Creating Cape Cod: A new exhibit is a tour of vacation history at Heritage Museums & Gardens. Story made possible by the mammoth effort of gathering research and ephemera by Jennifer Y. Madden, Director of Collections and Exhibitions, Heritage Museums & Gardens.
Sometime in the fall, when the haziness of August has given way to a crisp cornflower blue in the sky, and when the miles-long gridlock of cars and SUVs laden with trailers and Thule boxes has almost magically vanished from the bottlenecks at the bridges, the infernal rotaries, and “Suicide Alley” on Route 6, an intrepid traveler can sometimes imagine what Cape Cod looked like before cars, before the summer people, before tourists.
In those crystalline autumn days, especially on a deserted beach, or out on what seems like the only boat in Nantucket Sound or Cape Cod Bay, it’s easy to lapse into nostalgia for the mythical days of yore, back when the peninsula was an undiscovered, undeveloped paradise. Anyone who has lived on the Cape, or really in any area that depends upon a tourist economy, has likely experienced the duality of the situation: it’s nice to have creature comforts such as fancy restaurants and clam shacks, but summertime crowds can feel unbearable and it’s tragic to witness the “strip-mall-ification” and “condo-ization” of a beautiful, natural place. There’s an irony to tourism, and perhaps especially to “ecotourism,” because when people flock to destinations to enjoy the benefits of nature, of clean air, and of relaxation away from the “madding crowd,” they seem always unable to keep anything a secret and thus open floodgates to everyone and their mothers. It is perhaps appropriate then that America’s most legendary hermit-naturalist, Henry David Thoreau, would play an outsized part in opening what he described as a “Yankee backwater” to the masses. The new exhibit at Heritage Museums & Gardens, entitled Creating Cape Cod, chronicles the region’s transformation from a lonely appendage of land to a bustling vacationland for long and short-term visitors.
Just two years after his famous stint of living on Walden Pond, Thoreau and his friend William Ellery Channing decided in 1849 to take a 30-mile walk along what is now the Cape Cod National Seashore—an area that remains largely untouched thanks to the foresight of President John F. Kennedy, who officially protected the beach and dunes on August 7, 1961. Thoreau and Channing boarded the Cape Cod Railroad in Boston, then took a stagecoach from Sandwich to Orleans before commencing their three-day hike up the coastline. Over the course of their trip, Thoreau kept a detailed journal, which he developed into essays and lectures in 1852. Posthumously, his sister gathered these writings and published them under the simple title, Cape Cod, in 1865. Thoreau wrote of the rustic people he met along the way, of the threshold between land and sea, of the majesty of the “two roads” that he and Channing followed up to Provincetown: the beach and the dunes. And he predicted—and perhaps ignited—the advent of tourism here. He wrote that “this place will be a place of resort for those New Englanders who really wish to visit the seaside.” However, he also noted that, “At present it is wholly unknown to the fashionable world, and probably it will never be agreeable to them.”
Creating Cape Cod at Heritage Museums & Gardens begins with Thoreau, and displays how various factors in the naturalist’s time would pave the way for future generations of visitors and seasonal residents. Jennifer Y. Madden, Heritage’s Director of Collections and Exhibitions, is the author and leader of the team that conceived and developed Creating Cape Cod. “Over 100 years ago, there was a conscious decision to turn to tourism,” she says. “Creating Cape Cod depicts the evolution of the area into a tourist destination—what’s been gained and lost, along with opportunities and challenges for the future.” While visitors to the region fall into a variety of demographic categories from one-time guests, to those who regularly vacation here, to owners of second homes and family compounds, the exhibit defines a “tourist” as anyone who could not register to vote here. Madden reports that she recorded her earliest notes for Creating Cape Cod in 2005, but says, “The earnest research began two years ago, and we started installation in December of 2021.” Heritage partnered with the media/marketing firm SmokeSygnals of Mashpee and with the design-build studio 42 Design Fab of Springfield, MA to construct the exhibit. “SmokeSygnals created all the videos except for the archival one from 1938,” explains Madden, “and 42 Design Fab built and installed features such as the lighthouse, the dude train, and the mini-golf hole.”
Creating Cape Cod opened on April 23rd, 2022, and is actually split into two sections of roughly the same total area but of different focuses. “We are the perfect place to host this exhibit because of our antique cars collection,” says Madden. Because the growth of the automobile industry so aligned with the expansion of development in general across America, but in particular on the Cape, one part of the exhibition displays classic, iconic cars that were favorites of vacationers and summer residents, including a recent gift from the New Hampshire Historical Society of a 1946 Mercury Station Wagon, a “woody,” resplendent in its coats of varnish. In 2020, Heritage also purchased a 1965 Ford Country Squire, another popular station wagon that was ideal for transporting a family and a profusion of picnicking supplies to the beach. Along with a 1932 Beetle Cat that spent all of its days on the water sailing around Barnstable, and a 1930 Curtiss Aerocar vintage camper, this part of the exhibit is presented on the lower level of the J.K. Lilly III Automobile Gallery.
While the automobile portion of Creating Cape Cod is perhaps its most stunning feature, thematically, it is the smaller piece which zooms in on one particular aspect of the overall story. In the Special Exhibitions Gallery, across the museum and gardens campus, the broader tale unfolds. One of the key conceits of the exhibit is that Cape Cod is not only a geographical location, but also an idea that the budding tourism industry constructed about a century ago, inspired in part by the chronicles of Henry David Thoreau. Thus, its first feature is a replica of Nauset Light, an essential piece of the region’s iconography. Although the tourism industry began to take root at the turn of the 20th century, the local business community formed the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce in 1921 and began to market the concept of vacationing on the Cape in earnest. Elisabeth Shoemaker was the Madison Avenue marketing executive they contracted for a rich sum of $75k to create the notion of “Olde Cape Cod.” This drew on some of the crusty old characters from Thoreau’s writings, and Madden says, “They drew on history: pilgrims, captains, lighthouses, old salts, and antiques.” The advertising and marketing campaigns also drew heavily upon the books and stories of Joseph C. Lincoln, a popular author whose career ran from 1902-1943. Lincoln had grown up in Brewster, and as an adult looked back upon the Cape as a paradise. “He set all of his books on the Cape, using real Cape Codders as models for his characters,” notes Madden. “He was known nationally, and some of his works were developed into Broadway plays and silent movies.” Upon achieving financial success, Lincoln spent his winters in New Jersey, but summered in Chatham each year.
Because, as Madden points out, “People turn right in museums,” the journey through the Cape’s vacationland evolution proceeds in a counter-clockwise direction. If Thoreau created something of an author’s note to our tourism industry, “Camp Meetings” served as prologue. Madden writes that: “Congregants of a denomination would travel to a central campground and stay for days or weeks, listening to sermons, engaging in religious study, and socializing. Before the Civil War, these gatherings drew a predominantly Cape Cod audience. Once the railroad arrived on the Cape in the 1880s, it was easier for worshipers from off-Cape to attend.” The next wave of tourists were sportsmen. While Teddy Roosevelt is perhaps America’s most famous outdoorsman, certainly of his time, many of his contemporaries shared his love of hunting and fishing. As Madden explains, “Wealthy urban businessmen were interested in manliness and wanted to get back to nature, and they hired local guides.” The Monomoy Branting Club, named for the brant goose, was founded in 1862 and established a tradition that required a member to keep a log when hunters were in residence. This original logbook is currently on display alongside a brant decoy and a double-barrel shotgun. A video produced by SmokeSygnals features Earl Mills Jr. of the Mashpee Wampanoag Nation, whose grandfather owned and operated a fleet of rowboats for hunting and fishing. Mills explains that “Many of our people were proud to guide. The people who came to hunt and fish loved the land as we loved the land.” Thus, from the early days of tourism and the push to develop and expand business and real estate opportunities, the currents of conservation have continued to flow.
Between 1884 and 1916 a high-speed railroad service enticed scores of successful businessmen to buy summer homes on the Cape. Popularly known as “The Dude,” this commuter train was chartered by a group of wealthy summer residents. The parlor-car train began in Woods Hole, picking up subscribers all along Buzzard’s Bay to Wareham, then operated non-stop to Boston’s Kneeland Street station, arriving by 9:25 a.m. It departed Boston by 3:10 p.m. and had passengers home in time for dinner. The Dude operated until 1916 when the mobilization for World War I caused the railroad to cancel the service.
The next few stops on the exhibit’s counterclockwise line involve technological advances and the modernization of American culture. “The railroad was a huge turning point for the Cape,” says Madden. “All of the local industries around here had been in decline in the late 1800s. Wellfleet had lost 68 percent of its population, and there were few opportunities for young people, so they left for urban areas. The challenge was how to maintain the economy and a way of life.” By 1887, however, the railroad had established a station in every town on the Cape except for Mashpee. “Big tourist hotels followed,” says Madden, the first of which was the Santuit. The railroad company even owned some of the resorts itself. The newfound conveniences of travel and the influx of visitors at the new resorts led to activities and entertainment such as golf, sailing, theater, music, and bowling. Summer home developments soon followed in places such as Falmouth Heights and Cotuit Highgrounds. The expansion was not without its issues, however, as many resorts and planned communities were exclusionary and barred anyone but white Protestants from staying or purchasing. Creating Cape Cod displays some of the shameful reminders of the past, including brochures from resorts declaring “Jewish patronage not desired.” Simultaneously, however, pockets of inclusivity also began to grow as the Cape became a destination and retreat for artists and musicians. “It became nationally known for its summer stock theater,” says Madden, “and The Wizard of Oz premiered at the Cape Cinema in 1939.” The Storyville jazz club also drew stars such as Sarah Vaughn and Benny Goodman, and Joe’s Twin Villa in Osterville became a mecca for blues and later funk. Provincetown emerged as a destination for LGBTQ+ people. One of the features in Creating Cape Cod centers entirely on tourism as it related to members of the BIPOC and Jewish communities. In the video here, Lynette Perdiz speaks about her “feeling of being safe” at La Plaza Del Sol in Mashpee. She says, “We saw people who looked like us, so we felt at home, like it was our home away from home.” Of the Wigwam Motel, also in Mashpee, Ruby Mitchell Mills says, “We had all people of color—prominent doctors, business people, Ray Charles’ backup singers. Everybody had
a good time.”
As Creating Cape Cod moves forward to meet present day, it turns to a section entitled “Protecting Cape Cod.” Madden says, “After World War II, the development of Cape Cod accelerated even more. Nearly 70 years later, people are still talking about which way the Cape is going. This part of the exhibit can be heavy, but it also focuses on what you can do.” Thus, visitors can explore environmental problems as well as potential solutions and success stories. One of the exhibit’s final and lasting images is “Old Glory,” a sculpture by Nicolas Nobili of Eastham, in the shape of an American flag. Madden writes: “This piece is made entirely of plastic trash collected by the artist on Nauset Beach in the summer of 1991. It is a commentary on the prevalence of plastic in our world, the carelessness of beachgoers who left it behind, and what this means for our nation.” On the whole, Creating Cape Cod certainly elicits feelings of nostalgia, but the exhibit also clearly articulates the delicate balance (or lack of balance) in the industry that has both threatened and enriched our landscape, and our ways of life, all while sustaining our economy, our health, and, for many visitors and full-time residents, our souls.
Chris White is a contributing writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.