Cape Cod – The County – Pt. 1

THE “retired” sea-captain, if he had been too free-handed to grow rich, or had missed his chance of success through practising small shrewdnesses rather than large, often earned his living ashore as postmaster, or “deepo-master,” or he ran the tavern, or the village store that supplied the inhabitants with any obtainable commodity. In any case, as gentleman farmer or one of lower social rank, he fitted easily into the life at home which, in comparison with that of an inland town, was cosmopolitan by reason of constant interchange with countries beyond the sea. Men had a wider outlook : though they might never “go to Boston,” which was the minimum adventure of the community, they were familiar with far scenes discussed of an evening among the frequenters of post-office or store. And if all sailors did not become captains, though the contrary may seem to us to have been the fact, it was the exception when an able-bodied male had not gone at least one “voyage to sea.” The normal Cape Cod boy looked upon the ocean as his natural theatre of action. If he could wheedle his mother into consent, he was off at the tender age of ten, or as soon thereafter as might be, to serve as cabin boy with their neighbor the cap ‘n.

It is even said of one child that by the time he had reached his tenth birthday “he was old enough not to be seasick, not to cry during a storm, and to be of some use about a ship.” From the galley he might be promoted to the fo’c’s’le; from there, if luck and temper served, to the quarter-deck. A captain’s letter to his little daughter tells us something of the relation between captain and crew. Discipline was strict, but “the old man” did not forget that they were all neighbors at home. “We have plenty of music in the forecastle,” he writes, “but I wish I had you all with me and the seraphine and then we could have a good sing. There is a violin-player and one of the best players on the accordion I ever heard, and they go it some evenings, I tell you, and have a regular good dance. They have their balls about twice a week, and I can hear them calling off their cotillion and having a merry time of it. I wish you could see them going it for awhile. Daniel plays the bones and a young man from Barnstable is the musician. I like my crew very much so far and hope they will continue the voyage and improve.”

As cabin boy, forem’st hand, able seaman, mate, or captain, on merchant vessel or fisherman, every man Jack in the village was pretty sure to have had his taste of the sea, and thereby was equipped to contribute his story to the common fund of anecdote. With truth he could say “I am a part of all that I have met.” And whether they had followed the sea for one year or forty, or vicariously through the experience of others, each of them had a tang of “the old salt”; and their home was set in the ocean as surely as if Cape Cod were another Saint Helena breaking the long Atlantic rollers that come sweeping down the world. Many a time, indeed, it must have seemed to swing to their stories like the deck of a ship, and the dry land under foot to be stable only because one was braced to its motion. For most of the men, all the sea ways about the world were as familiar as the village road around the ponds. Daniel Webster once wrote some friends in Dennis of a trial in their district when question arose as to the entrance of the harbor of Owhyhee: “The counsel for the opposite party proposed to call witnesses to give information to the jury. I at once saw a smile which I thought I understood, and suggested to the judge that very probably some of my jury had seen the entrance themselves. Upon which seven out of the twelve arose and said they were quite familiarly acquainted with it, having seen it often.”

Every boy had some grounding in the common branches of study at the schools which his Pilgrim ancestors had been at pains to establish; but given the three R’s, his education was expanded in the larger school of personal adventure. Rich gives a quick biography typical of the Truro fisherman : “Till ten in summer — a barefoot boy, tough, wide-awake — hoes, clams, fishes, swims, goes to the red schoolhouse taught by the village schoolmarm. After ten, on board a fishing vessel cooking for nine or ten men; at thirteen a hand; goes to the same school-house three months or less every winter till seventeen or eighteen; graduates. At twenty-one marries; goes skipper; twenty-five buys a vessel and builds a house, or has been looking around the world to make a change. Whatever may be the experiences of after life, the early history of Cape Cod boys could be summed substantially as stated.”

This matter of an elementary education, in the early days, was frequently undertaken by men whose work was cut out for them to keep their own knowledge a little in advance of their scholars. There was Mr. Hawes, schoolmaster of Yarmouth in the later years of the eighteenth century, who gloried in the fact that

“The little learning I have gained, Was most from simple nature drained.”

He had worked on the farm and managed his own schooling when the only textbooks were the Bible and Catechism. “When the Spelling Book was first introduced,” he remarks dryly, “the good old ladies appeared to fear that religion would be banished from the world.” Hawes, however, undertook the pursuit of the higher learning, and once had a sum set him in the “Single Rule of Three” that cost him three days’ work in the solving of it. “I went often to the woods and gathered pine knots for candles,” he remembers. “At this time I lived with my aged grandfather, who had a liberal education, but was in low circumstances, and I could learn more in his chimney-corner with my pine candle, in one evening, than I could at school in a week.” Discipline was administered by means of an apple-tree branch, and “as soon as the master re-tired from school, every instrument of correction or torture would by the scholars be destroyed.” In the Bible class, “while each scholar would mention the number and read one verse,” the master would be making pens, and the other children most likely “playing pins, or matching coppers.” Hawes at the age of seventeen, had “advanced in Arithmetic about as far as Square and Cube Root,” and by his own industry “gained some knowledge of Navigation,” when the Revolution interrupted his studies, and, promptly enlisting, he served in the land force for three years, and then took to the sea. He sailed in no less than five vessels that were captured, but remarks that he was never prisoner more than two months running; and at the close of the Revolution he felt qualified to set up as schoolmaster ashore. His account probably gives an accurate picture of the public education of the day. “I commenced teaching school in Yarmouth,” he writes, “at seven dollars per month, and boarded myself, which was then about equal to seaman’s wages in Boston; and I occasionally taught town and private schools in Barnstable and Yarmouth, when not at sea. The highest wages I ever had was thirty-five dollars per month; and the last school I taught was in Barnstable, and was then in my sixtieth year. Now I will state my own method of school teaching with from sixty to ninety pupils, viz: The first and last hours were generally spent in reading, the middle hours in writing. Those in arithmetic would read with the others when they pleased. Having one class in school, every scholar, at my word `Next,’ would arise and read in his seat, till I pronounced the word `Next,’ and I often stopped him in the middle of a verse. After reading around, I would order another book, more proper for the scholars present, as before, and then in four or five different books till the hour expired. Then I gave out the copies and made as many mend their pens as could. If they had no ink-stands, which was the case with many, I would send one after shells, and put cotton therein. The ink I found and charged it to the school. I likewise set at auction who would make the fire cheapest, say for one month, which would go at about one cent a day. While they were writing in the second form, I would hear the little ones read alone, who could not read in classes. Seventeen was the greatest number I think I ever had of them. When school was about half done one scholar was sent for a bucket of water,” and then, no doubt from one dipper, did they all, girls first, then boys, unhygienically drink. “Those in Arithmetic having books of different authors, got their own sums, wrote off their own rules, etc. If they wanted to make inquiries concerning questions,” Mr. Hawes goes on to say, “and the scholar next him could show him, I would request him to; if not, if I had time, I would explain the principles by which the sum was to be done. If he then met with difficulty, I directed him to take it home, and study late at night to have his answer in the morning. When I dismissed the school I would examine each one’s writing book…. I was too much in favor of the Friends’ principles to require any bowing, and left that discretionary with each scholar.”

In schools as rudimentary as this were trained the men whose energy was to accomplish the greatest prosperity of the Cape. A majority of the boys were too busily employed in helping to extract the family livelihood from the soil and the sea to be allowed studies beyond those useful for such a purpose; yet almost immediately the free schools were supplemented, at Yarmouth and Sandwich and Barnstable, by seminaries and academies, where Greek, Latin, French, and the higher mathematics were taught. In 1840 the Truro Academy was founded under the di-rectorship 0 a wise teacher who raised the standard of education in all the towns about. And there was the Pine Grove Seminary, conducted by Mr. Sidney Brooks at Harwich, and beloved of its scholars: for Mr. Brooks not only encouraged learning, but was a promoter of innocent pleasure. His pupils were to remember Saturday excursions to Long Pond, sailing there in summer and ice-boating in winter; and Mr. Brooks permitted tableaux and dancing in the hall, even were there a brisk revival in progress at the meeting-house across the way. The pupils of Mr. Smith, of Brewster, who died in 1842, remember that he was “successful in making the dullest learn,” and also recall that “Ferula discipline sceptrum erat.”

The elegancies of the Early Victorian era — French, deportment, fine needlework, sewing and embroidery, bead and shell work, the making of wax flowers, sketching in pencil and watercolors—were taught the young ladies by private instruction. Their culture was continued in the Lyceum and Female Reading Society. Anne C. Lynch and Martin Tupper were the fashion; and they read largely literature commended in the “Lady’s Book,” to which every household with any pretension to gentility subscribed. Mr. Godey averred that his magazine should be “a shrine for the offerings of those who wish to promote the mental, moral, and religious improvement of woman. For female genius it is the appropriate sphere. It will contain a new and elegant engraving in every number — also music and patterns for ladies’ muslin work and other embellishments.” The Cape Cod female mind took on with some readiness this shining veneer, but its native vigor remained unimpaired; and women conducted their domestic affairs, or their social amenities at home and in foreign ports, as became the wives of their sailor husbands. At Barnstable and thereabouts domestic service was supplied sometimes by the village girls, sometimes by the Mashpee Indians. An old lady remembers her nurse Dinah, a tall, handsome creature belonging to the clan of “Judge” Greenough, who governed his people with wisdom and good sense; and she recalls a story of the days when the mail arrived by post rider and an old squaw held up the embarrassed carrier to beg a ride. He permitted her to mount, but, putting his horse to the canter, hoped to shake her off before he reached the town. To no end: she clung like a leech, and called out cheerily, “That’s right, massa. Go it! When I ride I love to ride!” It is easy to` be diverted by such anecdotes. With all their seeming primness, the people had a rollicking humor, of which countenances hidden in coal-scuttle bonnets and chins rigid in portentous stocks were no index.

Manners were at their finest and best, and the expression of them often bears a charming simplicity of thought if not of word. Such is Mr. Freeman’s memory of an old lady who had been kind to him. In a footnote of his history he corrects a deplorable error in the text: “We were led, by intelligence communicated in good faith by one whose relations to the person gave to his announcement the assurance of authority, to state that a venerable and most estimable lady was deceased. We are grateful that it is an error. Long may that excellent woman survive, the admiration of her friends. We have remembered her with respect ever since the day she loaned to us, then a little boy, a beautifully illustrated Natural History, kindly proffered with commendations and other encouraging words; and had we the skill of a limner, we could now portray those features marked with intellectuality and benevolence when, with attaching manners, she made her little friend so happy.” Free-man says elsewhere: “If the manners of the age were simple, they were not rough; nor was the rusticity of the less influential devoid of that polish which the few who gave tone to society, unassuming and unenvied, diffused among the masses.”

All through the clipper-ship era, the importance of the Cape steadily grew. She built ships at her own wharves and docked them there, and in the eighteen-forties she even had her own custom-house at Barnstable, although it cleared but one ship, and the building was turned into a town hall. Wharves, harbor improvements, lighthouses were built where they were most needed. In 1830 the Union Wharf was built at Pamet Harbor by the toil of the shareholders in the enterprise, each of whom held but one share and each of whom must wheel his proportion of sand to fill the bulkheads. A committee was appointed to supervise the work and see that there was no shirking; and Rich tells us that some of the younger members of the company were “willing to work harder than wheeling sand” to invite the charge of shirking and fasten that charge upon some man “who felt that neglecting his duty was nearly a crime.” At any price they must have their fun, and lampooned certain bumptious members of the company in doggerel that followed them to their grave. In 1825 a flint-glass factory that became famous for its beautiful output was founded at Sandwich – “glass-works to improve its sand,” is Thoreau’s gibe. The salt-works flourished, there were several cotton and woollen mills, banks and insurance companies and newspapers were established. But the Civil War put an end to this expansion : vessels that were destroyed then or had rotted at the wharves through disuse were never replaced; and in any event the war had but given the coup de grace to trade by sailing ships that the development of steam and rails was sure to weaken. Cape Cod soldiers who had followed the sea returned from the war to find their business gone, and many energetic men had to look elsewhere for careers. They found them; and there is hardly a great city in the country that does not owe something of its prosperity to these men and their children. It is interesting that today the old determination to succeed in the circumstances offered is reviving, and men are beginning to see that they need not travel far afield to make a living. There is one of the best intensive farms in the State at Truro; a model farm of twelve thousand acres is being developed at the other extremity of the Cape; there is a great duck-raising farm, and asparagus farms at East-ham. And why should not sheep-raising be revived on the moors of Truro, and Eastham become a granary once more?

Those men who remained at home after the Civil War became again, for the most part, farmers and fishermen, and the humble native cranberry was to do as much for their prosperity as had the salt-works for their fathers. Back in 1677 the Massachusetts colonists who had taken it upon themselves to coin the “pine-tree shillings,” sought to appease the displeasure of King Charles by sending him, with two hogs-heads of samp and three thousand codfish, ten barrels of cranberries. But it was not until 1816 that their cultivation was seriously undertaken. Then Henry Hall, of Dennis, first succeeded with his artificial “swamp”; four men of Harwich closely followed, and the business grew until thousands of acres were developed, and, crowded on the Cape, it worked out to larger scope in Plymouth County. The picture of these swamps, flat as a floor, intersected by drainage ditches, surrounded usually by wild hedges that teem with color, is one of the most familiar to the Cape. In winter, when they are often flooded, they add count-less little lakes to the number summer gives us; or their vines offer the smooth red of eastern looms to brighten the pale northern scene until spring turns them green once more. A new swamp shows gleaming sand through the regular planting of the vines; on one that “bears,” crimson berries, in early autumn, hang thick on the glossy dark-green runnels. And then the swamps are charming centres of activity : women in bright sunbonnets, men in soft shirts and caps, move swiftly on their knees up the roped-off aisles as they scoop the berries into shining tin measures, and a good picker earns a considerable number of dollars in the clay. There is the sound of talk and laughter, and the patter of berries as they are “screened” of refuse and swept into barrels. The sun brings out the last tint of color, the atmosphere is like a crystal goblet of heady wine: it is the homely Testa of the Cape at its most beautiful season of the year.