By David Kindy
For a time, the four or five blocks around the Idlewild Inn in Manomet was an Armenian-American paradise, a place where survivors of a genocide found refuge and a new generation of Americans soaked up the tastes, smells and sounds of their parents’ culture while basking in the joy of their family’s new land.
From the 1930s through the 1970s, curious otherworldly music could be heard outside the Idlewild every Saturday night during the summer. Unusual aromas of food cooked by elderly women who barely spoke English wafted around and through nearby homes, tantalizingly teasing neighbors and passersby alike.
Yet, no one seemed to mind or care about the differences. In fact, they were celebrated and embraced at neighborhood parties, on sandy beaches, around backyard grills and on the local baseball field, where the community came together to celebrate the warm weather and relaxed atmosphere that was Manomet in this era.
For Steve Kurkjian, summers here as a young boy were heaven on earth. He was part of the new culture that was absorbed into this neighborhood. As a first-generation Armenian American, he was proud of both his heritage from the old country and his citizenship in this land. Mostly, he loved baseball and going to the beach.
“We played baseball all summer long at Briggs Field,” he remembers of his time coming of age in Manomet in the 1950s and ’60s. “If we weren’t on the baseball diamond, then we were on the beach chasing girls. It was a glorious time. I have so many memories.”
Now 75, Kurkjian once worked for the Boston Globe on the Spotlight investigative team, where he won three Pulitzer Prizes. One was for his work on uncovering sexual abuse cases related to the Catholic church in Boston. He is also the author of the book “Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist,” which chronicled the $500 billion theft of paintings at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
More than 70 years ago, Steve’s family lived in Dorchester and started spending summers in Manomet. At first, they stayed at the Idlewild Inn, which had been purchased by an Armenian family in the 1930s. The Sarafians welcomed all guests to their hotel on Manomet Avenue, though many Armenians stayed at the inn and later bought nearby cottages and homes.
How the Sarafians found this cozy coastal community is a bit of mystery, though there is a tantalizing clue at the Second Church of Plymouth. Records show that in 1897 the church hired a young Armenian minister, Haig Adadourian, who led the parish until 1904 and again from 1916 until 1923. He sponsored numerous people from the old country and helped them immigrate to America. It is believed some of those newly landed émigrés, including the eventual owners of the Idlewild, visited the reverend in Manomet.
The inn still stands on the bluff above Manomet Beach and offers a stunning vista of the seashore and beyond. To the south lies Cape Cod. Across the bay is Provincetown, clearly visible when the humidity is low and the sun is at your back. To the north, where Manomet Beach curves toward Cape Cod Bay, are Stone Horse Rocks, a rough outcropping that is a favorite for local swimmers.
“I’ve traveled around the world and to me, this is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” Kurkjian said. “It’s breathtaking. Not a bad place at all.”
The Kurkjians bought a cottage in Manomet in 1948. The father, Anooshavan, was a toddler during the Armenian genocide at the hands of Turkey in 1915, when as many as 1.5 million are believed to have died. He came to America with his mother, the only surviving members of their family, and grew up to become a respected commercial artist and portrait painter in Boston. Anooshavan and his wife Rosella wanted their children — Stephen, Karolyn and Elizabeth — to enjoy all the fruits this new and exciting country bore.
“We didn’t even own a car when we first started coming here,” Kurkjian recalls. “We would get a ride from cousins and friends. We would stay for the summer and my father would come down on weekends and for his vacation. I remember there always people at the house – 25 or so at a time. The women were constantly cooking. I don’t know where all those people slept because the cottages were tiny back then!”
Affable and athletic, the young Kurkjian made friends easily and played with other children in the neighborhood. Baseball and epic late-night games of tag ranging across the neighborhood filled their summer. One of his younger companions was Miriam “Mimi” O’Neal, who still visits the family home in Manomet during the warm-weather months.
“I always thought I was Armenian,” says O’Neal, who is as Irish as the day is long. “All my friends were Armenian. I loved the language and the food. I didn’t know ethnicity as a child. Steve’s father cooked pancakes every Saturday morning for the neighborhood kids. We spent time together and all blended as one.”
Like an extended clan, everyone in the community kept an eye on the younger ones. Neighbors dutifully watched out for the children to make sure everyone was safe and would report youthful indiscretions. Once, Anooshaven caught O’ Neal’s older sister smoking and told her parents about her illicit activity.
“She was horrified,” she recalls. “But that’s what happened here. It was very family-oriented.”
O’Neal also attended the Idlewild dances with Kurkjian’s sister Elizabeth. They couldn’t actually go into the dance hall because children were prohibited, but they sat outside in back of the inn and listened to the lively and strangely enjoyable music as it poured forth from doors and windows left open in an effort to cool sweaty bodies from the summer heat.
“Elizabeth never really wanted to go, but I made her,” she says. “I think she was uncomfortable because it was the older generation of her family, but I loved it.”
Manomet’s Armenian enclave also mingled with neighbors on the beach. The community gathered together on the shore to bask in the sun and enjoy the salt water. Steve still remembers all the Armenian women holding hands and walking tentatively into cold Cape Cod Bay.
“The women were always busy cooking and running the home,” he says. “This is where they could rest and bond together. They would walk arm and arm into the water and hold hands in a circle. No one ever swam because it was too cold.”
One of those women was Ann Kalajian. She started coming to Manomet in 1947 with her husband Charles and later her three sons, Edward and twins Arthur and Peter. They also stayed at the Idlewild Inn before purchasing a cottage on Vinal Avenue. Ann, 91 and an ethnic Armenian who was born in Syria, lives year-round in the home now.
“It was a nice community,” she says. “You could hear the music from the bands at the Idlewild all over the neighborhood. The inn had good food and service.”
For Arthur, summers in Manomet were all about the beach and swimming. His family would head down the stairs in the morning to enjoy as much time as possible in the surf, sand and sun.
“We would spend a full day at the beach,” he remembers. “It was a lot fun. My mother taught me how to swim. How she learned to swim, I don’t know. She grew up in Damascus, where there is no water.”
Of course, all things must change. Just as the summer winds give way to the cool breezes of autumn and the carefree days of childhood drift into the endless demands of adulthood, Manomet would begin to evolve again.
The Sarafians sold the Idlewild Inn in 1968. It still welcomes all guests, but no Armenian bands play music late into the night on weekends anymore. The nearby summer cottages were replaced with expansive year-round homes. Families moved away seeking better opportunities. New people arrived in and made those houses their own.
Today, a few Armenian-American families live in the neighborhood, which now has a much more diverse population. People are still friendly and care about their neighbors, but the ambiance has changed. Bigger homes and the increased demands of 21st century life mean less opportunity to rub elbows together and to connect as a community.
Manomet is now Steve Kurkjian’s full-time address. He loves the casual feel of the neighborhood and cheerfully greets everyone he sees while around – whether he has known them for 70 years or met them last week at the beach. For him, the place is home. He wrote about it recently in a reflection of his recollections growing up in that friendly corner of Plymouth:
“I can still see them, small groups of older Armenian women, all dressed in their billowing black bathing suits, walking together down the long flight of stairs onto the warm sands, then wading hand in hand into the water, conversing in soft somber tones in their native Armenian, yet shouting, almost with laughter, as another cold wave came splashing towards them.”