown Heights, however, was doomed at birth.

That’s because the year it was mapped — 1873 — was the year of a worldwide financial panic, set off in America as the bills came due for reckless railroad speculation, for the Chicago Fire of 1871 and the Boston Fire of 1872, and for the effective abandonment of the silver standard. In September, the influential banking firm Jay Cooke & Company failed, setting off a cascade of disasters including the temporary closing of the New York Stock Exchange. The panic was followed by a depression that lasted until 1879.

Major Phinney died in 1899, survived by his son and daughter-in-law Theodore Warren Phinney and Helen Frances Phinney. They were survived by their daughter and son-in-law Mary Hildreth (Phinney) Knowlton and J. Elliot Knowlton. They were survived by their sons Elliot H. Knowlton and Warren P. Knowlton. By 1959, the Knowlton brothers — great-grandsons of Major Phinney — were the last living heirs to the Provincetown Heights acreage. At that time, they sold three large parcels to Collinson.

Robert Collinson was born in South Truro. Through his mother, Ethel Franklin (Cobb) Collinson, he was descended from William Brewster, a Mayflower passenger who served as the spiritual leader of Plymouth Colony. His father was Claude Merrilliam Collinson. Young Robert grew up in the home of his grand aunt, Julia Rich, at 8 Johnson Street. During World War II, he was a chief machinist’s mate in the Navy. He married Graciette Leocadia “Grace” Gouveia — namesake of the Grace Gouveia Condominium at 26 Alden Street — in 1951. She retained his surname for official purposes, though they had divorced by the early 1960s.

On the northeastern Provincetown Heights parcel, at what is now designated 386 Route 6, Collinson established the Dunes’ Edge Campground in 1960. That is almost surely the project for which he is best remembered today. In 1972, he married Miriam Martin of 23 Conant Street.

The lots shown in pink composed Robert E. Collinson’s subdivision of the old Provincetown Heights project, proposed in 1974.

Collinson mapped out a 17-lot subdivision along Aunt Sukey’s Way and Old Colony Way (or Road) in 1973. By this time, the “Aunt Sukey’s” name had been in use at least 58 years. (The earliest reference I’ve found so far comes from the Yarmouth Register of 10 April 1915, which describes a license granted to Texaco to build oil tanks “near Aunt Sukey’s road.”) I still do not know who Sukey was; only that the name — a diminutive form of Susan — seems to have been in regular use in the 1800s. More than a dozen Sukeys are buried in Barnstable County.

Rules and regulations for the nameless subdivision were promulgated by Collinson in 1974 in the form of protective covenants running with the land until 1999. “The developer is desirous of creating an attractive residential community,” a preamble to the covenants explained, “encouraging harmonious and pleasing homes, assuring a high quality of community appearance; preserving and protecting the actual character of the land, conserving the trees, shrubbery, and other natural features for the benefit of all property owners; preventing nuisances, to maintain the desired tone of the community.” Among other things, that meant that “[a]ll buildings shall be of Cape Cod or modified Cape Cod, traditional, New England-type design.”

Collinson faced a good deal of trouble, however, in registering and confirming his title to the property he was attempting to market. His chief opponent was Elliot Knowlton, one of Major Phinney’s great-grandsons, who alleged in Massachusetts Land Court that Collinson had obtained the Provincetown Heights properties “by fraudulent means, with undue influence, and in collusion” with Knowlton’s lawyer, and moreover that the amount Collinson paid for the properties was “inadequate.”

Chief Justice William I. Randall found in favor of Collinson — posthumously — on 22 May 1979. The judge ruled that Elliot and Warren Knowlton had been given a fair price and were not subject to undue influence nor victimized by their lawyer. Justice Randall also dismissed the allegation that Collinson acquired more property than the Knowltons had intended to sell. “Since the sale occurred nearly 20 years ago,” he wrote, “we find it extremely unlikely that if the Knowltons sincerely believed they retained ownership to any land in Provincetown, their suspicions would not have been aroused by their failure to receive any subsequent tax bills.”

This particular parcel, Lot 9 on the Collinson plan, was purchased by Stephen R. Martin in 1982. The house went up the next year.

4 Aunt Sukey’s Way on the Town Map, showing property lines.

¶ Last updated on 18 January 2022.

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