Cape Cod – The County – Pt. 2

FROM the beginning of the nineteenth century the towns were drawn into increasingly close connection with the larger world. The mails came to them first a-horseback, then by stage, then by the railway which gradually nosed its way to the tip of the Cape. Telegraph followed railway, and then, until the late war, the great Marconi station and the cable talked with countries oversea. Freeman reflects upon the blessings of rapid transportation in his day when “we are now, in 1859, in more intimate and close contact with Berkshire and even Maine, in fact with New York and Pennsylvania, than the Cape was with Plymouth during all the time that it remained the seat of justice. It is easier from the extremest town on the Cape now to visit Boston and return, than it was once to perform the necessary act of domestic preparation by carrying a grist from Sandwich to Plymouth to be ground. Nor have we forgotten that important character, the post-rider, who took the entire mail in his saddle-bags (and lean they were too) and occupied the week in going down the Cape and returning. The clock could not better indicate the hour of 5 p.m., than did the regular appearance of Mr. Terry on his slow, but sure and well-fed horse (the horses of the Friends are always well kept and sleek, and possibly their capacity for swiftness of locomotion was never put to the test) with his diminutive saddle-bags that seemed to challenge the observation of every one touching the question of their entire emptiness, every Friday afternoon. The facilities now afforded by railroads, stage-coaches, cheap postage, &c., contrast strangely with former times.”

Mr. Swift, in his “Old Yarmouth,” tells us something of those facilities: “The all-day’s journey from Boston to the Cape is remembered with recollections of pleasure, in spite of its inconvenience and wearisome length. Starting at early dawn, and the parties made up of persons of all stations and degrees of social life, the stage coach was a levelling and democratic institution. The numerous stopping places, along the route, gave ample opportunity for the exchange of news, opinions, and to partake of the good cheer of the various taverns.” The liquid portion of that “good cheer,” by the way, was only too liberally distributed, and in 1817 no less than seventeen retailers were privileged to quench the thirst of northern Yarmouth. Such abuse led to reform; and a temperance society was founded whose pledge was not too exacting: no member, “except in case of sickness, shall drink any distilled spirit or wine, in any house in town except . . . the one in which he resides.” And the town voted “not to approbate a retailer, but to approbate one taverner for the accommodation of travellers.”

Thoreau, on his famous journey to the Cape, when inclement weather forced him to coach between Sandwich and Orleans, was pleased not at all in respect of the utilities of the towns, but bears testimony, as a philosopher, to the extenuating attributes of their inhabitants. The opinion has been quoted often, and is worth quoting again: “I was struck by the pleasant equality which reigned among the stage company, and their broad and invulnerable good humor. They were what is called free and easy, and met one another to advantage, as men who had, at length, learned how to live. They appeared to know each other when they were strangers, they were so simple and downright. They were well met, in an unusual sense, that is, they met as well as they could meet, and did not seem to be troubled with any impediment. They were not afraid nor ashamed of one another, but were con-tented to make just such a company as the ingredients allowed. It was evident that the same foolish respect was not here claimed, for mere wealth and station, that is in many parts of New England; yet some of them were the `first people,’ as they were called, of the various towns through which we passed. Retired sea-captains, in easy circumstances, who talked of farming as sea-captains are wont; an erect, respectable and trustworthy-looking man, in his wrapper, some of the salt of the earth, who had formerly been the salt of the sea; or a more courtly gentleman, who, perchance, had been a representative to the General Court in his day; or a broad, red-faced, Cape Cod man, who had seen too many storms to be easily irritated.” In short, Thoreau’s Cape-Codders were cosmopolitan creatures, men of the world that he was so ready to despise.

Until the railway was continued “down the Cape,” travellers there were far more likely to make their journeys to and from Boston by the packets than by stage. “For fifty years,” writes Swift, “the arrival and departure of the packets was the important topic of North side intelligence, which was communicated promptly to the dwellers on the South side, that they might govern themselves thereby in arranging their business or their travels.” There are pretty stories of voyages on the packets : of the little girl, wide-eyed with expectation, in big bonnet and mitts, and a flowered bandbox for luggage, who is entrusted to the captain for safe delivery into the hands of her kinsmen in Boston. One old lady, whose histrionic sense developed early, remembered that once when she was visiting Boston as a child there was a smallpox epidemic. “I could n’t help laughing,” said she, “to think if I had got it and died, how grand it would have been to be brought home by the packet, me on board sailing up the harbor with colors half-mast.” There were young ladies setting out for their finishing-school in the metropolis. And on any trip there was sure to be a deep-water captain starting out to “join his ship” at Boston or New York for the longer voyage overseas; beside him, perhaps, his wife companioning him as far as she might, and when he had sailed re-turning to the children and the three years on the farm without him. Then, when his ship had been spoken by a faster sailer, and was due to “arrive,” she would go up to the city and wait sometimes through anxious weeks until it was sighted down the harbor. Nor were they likely to be idle weeks. “I am so busy I do not know how to stop to write except it is absolutely necessary,” she might write to the little flock at home. “It is a great misfortune to have such a busy mother, but you must make the best of it. I am improving every moment in sewing, looking forward to September when father ‘s home for my leisure.” And, jay to read, she has decided to let them come to town. “You must come by packet, and you better not make any visits except to grandmother as you will need all your time to prepare. Susan must have all her petticoats fresh starched; Joseph must get his whitewashing done and his garden in perfect order. We shall want lots of potatoes if father is at home next winter. How does my flower garden flourish? Fix up the pigstye as I want it ready when I get home. Fasten the gates strong so the cattle cannot get in, and see to the water fence. Susan need not fetch a bonnet-box unless it rains when she goes to the packet. Hang your bonnet up on board and wear your sun-bonnet. Put the things which you will need to put on when you get here in the leather bag. Remember if it is evening, stay on board all night unless there is some one on board you know to go with you. You may think you know the way, but there have been a great many changes since you were here, and the city looks very different in the evening to what it does in the daytime.” There are portraits of Susan and Joseph taken on this momentous visit: elusive daguerrotypes set in elaborately worked gilt frames. Joseph, in roundabout and Eton collar, and with the determined mien befitting a future master of ships, is seated by a table ornately covered. The other half of the old stamped-leather case, that may be securely clasped by a brass hook, is occupied by Susan : Susan shy, yet determined, too, clutching at the same table, her wool dress cut for the display of childish collar-bones, her thin little arms twitched slightly akimbo by their short tight sleeves; but her necklace is picked out with gold, her cheeks with pink, and Susan’s wide-set eyes under the primly parted hair look at you straight, undaunted by the great world.

The captains of these packets that ran out of every town on the north shore of the Cape had their fun racing one another from port to port; it is probable some money was lost or won on the results. Barnstable, even, produced a ballad to immortalize some of the contestants:

“The Commodore Hull she sails so dull She makes her crew look sour; The Eagle Flight she is out of sight In less than half an hour, But the bold old Emerald takes delight To beat the Commodore and the Flight.”

Other packets had the romantic names of Winged Hunter and Leading Wind; the Sarah of Brewster was as familiar to her people as “old Mis’ Paine” or “Squire Freeman.” Truro had the Young Tell, the Post Boy and the Modena. The Post Boy may be said to have been queen of the bay, luxuriously fitted out in mahogany and silk draperies, and with a captain who had the reputation of knowing the way to Boston in the darkest night, and being able to keep his passengers good-natured in a head wind. Passengers by the Post Boy knew the quality of their company, and that the run to Boston could never be so long as to exhaust the fund of stories. “Each told his experience, or listened with interest or pleasure to the rest, and all sought with unaffected good nature to please and profit.”