Have you ever heard of Mashnee Island?
Cape Cod Life / July 2016 / History
Writer: Michaela Anne Quigley / Photographer: Dan Cutrona and Paul Rifkin
A brief history of a tiny coastal community some folks call “paradise”
Four miles from the Bourne Bridge, and tucked on the far side of a causeway jutting out into Buzzards Bay, is the small, serene community of Mashnee. Surrounded by water, Mashnee overlooks Massachusetts Maritime Academy and the Cape Cod Railroad Bridge to the north, Onset and the other islands of Wareham to the northwest, and Phinneys Harbor and Monument Beach to the east.
Part of the Gray Gables village of Bourne, Mashnee may be unknown to many—even native Cape Codders—but the residential community features scenic views, approximately 140 houses, and a remarkable history. To begin, Mashnee was not always attached to the mainland. Whereas residents and visitors can drive across the one-mile causeway today, in years past they had to sail or swim because prior to 1939, Mashnee was an island.
The 50 acres that comprise Mashnee have seen many changes since the land was owned by Native Americans; over the centuries the land has been used to graze sheep, harvest salt, teach boys how to sail—and during World War II as a lookout spot where servicemen continually scanned for German submarines. After the war, Mashnee was developed as a summer cottage resort, and many families returned year after year. A number of those cottages remain today as private residences, while others have been razed and larger properties built in their place.
Despite the changes, one general sentiment about the place seems to remain. “Mashnee has that old Cape Cod relaxation feel,” says El Murphy, a lifelong summer vacationer who moved to Mashnee permanently in 2014. “It’s a feeling of going to the beach and riding bikes. The biggest decision is deciding what’s for dinner and which house we’re going to eat at.”
The earliest records of Mashnee date back to the 1600s, when a group of Wampanoag Indians, known as Manametts (or Manomets), owned the land. The Manametts also owned nearby Hog Island and Tobey Island. To trade with the Dutch, and the Indians who owned these islands, the Pilgrims built the Aptucxet Trading Post in 1627. The island is mentioned in Plymouth Colony’s records because the Manametts of Mashnee traded essential food to the English settlers on the mainland.
Richard Bourne, a minister from Sandwich, befriended the Indians by preaching Christianity to them, says Donald “Jerry” Ellis, a member of Bourne’s board of selectmen and a past chair of the town’s historic commission. Because of his relationship with the Indians, Bourne was granted by Plymouth Colony the right to graze sheep on Mashnee.
Ellis adds that at the turn of the 17th century wolves heavily populated the region. The people of the area, which was then part of the Town of Sandwich but is located in present day Bourne, contemplated building a fence all the way from Buzzards Bay to Cape Cod Bay—two centuries before the canal—to thwart the predators. During this time, about 100 head of sheep were transported to Mashnee, by boat, to ensure the animals’ safety.
The island proved ideal for grazing due to its abundant grassy fields, and Rev. Bourne ensured that a keeper, or shepherd, was always on hand to look over the sheep. The keepers lived in small shacks, each with large fireplaces, and the humble homes often sustained damage in storms. Then, from 1700 to 1725 another storm washed over the island: a severe tick fever. Many sheep died as a result and the island’s days as a grazing outpost were numbered.
A century later, Mashnee became home to a new industry in the early 1800s: harvesting salt. The location in breezy Buzzards Bay made it a potentially lucrative spot to establish a saltworks industry. Workers built small dwellings on the island and erected large wooden vats, which they filled with salt water. When the water evaporated, a goldmine of salt was left behind. This effort suffered a substantial setback when a hurricane destroyed the saltworks, either in 1815 or 1835; reports vary on the year. According to Mashnee records held by the Bourne Town Archives, the storm’s tides were powerful, and water reached eight feet higher along the shore than had previously been recorded. Ellis says pieces of the saltworks were later found in Wareham.
In the 1880s and 1890s, Mashnee began to develop as an area for summer gatherings and cookouts. Ellis says wealthy families, including some who owned shoe factories in Brockton, were attracted to Bourne’s Monument Beach—located just across the harbor from Mashnee—and they purchased second homes in the area. When groups wanted to host a large summer gathering, Mashnee was an ideal location; the island was secluded, but just a short distance off shore so visitors could reach it quickly by rowboat. Due to the strong winds in Buzzards Bay, trees didn’t grow tall enough on the island to obstruct views, and at just 50 acres the shoreline was always close.
With picnics, fishing, and bonfires on the beach, Mashnee became known as a popular little vacation spot—for those who knew about it. In winter, the cold didn’t stop locals from enjoying the island either. When temperatures plummeted, Monument Harbor froze and locals could walk or take sleighs across the ice.
In 1923, Michael Murray of Newtonville purchased Mashnee and transformed the entire island into Camp Keewaydin, a sailing camp for boys ages 6 to 16. “Keewaydin” is a Native American term that means “north wind,” and there were several Keewaydin camps in the Northeast. The camp had 22 buildings including cabins, a dining hall, a boathouse, and an infirmary. The campers could also enjoy the basketball and tennis courts, rifle ranges, a baseball field, and running straightaways. According to records in Bourne’s Town Archives, 60 to 100 boys attended the camp each summer, and parents shelled out $350 to pay for the eight-week program. Tutors were hired to help some campers keep their studies sharp while they learned the ropes of sailing, and to reach the camp one simply had to dial “Buzzards Bay 519.”
There were also two houses on the island in the 1920s, one of which was reportedly dragged across frozen marshland, in winter, from Wareham. Deborah and Ted Wyman live in the house today. Deb, who began visiting relatives on Mashnee with her family in 1956, has done some research on the area’s history, and discovered that the cottage her parents, John and Virginia Sharkey, bought in 1958 was the same structure that came from Wareham—and a photo in the Bourne Archives seems to confirm it. The Wymans also believe their home was once the cook’s hut at the sailing camp because, before their renovations, the house featured a large fireplace and a single bedroom, and it was small in comparison with later cottages.
When construction of the Cape Cod Canal was completed in 1914, shipping traffic traveled to the east of Mashnee and Hog Island, through Monument Harbor. This, too, would change. After the federal government took ownership of the canal in the 1920s, a large WPA project to improve the canal—and build today’s Sagamore, Bourne, and Cape Cod Railroad Bridges—was taken on and completed in the mid-1930s. As part of this effort the canal was deepened and widened, and its sharp turning curves were softened to improve safety and utility for ships traveling through.
According to Ellis, officials at the time realized that Mashnee would play a major role in this project. To complete the new western approach to the canal, Hog Island was cut in half, and the Buzzards Bay Channel dredged deeper. The new approach would be to the west of Mashnee, and soil from Hog Island was used to help build Mashnee’s causeway to the mainland. After several years of labor, the project was finished in 1939, and soon travelers were making their way to Mashnee by car. It was no longer an island.
During World War II, Mashnee—with its prime location by the canal’s entrance—played a role in ensuring the safety of American ships traveling along the coast. In 1941 Camp Keewaydin was closed, and military personnel were stationed on Mashnee. Coast Guard servicemen staffed watchtowers at all times, keeping an eye out for submarines cutting through the water.
The war’s end marked the beginning of a new era for Mashnee. In 1947 Stephen A. Days, Sr., an insurance company owner, partnered with Murray to transform Mashnee into a summer vacation spot known as Mashnee Village. Days built a collection of nearly identical, two-bedroom cottages on one half of the island, which vacationers could rent in summer; the other half of the island was divided in parcels and sold. Days supplied furniture in the cottages, and guests could rent televisions, cots, and other extras.
Days also built a large recreation facility that served as Mashnee’s entertainment hub. An in-ground saltwater pool provided an escape from the heat and adults could enjoy the small piano bar. Also, the beach was always just steps away. During the week, Days arranged many events: On Sundays guests could unwind watching a movie in the recreation hall; Tuesdays and Thursdays, Deb Wyman recalls, were for Bingo; and on Wednesday nights guests danced to rock music. The highlight of the week, though, was square dancing night. “It was kind of like Dirty Dancing where the people were on vacation,” Wyman says. “Only we didn’t do dirty dancing—we did square dancing.”
Wyman, who befriended many of the children who were also visiting for the summer, recalls that square dancing was for adults and teens, and the name of the “caller” who taught all the square dance steps was “Dick.” “I remember leaving the dance hall around 10 p.m., and we would all walk home together,” she says. “I remember the green flood lights that lit up the cedar trees and it was just so pretty; It was all fun, just our little world growing up.”
Jessie Murphy and her daughter El also attended these activities. Murphy and her husband, Arthur, rented on Mashnee for a few years before buying a summer home in 1984. During the first visits, the couple came with their oldest child in tow; soon, their second, third, fourth, and fifth would join them. “It was an easy place to come to,” Murphy says. “All I had to do was bring clothes for my children—and at that time it was just bathing suits for the day. It was like a complete resort.”
Mashnee Village closed as a summer resort in 1990, but Mashnee residents still place an emphasis on community activities today. Every Fourth of July, the Mashnee Association holds a parade, and generally 100 or more people participate. Children don red, white, and blue and decorate their bicycles in patriotic ribbons. One family even dresses as the Statue of Liberty every year. For Murphy and her daughter, the parade is a beloved event; it’s a time when their whole family reunites, and they can remember Murphy’s late husband, whose birthday was July 4.
During the summer, Steve Solari, a carpenter who has worked in about 100 of Mashnee’s homes and who also serves as association president, operates a hot dog truck with others near the beach. The association also hosts an annual road race in July, a chowder cook-off, and Pirates & Princesses Night, where children dress up and get to do some summertime trick or treating; after collecting candy, the crowd heads to the beach where the adults have buried treasure for the kids to find.
“Everything that has been a really good time has involved my children and all the other children on the island,” Solari says. “It’s fun watching the kids, whether it’s boating, Pirates & Princesses Night, or my grandchildren visiting. It’s always been about the kids.”
In 2016, Mashnee remains a beautiful, and somewhat hidden Cape Cod gem. Privately owned homes dot the island—including many that still feature Steve Days’ one story, two-bedroom style—and about 30 families live there year round. While Mashnee does not have any stores, gas stations, schools, or restaurants—the last, The Quahog Republic, relocated several years ago—it seems time spent with family and friends, and at the private beach overlooking Phinneys Harbor is enough. “In the mornings you wake up and the birds are in the trees, and it’s just wonderful,” Wyman says. “You don’t hear anything. It’s a paradise.”
A resident of Woburn, Michaela Anne Quigley is a junior at Syracuse University.