[Historic Bars] From Island Shack to National Acts: The Chicken Box in Nantucket, Mass.

Posted on: July 3rd, 2014 by Beth Lennon 8 Comments

To close out this round of historic bars, we're traveling to Massachusetts for seaside hospitality. Biergartens are coming up in July, so get your order ready!

Credit: Beth Lennon, Retro Roadmap
The traditional weathered cedar-shingle exterior belies the informal interior.

On an island known for its reserved and decorous New England ways, The Chicken Box is an unpretentious change of pace.

The Chicken Box was the idea of Willie House and his wife, an African-American couple originally from Kentucky, who came to Nantucket in 1948 as domestic servants for one of the many wealthy families that summered on the island. An ambitious man, Willie found a modest shack on a sparsely populated area of the island and opened the original Chicken Box. It was a place where their fellow chauffeurs, maids, and cooks could congregate and relax on their days off, catch up with friends, and enjoy some famous fried chicken -- the meal that gave the place its name.

Credit: Beth Lennon, Retro Roadmap
The Chicken Box got its name from the Southern fried chicken it originally sold.

Originally just the size of the current center bar, the building itself has been expanded throughout its 66-year existence because of its growing popularity with both the residents and tourists of the island. The addition of a stage in the 1950s led The Chicken Box to become the island's go-to destination for blues and jazz music, with owner Willie House booking musicians, using his off-season connections to the New York City music scene. One of the first of many nationally known musicians to play at "The Box" was bluesman Muddy Waters.

Credit: Beth Lennon, Retro Roadmap
The original building was no wider than the current bar.

Willie owned The Chicken Box until the mid-1970s when he sold it to patron and friend Robert Reed, who is affectionately known as "Cap'n Seaweed" for his inability to keep a number of his boats from sinking. Reed, who had spent time in Jamaica, made the bold move of introducing the then-little known style of music known as reggae to The Chicken Box, much to the enjoyment of patrons. The current owners continue the musical tradition with live music seven nights a week, and pride themselves on booking nationally known bands throughout the summer season.

Credit: Beth Lennon, Retro Roadmap
Nationally known acts now grace the stage where Muddy Waters once performed.

The third owners of “The Box” are a trio of friends: Thomas “Packy” Norton, John Jordin, and Anthony “Rocky” Fox, who purchased the bar from Reed in 2000. While they were not the highest bidders, Seaweed knew that they would keep the place true to its down-to-earth roots, which the trio continues to uphold. As times have changed, they have had to make some changes to the building itself -- adding a smoking deck and ensuring the bar is handicap-accessible, for example -- but they're committed to maintaining the traditions and fun atmosphere that make the place "Internationally Infamous.”

Credit: Beth Lennon, Retro Roadmap
Local memorabilia line the walls -- and ceilings -- of The Chicken Box.

While they no longer serve fried chicken or any food, The Chicken Box is still a place where locals, summer folk, and day tourists gather around the horseshoe-shaped bar during the day, hands wrapped around an icy beverage, swapping stories, and relaxing in the unpretentious establishment. At night, they return to the roadhouse-like atmosphere to let loose and let their hair down, dancing to the energetic music that plays every night of the week, playing darts, or huddling around the billiards table.

"This thing that makes this place special," says co-owner Packy Norton, "is that it doesn't matter what you wear or where you're from. At The Chicken Box, everyone is equal, and everyone has a good time."

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Beth Lennon

Beth Lennon is the creator of the website RetroRoadmap.com. As "Mod Betty," she delights as the retro travel "hostess with the mostess," scouting out cool vintage places and sharing them with the world.

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8 Responses

  1. Diane Holdgate

    July 3, 2014

    No visit to Nantucket is complete without a visit to the Box.

  2. James

    July 5, 2014

    Let’s go the S&*t Box and get Chicken faced!

  3. Caffeine Clicks

    July 5, 2014

    I’ll have to keep this place in mind when I visit Nantucket. Too bad they stopped serving fried chicken.

  4. Kate Strunjo

    July 6, 2014

    Best bar, hands down awesome time

  5. The Chicken Box – Historic Bar List | Nantucket Preservation Trust

    July 7, 2014

    […] The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently compiled a list of historic bars and featured one of Nantucket’s most iconic bars, The Chicken Box . The original bar was started by Willie House and his wife over 66 years ago. They quickly became famous for their fried chicken served at the time, which lead to it’s name “The Chicken Box”. Today the building has had a few additions and changes but has maintained the laid back feel of its beginnings. As Packy Norton (co-owner) stated in the article, “At The Chicken Box, everyone is equal, and everyone has a good time.” To learn more and discover the other historic bars on the list click here. […]

  6. Brian

    July 7, 2014

    As a local, I can attest to this much: every visitor should go at least once. I avoid it most of the time, because it’s so popular it gets ridiculous… but if you are on vacation: check it out!

  7. Andrea Licata

    July 18, 2014

    I have great memories of the Chicken Box from a summer I spent working at the A&P on the island. One of the most memorable summers of my life!

  8. Art

    July 18, 2014

    My memories of the Chicken Box date back to the mid-70’s. As a callow youth, it was the fabled wild place to hang out on the Island. Brings back great memories.