The History of Wellfleet: By Land, Sea…and Screen

August 7, 2013 7:00 am0 commentsViews: 217
The History of Wellfleet Image: Courtesy of Deidre Portnoy/Wellfleet Historical Society

The History of Wellfleet
Image: Courtesy of Deidre Portnoy/Wellfleet Historical Society

by Don Wilding

According to Wampanoag legend, “In the beginning there was nothing but sea-water. Kehteam reached down to the bottom of the sea, took a grain of sand, and of that made the earth.”

Both the land and the sea play prominently in Wellfleet’s history, dating back the 250 years (and beyond) since it broke away from Eastham, which the town is commemorating during Founders Week, through August 10. To detail every bit of it would (and has) filled many books and other publications, but if you’d like to get a small but detailed dose of it, then the Wellfleet Marina (east of the Harbor Master) is where you want to be on Friday night (Aug. 9) at 6 p.m.

Wellfleet’s own Eben Portnoy has created and directed a 20-minute video production, Wellfleet: 250 Years in Images, which organizers have described as “a portrait of Wellfleet using archival photographs culled from community collections and materials at the Wellfleet Historical Society, as well as newly filmed material to create a moving narrative in pictures and sounds.” An outdoor screening will be held in the same tradition of the much larger scale production that was featured at Quebec’s 400th Anniversary celebration in 2008. The “screening” will actually be on a large white sail at the bandstand, with projections coming from across the water.

Portnoy, 34, a product of Nauset High School and graduate film student at the University of California, Los Angeles, and his mother, Deidre, of the Wellfleet Historical Society, have been working on this production since the fall of 2011.

Eben, the director, mixed in everything from footage that he shot at Plimoth Plantation to old photographs from the Historical Society, with guidance provided by the likes of historian/author John Cumbler, a history professor at the University of Louisville who summers in Wellfleet. Also included is old whaling footage and aerial images of the town taken from Roger Putnam’s plane. The Portnoys also enlisted local musicians, such as Tim Dickey and Alice Malone of Toast & Jam, Denya Levine, Edmund Robinson, and Lydia Parkington, to provide the soundtrack.

“It’s all about the imagery,” Deidre Portnoy says, “creating through the images to portray what Wellfleet is. We went through all the old videos that were transferred to DVDs, the little clips of old Fourth of July parades, and the museum had a lot from the 1800s.”

Another screening of the video will be at Wellfleet Preservation Hall in September. Copies of the film will be available at the Wellfleet Historical Society, the Wellfleet Public Library, and the Town Hall.


By Land

Cumbler, who has written six books on economic, environmental, and social history of New England, is presently working on a manuscript about the environmental history of Cape Cod. He’ll be sharing his expertise on the town in a lecture called Wellfleet, Its Land, Its People, Its Past and Future at the Wellfleet Public Library next Wednesday (Aug. 14) at 7:30 p.m.

“I look at how people used the land, how they farmed and developed a system of agriculture and fishing over time as they moved into the 19th century,” Cumbler notes. “The overharvesting forced changes and the emphasis of agriculture eventually shifted more to tourism. The question is, what can we learn from the past and look to the future?”

Among the subjects covered by Cumbler in his new book is the decision to dike the Herring River in 1908, and how Lorenzo Dow Baker, the son of a schooner captain, built the Chequessett Inn, thanks to a fortune amassed through a Jamaican banana business.


By Sea
Wellfleet has long been known for its oysters, but the link of this land to these tasty bivalve mollusks goes back much further than 250 years. On his journeys exploring this region, Samuel de Champlain called the land now occupied by Wellfleet, “The Isle of the Oyster.”

That’s one of the many pearls of historic wisdom that you might hear from Barbara Kennedy during her portion of the Wellfleet Bay Sunset Cruise, which sets sail this Monday night (Aug. 12) from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. (Pre-registration is required; see
www.massaudubon.org/wellfleetbay or call 508-349-2615 for details.)

The Historical Society’s Kennedy has long provided the historic content for these trips, while one of the guides from the Massachusetts Audubon Society provides information on the natural world. Kennedy will also share stories about the lost colonial settlement of Billingsgate Island and the history of Wellfleet Harbor.

Wellfleet’s break from Eastham, Kennedy says, was largely due to fishing rights, although Billingsgate residents also had trouble getting to Eastham for town meetings. It took 30 years of petitions before Wellfleet finally broke away.

The War of 1812 reached on to Wellfleet’s bay shores. Kennedy tells of how the British vessel Newcastle struck a shoal off Billingsgate during December 1814. “The crew began emptying the vessel to lighten it, and the residents here took their cargo,” she notes. “The Newcastle captain was so upset that he wanted to go back and get all the cargo that they lost.”

Even though the cruises are on the bay side, Kennedy also goes into detail about the men of the Life-Saving Service, which eventually merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to become the U.S. Coast Guard. Stations were set up all along the Cape’s outer beach, where crews patrolled the beach on foot keeping an eye out for ships in distress. The stations fell into three categories: lifesaving, lifeboat, and houses of refuge. “These men were wonderful, courageous,” Kennedy says.

Whether the story is being told at a lecture hall, aboard a vessel out in the bay, or on a white sail over the water, the pictures of Wellfleet’s history will come clearly into focus over the next week.

“Portraying a town like Wellfleet with images – that’s the exciting part,” says Deidre Portnoy. “The landscape, the people, the factories, the National Seashore, how this town has evolved over the years.”

The Wellfleet 250 Anniversary Celebration Founders Week continues through August 10. There are lots more events happening for the celebration throughout the summer. For complete schedule and details visit wellfleet250.org.