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Touring history

Falmouth: Militiamen, sea captains & a famous poet

historical walking tours

The Falmouth First Congregational Church today. If time and schedule allows, visitors often get to go inside the First Congregational Church, one of the hallmark sites of Falmouth’s Historic Village Green. Photo courtesy of the Falmouth Historical Society.

Minus the streetlights, power lines, and paved roads, many historic areas of Cape Cod look very much as they did 100 or even 200 years ago. This is especially true of Falmouth’s Village Green and surrounding houses. “I’ve picked out photographs over 150 years old that I recognize and I bring people to that spot,” says Tom Mountford, a volunteer docent at the Falmouth Museums on the Green. “You can get an idea of really how little the town has changed.”

The museum, operated by the Falmouth Historical Society, offers walking tours every Tuesday and Thursday morning from June to mid-October. Each tour explores Falmouth’s history through its architecture and geography, focusing on the 17th century to the present.

“Our walking tour centers around the Village Green, where members of the colonial militia practiced in the 1700s and sea captains built their homes,” says Mark Schmidt, the museum’s executive director. Lined with stately two-story square-riggers and a handful of Victorians and Capes, the green was the town’s early hub of wealth, politics and religion. Stories of the men and women who built, walked, gathered, worked, and died there are reflected in the surrounding houses, roads, ponds, and open spaces. The tour also takes in the birthplace of Falmouth’s famous daughter, Katharine Lee Bates, a poet and songwriter who penned “America the Beautiful,” along with two historic churches: the First Congregational Church, dating from 1796, and St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, built in 1888.

Mountford, a retired Falmouth police officer who can also be found running the drawbridge in Woods Hole, has been leading walking tours for over 10 years. One of his favorite stops is the Old Burying Ground, located just off Siders Pond, about a half-mile from the Village Green. The Old Burying Ground was the colonial settlers’ first town center. Epitaphs on graves dating back to the 18th century reveal details of what life was like for a tiny seafaring village perched on the southern tip of Cape Cod.

“Over the years I’ve found a few headstones that say ‘lost at sea’ or ‘killed by whales,’” says Mountford. “There is a 16-year-old boy that fell from the ship’s rigging and landed on deck. Another one—Chadwick I think is his name—was lost at sea off the coast of Chile. He was on the Commodore Morris, a whaleship built in Woods Hole. A Falmouth-built boat with a Falmouth guy, lost off the coast of Chile in the Pacific Ocean on a whaling trip. Brings it home a little bit.”

Mountford is one of many dedicated volunteers who bring the town’s history to life. “We are extremely fortunate to have tour guides who not only possess an intimate knowledge of Falmouth but also great people skills, making the experience even more enjoyable,” says Schmidt. “Whether you’re a visitor to Falmouth or a resident, you’re guaranteed to learn something new.”

For those wishing to cover more distance, the museum also offers a trolley tour on Wednesday mornings in September and October. Adding the late 19th and 20th centuries to the narrative, it winds through Falmouth Heights, follows the shore to Nobska Light, and stops at Highfield Hall & Gardens, the Victorian-era mansion turned cultural center.

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