Sunday, May 15, 2022

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Cape's Worst Wildfire

    When one hears the word ‘wildfire’ it typically refers to tragic events that commonly occur in California. The routinely dry conditions, which give the state some of the most desirable weather in the country, also leave it vulnerable to fires. The largest wildfire, in August 2020, burned more than one million acres of land in six counties and destroyed 935 structures. In comparison the entirety of the Cape Cod National Seashore is 43,607 acres.

    Despite it not being as serious a threat to the Cape as hurricanes and blizzards are, wildfires have occurred more often than you would think. The worst fire in Cape Cod history happened over seventy-five years ago and this is the story of the perfect storm that led to it.

    The seeds of the worst forest fire in Cape Cod history were sown beginning eighteen months prior. The Great Atlantic Hurricane struck New England on September 15, 1944 with heavy rain and strong winds. Needless to say the winds toppled countless trees. By the time the spring of 1946 arrived there were still plenty of those dead trees lying where they fell.

    The late-winter and early-spring of 1946 were particularly dry. The threat of potential wildfires was so high that in March State Deputy Fire Warden Ormand Dottridge Jr. warned residents of what could happen. Regulations were put into place for burning leaves and people were implored to be careful and not start anything they couldn't finish.

    Watch-tower service and forest fire patrols were put into service. Despite this there were small fires that began breaking out in late March. These were a precursor of what was to come.

    Early on April 19, 1946 fire broke out in Sandwich in the area near the Bourne Bridge. Northwest winds gusting up to 35mph combined with the relatively dry conditions were a terrible combination. The fire pushed south and east through the Shawme-Crowell State Forest and toward Camp Edwards(Otis AFB).

The Bourne Bridge, near where the fire originated. 

    Firefighters temporarily got the fire in check by building several backfires a mile from Sandwich center. This was only brief though and by 9pm on April 20th a 15-square mile area of Sandwich and Mashpee was burning or charred. Governor Maurice Tobin closed all public forest land in Southeastern Massachusetts. He also went to the Cape to help direct operations. There was still a few days before a chance of rain and the situation was extremely serious.

Barnstable County Brush Breaker c.1942(

    Sandwich, Bourne, and West Barnstable were temporarily left without power as fire scorched the wires. The fire jumped across Route 130 and seemed to be on a collision course with West Barnstable and possibly Hyannis. More than 3,000 firefighters came from fifty-two different communities and worked nonstop building backfires, digging trenches, and working the fire hoses. They were led by John Stokes, the state commissioner of public safety, who left Boston to help. The group set up headquarters the East Sandwich Grange Hall on Old County Road.

    At midday on April 21st the fire could be seen and smelled in Hyannis. It was only six miles west of the airport. The State Police barracks in South Yarmouth expressed their concern if the winds did not subside. The flames got to within a quarter-mile of forty homes in Sandwich. Much of Rt. 130 and parts of Route 6A(then Old Kings Highway) were closed to all but fire vehicles. Trains from Boston to Hyannis were diverted to Woods Hole with passengers then being shuttled by bus the rest of the way.

    Late in the afternoon of April 22nd the blaze had finally been contained. What turned the tide was the firefighters burning a 1,000-foot wide hollow square around the fire.

The Sandwich Fire Tower that was a big part of the event.(

    When all was said and done authorities estimated 30-35,000 acres of Cape Cod land had burned, though the official number is likely closer to 15,000. More than twenty-five structures were lost and over one hundred people had been evacuated from their homes. The fire traveled a total of 8 ½ miles east from the Bourne Bridge. The price tag of damage was said to be more than $1 million($14.74 million in 2022). It took another 24-48 hours to fully extinguish the fire. In the immediate aftermath it was described as the worst forest fire in Massachusetts history.

    The worst part of the entire ordeal was the fact that these fires appeared to have been deliberately set. They were a series of small fires that came together to wreak havoc on the Upper Cape.

    On April 26th two Falmouth men, Theodore Andrade and Ruby Antone, were arrested in connection with the fires. Local authorities said that up to twelve fires had been set and that they thought there were more than two people responsible. The two men claimed that they had spotted one of the fires and had stopped to try to put it out.

    The dry weather did not subside and less than two weeks later two more massive fires broke out. The fires that occurred on May 7th centered in Yarmouth and West Barnstable ended up destroying 8,000 more acres. Unbelievably officials believed these fires to be deliberately set as well.

    In October 1946 Andrade and Antone faced a Grand Jury for their possible roles in the fires. Before they even went to trial they were found guilty for receiving stolen goods and sentenced to six months in jail. That charge was later overturned and the Grand Jury dismissed the charges pertaining to the fires. No other suspects were ever arrested.

    The most devastating forest fire on Cape Cod was actually captured on film. The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation is responsible for the filming and it is broken up into two parts on YouTube. You can see the terrible damage caused and also the tireless work of the brave firefighters who fought to put it out.

Cape Cod Brush Fire 1946 Part 1

Cape Cod Brush Fire 1946 Part 2


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Sunday, May 1, 2022

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Story of Mid-Cape Highway Exit 6 1/2

    Cape Cod in the summer can be a slog when it comes to travel. Even on the most picture-perfect days weather-wise the man roads of Rt. 28, Rt. 132, and especially Rt. 6, can be choked with vehicles all looking to visit the same locations.

    In the current era where GPS is common even the side-roads that used to take locals away from the crowds are not of as much use. What can be done to alleviate the traffic jams? Unfortunately not much. Route 28, Route 132, and the like are set in stone. As far as Route 6 goes, it’s not as if new exits can just be created to break up traffic jams. Or can they?

    For decades the idea to do just that was a major talking point in the Mid-Cape area. The ultimate goal of developing a new exit along the highway has come close to fruition several times. Though not currently in existence it is not far from the minds of those longtime Cape Codders who look for ways to avoid the crush of summer traffic. This is the story of the elusive Exit 6 ½.

What Exit 6 1/2 could have looked like.

    The story of Exit 6 ½ is intertwined with the history of Hyannis’ Independence Park. Located in between Rt. 132 and Mary Dunn Road, the industrial park was originally 680-acres of highly sought after land. It began its life as Parkland Properties owned by Paul Lorusso in the early 1960’s.

    Lorusso, who had risen to prominence on Cape Cod in the 1950’s by creating affordable housing for World War II veterans, had to battle for a decade to get Parkland Properties to officially open as Independence Park in 1975. The first official tenant of the property was Marken Brothers grocers wholesale outlet.

    More and more businesses opened up in, or moved to, Independence Park. Being somewhat quieter nearly a half century ago it was only natural that Lorusso would look for ways to increase vehicle traffic through the enormous industrial park. This is where Exit 6 ½ first comes to life.

    The first idea Lorusso had to bring more eyes to Independence Park was via extending Old Townhouse Road in West Yarmouth. In 1975 the road ended at an intersection with West Yarmouth Road. Lorusso had the thought to extend Old Townhouse Road west nearly three miles. It would intersect Higgins Crowell Road and ultimately end up connecting to Mary Dunn Road which abutted Independence Park. In an attempt to push the project through Lorusso even offered to have his company foot the bill for the road extension. This would have cost Lorusso an estimated $800,000($4.27 million in 2022).

    In early 1979 local newspapers ran stories about ways to alleviate the increasing traffic in and around the Mid-Cape. In addition to mentioning the extension of Old Townhouse Road again the story mentioned the creation of a new highway interchange between Exits 6 and 7 on the Mid-Cape Highway. Preliminary specs called for the so-called ‘Exit 6 ½’ to be constructed at the Mary Dunn Road overpass.

    Paul Lorusso was a big proponent of the new interchange as it would shepherd vehicles right through Independence Park. The fact that it was being mentioned as being mostly state and federally funded made it an even better idea. Concrete plans for a new exit went slowly with potential water quality issues around the interchange becoming a major sticking point.

    In 1981 the Old Townhouse Road rumor sparked back up. When nothing came from it this time it was shelved. A few years later it was decided to use the open space to create the Bayberry Hills Golf Course which opened in 1986.

    A study in 1983 showed there were an average of 30,000 vehicles per day in the summer passing in the vicinity of the Barnstable Airport. The data was there that something was needed to give at least a little relief to the traffic. Momentum seemed to be rising when in 1984 rumors started to swirl of plans to build a new hospital in Hyannis. This was seen as a perfect fit for Independence Park. The addition of the hospital on the grounds could make the creation of Exit 6 ½ a little easier. At the time at least one person interviewed in the newspaper felt confident that at least one next exit would be created for the Mid-Cape Highway within the coming decade.

    None of those plans came to fruition and the chatter about Exit 6 ½ quieted down. It bubbled back up in 1992 this time with an idea to remove the Airport Rotary as well. Then-Massachusetts State Representative John Klimm wished to have plans for the maligned highway interchange drawn up to potentially be included in a major state transportation bond bill in 1993. In August 1993 the Barnstable Town Council finally endorsed the creation of Exit 6 ½. A major hurdle had been crossed.

    It was rumored that even with state funding that taking the interchange from planning to finished product could take as long as ten years. The rejection of a proposed Sam’s Club store in Independence Park in February 1994 was an ominous sign for Exit 6 ½. Despite that one million dollars was set aside in the state transportation bond bill for design studies and environmental impact studies surrounding the proposed new highway exit.

The Exit 6 1/2 plans from 1998(Barnstable Patriot Archives)

    Plans changed when in June 1994 the state purchased 357 acres of undeveloped land that was part of Independence Park via eminent domain for $5.2 million. This land was to be protected and threw a huge monkey wrench into where a potential Exit 6 ½ could realistically be built.

    A feasibility study was conducted in 1995 and public support was sought. Besides the potential environmental concerns those who lived along Mary Dunn Road and the surrounding neighborhoods felt the new interchange would add traffic to their relatively rural area. Talks would heat up and cool down over the next several years. Alternative locations for the exit were discussed as well as other ways to alleviate the thick traffic along Rt. 132.

    Finally in March 1998 an official design for Exit 6 ½ was approved by the Massachusetts Highway Department. It was all systems go. Or so it seemed. Years passed and no movement was made on Exit 6 ½. It remained stalled in the planning stages. By 2002 focus had shifted to widening Rt. 132 and talk of Exit 6 ½ slowly faded away.

    Twenty years after talk of Exit 6 ½ faded into the background traffic in Hyannis, and on Cape Cod in general, in the summer has only increased. In a report from the Cape Cod Commission, in 2018 the total number of vehicles crossing the Bourne and Sagamore bridges on an average day was 131,583. With traffic woes as prevalent as ever perhaps the talk of a potential Exit 6 ½ will bubble to the surface again sometime in the near future.


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Tuesday, April 19, 2022

In My Footsteps: 4K Cape Cod - West Barnstable Brick Factory

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The West Barnstable Brick Company


The remains of the West Barnstable Brick Company

    Sandy Neck in West Barnstable is a hugely popular and important barrier beach and ecosystem on Cape Cod. It is 3,800 acres of pristine beauty frequented by countless thousands of locals and visitors alike year round. The north side is the well known beach with the south side being just as important as it is home to West Barnstable’s Great Marsh which extends all the way down to Route 6A. It is here, close to the Old King's Highway, where huge blue clay deposits were plentiful. For this reason the southern area of Great Marsh would become home to several aspiring businesses which took advantage of said clay. The most famous of which was the legendary West Barnstable Brick Company. This is its story.

The history of the West Barnstable Brick Company dates back to 1876. It was in February of 1876 that Levi Goodspeed purchased twenty acres of land along the Great Marsh. The land was part of the estate of Henry Fish. Goodspeed’s purchase was bisected by the railroad track, and just over a mile from the West Barnstable railroad depot. This prime real estate, sitting atop large clay deposits, was to be used for a new brick-making business.

The West Barnstable Brick Company(Whelden Library)

Levi Goodspeed was a well respected man on Cape Cod at the time. In the decades leading up to the creation of West Barnstable Brick Goodspeed had been a Selectman, member of the House of Representatives, and finally Sheriff of Barnstable County.

Goodspeed brought aboard Benjamin and Charles Crocker to form the management of the West Barnstable Brick Company. Ads for their bricks first began appearing in the local newspapers in July 1878.

The company started small, inundating the local newspapers with those advertisements about their product. Slowly they gained a foothold, even being contracted to supply the bricks for a new jail in Barnstable in December 1878. Its first decade saw the fledgling company struggling to make inroads on Cape Cod. The growing pains of the company were only exacerbated with the sudden death of Levi Goodspeed in November 1879. It appeared as though the West Barnstable Brick Company might be destined to fail.

That changed when the company was bought in 1888 by Abel Makepeace the Cape’s resident ‘cranberry king.’ He added more machinery and more workers, many from Portugal and Finland, allowing the production levels to increase.

West Barnstable bricks were used to rebuild the Cape Cod Exchange building in Harwich, the new town offices in West Barnstable, the new Training School in Hyannis, as well as Our Lady of Hope church. The actual physical bricks were of the highest quality due to the arduous process of creating them. It included breaking up the clay and removing pebbles and other debris from it before shaping the bricks and pouring them into perfectly level molds.

Working at the West Barnstable Brick Company(Whelden Library)

The entire factory was essentially self-sustaining. The clay was collected on the property while the finished bricks were shipped out via the railroad tracks that ran through the property. The only thing that needed to be shipped in was the wood for the kiln used to dry the bricks.

Under the ownership of Makepeace the West Barnstable Brick Company became one of the giants of Cape Cod business. By the 1920’s it was reported that the factory could produce more than 100,000 bricks per day and more than thirty million per year. They were widely popular not only on Cape Cod but throughout the state of Massachusetts and even further.

In October 1925 the business would change hands after nearly forty years when it was purchased by Thomas Arden. He enlarged the factory as well as adding electric lights and a telephone. The company would receive another boost when the one and only automobile king Henry Ford paid a visit as he was interested in the brick making process. On October 14, 1926 Ford stopped by the factory. He wanted to buy a pair of antique engines however Arden gave them to him as a gift despite his objections. Ford would set things square by sending a brand new tractor to Arden a short time later.

The decaying facade of the West Barnstable Brick Factory in 2022.

However as high as the company was riding its demise had actually been set in motion. Unhappy with the fact that brick sizes were not uniform President Herbert Hoover created a universal size for the creation of bricks in 1928. The problem with this was that West Barnstable Brick was an eighth of an inch too large and so new equipment needed to be bought. This meant that the company needed to raise prices to cover costs.

This was only the beginning of the trouble. The October 1929 Stock Market Crash ushered in the Great Depression. This immediately slowed down the need for new buildings. Higher prices to cover costs combined with lower demand for the product forced West Barnstable Brick to cease operations in the fall of 1930.

All was not lost though. Arden, the directors, and stockholders were all meeting and trying to figure out how to get the business up and running again. The venerable brick company remained closed throughout 1931. In September 1931 it appeared as though a new day was dawning. All of the surplus West Barnstable bricks had been sold, and new orders were coming in. Arden and his staff cleaned and oiled the machinery, inspected the boilers, and prepped the clay pits to resume production.

Despite battling bankruptcy plans were in place for the West Barnstable Brick Company to rise from the ashes. By 1932 it had been over fifty years that the rich blue clay had been collected to make millions of high quality bricks. Arden wanted to know just how much clay, and therefore how many years, West Barnstable Brick Company had remaining in its current location. At some point during 1932 a test hole was drilled. This determined that there was roughly fifty years worth of clay remaining. This should have put Arden at ease. Unfortunately though the test hole struck water. This created an artesian well that flooded the clay pits.

The flooded clay pits were the death knell for the company. West Barnstable Brick Company did not immediately close though. Attempts were made to figure out a way to keep going. The remainder of 1932 and into 1933 were a holding pattern. However the Great Depression did not relent. West Barnstable Brick was no more.

In the spring of 1933 West Barnstable Brick Company was sold at auction to the First National Bank of Yarmouth. In the years after the factory was stripped with parts sold off to other Cape Cod businesses while the remaining brick load would be used up. Today all the remains is part of the broken down facade of the building located a few hundred yards off of Route 6A, not far from Our Lady of Hope.

Nature has reclaimed the area where the West Barnstable Brick Company once stood.

It took more than thirty years for a new business to open on the former West Barnstable Brick property. Florence Ungerman opened The Wind-Ship Shop in July 1967 on Route 6A. The area of the property north of the railroad tracks however remained untouched. Over the nearly ninety years since the brick factory closed down nature has been reclaiming what was not removed.

Today the Orenda Wildlife Trust owns the former West Barnstable Brick Company property. It is a part of conservation land. The factory remains are overgrown and highly difficult to get to. The artesian well created a pond in addition to flooding the clay pits. There are nature trails leading behind the Orenda property but a trip to the brick factory remains in not advised.

For more than half a century the West Barnstable Brick Company was truly a giant among Cape Cod businesses. It bridged the gap from man power to steam power to electric power. Its legacy can still be felt today as authentic bricks created by the company are collector’s items and many of the buildings which used the bricks still stand.


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