50 Years of Ship’s Knees Inn: A Look Back as We Celebrate Our Anniversary

The year was 1971. All in the Family made its debut, as did Carole King’s Tapestry. Bell bottoms, peasant blouses and Weebles were all the rage. Diana Ross said goodbye to the Supremes, and the Butcher family said hello to Ship’s Knees Inn.

It has been half a century since William Butcher, current innkeeper Pete’s father, purchased Ship’s Knees Inn: a substantial amount of time by any standard, yet not quite even a quarter of the history of the actual property. The oldest portion of the inn, the white clapboard home facing Beach Road, was built in 1820, when East Orleans was nothing but rolling farmland. Yet the home’s history of welcoming summer visitors dates back to nearly its infancy, when the owner, Freeman Snow, let rooms to guests. After Snow’s passing, his heirs sold the property, and it continued to serve as a summer haven for tourists, although in a far more rustic style than it does today.

It was William Butcher, an entrepreneur who purchased the property as an investment, who was responsible for the large-scale renovation that began to bring Ship’s Knees Inn more in line with what guests now experience at our Nauset Beach hotel. William expanded the main house and what was a barn, which had served as a boardinghouse with women in one section and men in the other, into what is now the North Wing. Ship’s Knees Inn would eventually have 20 guestrooms, most with shared baths.

Although William left the day-to-day management of Ship’s Knees to onsite innkeepers, Pete, who was 17 when his father bought the property, did manage to make it to the Cape from his home in Connecticut when he and friends would visit on weekends to paint and do odd jobs.

When William passed away in 1984, he left the inn to Pete and his sister, Donna, who continued to manage Ship’s Knees with the help of onsite innkeepers until 2003, when the siblings decided to sell the inn. A developer from Connecticut signed a purchase and sale agreement on the property in 2004. A contractual issue with the P&S voided the agreement.

And that’s when everything changed.

By now, Pete and Denise were long married with four children of their own, the two eldest children already in college, the two youngest still in high school.

Although they lived in Connecticut, Pete and Denise had owned a second home in East Orleans in the late 1980s and mid-90s. Denise and the kids would spend the summer, while Pete traveled back and forth on weekends. The entire family had an emotional attachment to both the inn and the village. Given that Pete’s family had owned the inn for much of his life, and that Pete and Denise actually met at Ship’s Knees, their attachment was likely even deeper than that of their children.

And so in 2004, with the full support of their children, Pete and Denise bought out Pete’s sister and became year-round Cape Codders and fulltime innkeepers. Ship’s Knees became not only a new career for them, but their new home as well; they lived in what is now the Ocean-View apartment with their two youngest children.

With the kids enrolled at Nauset Regional High School, Pete and Denise immediately undertook a large-scale renovation of Ship’s Knees, reconfiguring six guestrooms to create private en-suite baths for all but two of the rooms. In 2008, following Brie’s graduation from high school, Pete and Denise built a home on the grounds of the inn and renovated what been their apartment for guest use. Annual renovations throughout Ship’s Knees keep things fresh without overshadowing the property’s historic pedigree.

While much in the world has changed since Pete and Denise purchased the inn, and nearly everything has changed since Pete’s father bought it in 1970, Ship’s Knees Inn continues to do what it has done for nearly two centuries: offer visitors distinctive lodging in an unsurpassed location.

One can’t help but wonder if Pete was wearing bellbottoms and Denise a peasant blouse when they first met at Ship’s Knees all those years ago.

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