If you’re not looking for it, Greenport’s Stirling Historical Society is easy to miss.
Tucked among several commercial buildings on Main Street, the plain but attractive white, two-story house with green shutters blends into its surroundings. But inside the 1831 property, called the Margaret E. Ireland House in honor of a former resident, there is a story always waiting to be told.
Built in what historical society secretary Gail Horton referred to during a recent tour as the functional “craftsman” style, the seven-room home is filled with local artifacts, including a manual washing machine, antique children’s toys and a curious assortment of old oyster shells.
But the relics visitors are most intrigued by, Ms. Horton said, are in the extensive collection of 1800s whaling tools on display in the three-bedroom home’s original dining room, where lances, fluking irons and whale oil lamps adorn the walls.
Greenport was a thriving whaling port when the house was built in the 19th century, Ms. Horton explained. In fact, local legend has it a group of whalers once returned to the village after a trip with so much oil that lines of full barrels stretched northward from the lower Main Street wharf to Steamboat Corner, where First and Main streets converge.
“It was a lifeblood that led to us being a very progressive village,” Ms. Horton said. “It’s why we have all these fancy houses and it’s why we had the money to have water, sewer and electricity and pave the roads.”
Whale oil was popular as a lighting fuel before the invention of electric lights. Sperm whale oil, in particular, was in high demand because it burned cleaner, with less odor and smoke.
Ms. Horton said visitors to the Stirling Historical Society are fascinated by the controversial nature of commercial whaling, which was banned in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission.
“I think people are very interested in the complexity of it,” she said. “I also think they’re horrified by it.”
The artifacts in the rest of the plank-floored house — which was donated to the society in 1973 by Frederick Preston, who at one point used it as a storage facility — are decidedly less controversial. There’s a sturdy wood-burning stove in the small kitchen and an airy upstairs bedroom displays an antique sleigh bed and two Victorian-era dresses.
Later this year, Ms. Horton said, the society will update certain exhibits at the well-maintained building, which has housed some 30 families over the years. Tours of the Margaret E. Ireland House, at 319 Main St., are available by appointment. Call 631-477-3026. During July and August the building is open to the public without an appointment.