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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Pilgrim Landing 400th Anniversary


    It’s Thanksgiving time again. That means turkey, football, and family for most. However all of these blessed events and traditions would not be possible if not for a group of English settlers known as the Pilgrims. 2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower on this continent.

    The collection of 102 passengers aboard the famed ship is most commonly connected with their landing in the future Plymouth Colony; however they have a large connection to Cape Cod. It is on the Cape where the Pilgrims first walked and explored.

    First off a little bit of the journey of the Mayflower. It was the initial intention of the Pilgrims to land somewhere in present-day Northern Virginia. The ship was to be accompanied to the New World by a vessel named Speedwell. This ship was cursed it seemed as even on its way to meet the Mayflower in Southampton in July 1620 it began leaking. In fact the pair of vessels departed twice from England only to have to return to port when the Speedwell began leaking. Finally on September 6th the Mayflower left Plymouth, England to cross the Atlantic Ocean. 66 days later the Mayflower found land and docked. However it was not Northern Virginia, it was Cape Cod, more than 400 miles north. These locations that follow are spots where the Pilgrims explored on the Cape and can still be explored today.

1. Pilgrims’ First Landing Park, Commercial St., Provincetown - On November 11, 1620 the Mayflower circled around the tip of Provincetown and docked in Provincetown Harbor. The first steps on shore by the Pilgrims are commemorated here at the rotary at the west end of Commercial Street. There is a plaque which celebrates this moment of not just American but World History as well. The location was discovered via a map in the 1622 book Mourt's Relation written by Edward Winslow and William Bradford. It was a firsthand account of the landing and thus the map is seen to be accurate.

First Landing Park


2. Pilgrim Monument, High Pole Hill Rd., Provincetown – This granite tower was erected in 1910 overlooking the harbor. It is 252-feet tall and stands 350-feet above sea level. The view from the top is simply incredible. The first stone of the tower was laid by then President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 and is a very fitting tribute to the colonists. Although not directly tied to the Pilgrims landing it is still an impressive attraction and one of the best known locations on Cape Cod.

3. Pilgrim Spring Trail, Pilgrim Heights Rd., Truro - This trail leads through the woods out to a breathtaking scenic overlook of the dunes and ocean from a raised vantage point. From the overlook it is a quick walk to a plaque telling the tale of the Pilgrims’ first drink of fresh water in the new land. On November 16, 1620 an exploring party came upon a spring from which they drank. There is a small pool there to this day but it is not certain if this is the very same one since it was 400 years ago.

4. Pilgrim Pond, Pond Rd., Truro - It was here that a group of sixteen Pilgrims, led by Myles Standish and William Bradford, spent their second night on the shores of Cape Cod. It is an unassuming piece of history with a small park complete with a couple of benches along the water. The best view of the pond is a short walk from the park but overall it is difficult to see much of the water. However it is still a marvelous chapter of the Pilgrims’ story on the Cape.

Pilgrim Pond 


5. Corn Hill/Corn Hill Beach, Corn Hill Rd., Truro - It was near the beach on November 16, 1620 that the same group of sixteen Pilgrims purportedly came upon a Wampanoag stash of corn and fresh water which they took and used to sustain their people. The physical Corn Hill stands upwards of one hundred feet above the beach. The views are somewhat limited due to the homes which dot the area atop the hill. It is possible to drive the road and gaze down at Little Pamet River to the south to get a taste of the amazing panoramic scenery.

6. First Encounter Beach, Samoset Rd., Eastham - The ‘first encounter’ the name speaks of is one between the group of sixteen Pilgrims, led by Myles Standish and William Bradford, and the Nauset Tribe of the Wampanoags. On December 8, 1620 the two groups met along the beach here. Earlier European explorers had visited and even captured members of the Nauset Tribe leaving them with rightful bad memories of white travelers. Thusly the ‘first encounter’ consisted of arrows being slung from the Nauset Tribe and musket fire being directed by the Pilgrims. In the end both sides retreated.

The plaque at First Encounter Beach


As a result of this encounter the Pilgrims decided to look elsewhere for a settlement fearing more hostile interactions with local natives. Within days the Mayflower set sail across Cape Cod Bay and landed at Plymouth on December 16, 1620 where the new settlement began. Cape Cod would not see another attempted settlement until 1628 when Plymouth Colony established the Aptucxet Trading Post in present-day Bourne. It was created to allow settlers to trade with local natives and traveling Dutch sailors. That was a trading post and not a village though. In 1637 the town of Sandwich was formed and gave the Cape its first true settlement.

In five weeks on Cape Cod the Pilgrims explored much of the bay side coast from Provincetown down through Eastham. Their footprints are all over the land and their influence is as well. Take a few moments this Thanksgiving season to walk where they walked and feel the history and their importance all around you.

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Monday, November 23, 2020

In My Footsteps: The Time Period I Wish I Could Visit


    2020 has been a year unlike any I have experienced in my lifetime to say the least. Months in at least a state of semi-isolation has given me a lot of time to stroll down memory lane, thinking of my favorite years of life. That's a topic for another day though. These times have also got me thinking about what period of time in the past I would have liked to have lived in. Everyone has that time that if they had a time machine they'd go back to and see what life was like. Some people might like to go back to Medieval times, or be a passenger on the Mayflower coming to the New World. Others might want something more recent like the Golden Age of the 1950's. It is all a matter of personal preference and I am going to share with you my own.

    For me I would love the chance to go back and visit the 1890's in the United States. I am fascinated by this time period. It is a sweet spot between the past and present I believe. During this decade ending the 19th century many inventions and products that we find so common today were first brought to the general public. I am a big fan of wide open spaces, have never been a big city guy. So for reference the population of the United States as of 2019 was 328.2 million people across 50 states. In contrast the 1890 Census saw the country's population to be 62.98 million across 42 states. The population was 19% of what it is today. Granted New York City still had an impressive 1.5 million people but big cities were fewer and further between.

    Getting around might have been a little harder as the first gasoline powered automobile in the United States made its debut in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1893. Charles and J. Frank Duryea designed it and first sold it in 1896. By 1899 30 manufacturers had made a whopping 2,500 automobiles. This is a far cry from the 273.6 million registered vehicles in the U.S. in 2018. The best bet would be train, a horse-drawn omnibus(essentially a city stagecoach), or an electric trolley. Or one could use a bicycle. Bikes sold like crazy during the 1890's after the invention of the 'safety' bicycle in 1886. Shockingly this 'safety' just meant having both wheels be the same size. Two years later rubber tires were added and the so-called 'bike boom' of the 1890's was underway.

Charles and J. Frank Duryea in their first gasoline powered vehicle. (Public Domain)


    Transportation is taken care of, but what about the common home? For starters yes there was electricity. However despite Thomas Edison bringing electric lights to parts of Manhattan as early as 1882 it did not catch on quickly. In fact more than half of the homes in America were still using candles and gas lighting until 1925. Rural America was still being introduced to electric power as late as the 1940's and early 1950's.

    Inside the home was similar to today assuming you had electric power. Toasters and refrigerators existed as did irons, fans, and hair dryers. Obviously in the 1890's these were considered luxury items and not necessities like the 21st century. There was no television or radio back then, but there was the new Sherlock Holmes books, first released in 1891 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For sports lovers there was baseball to follow.

    In 1893 the pitcher's mound was moved back to 60'6" its current distance, making the game very similar to present-day. For big-time players that people flocked to see there was none bigger than Cy Young. The pitcher won 511 games and has a pitching award named after him. Other big names were Willie Keeler, Cap Anson, and John McGraw. It would have been possible to go see a game played by the Boston Reds in 1890 or 1891 at the Congress Street Grounds near Thompson Place.

1891 Boston Reds baseball team (Boston Public Library)


    So what other inventions came along during this decade that would have been fun to be around for? As far as food and drinks go there was a lot. The cereal Corn Flakes was invented by Will Kellogg in 1894 and he began the still-thriving Kellogg's company in 1906. Having only been invented a few years earlier, in 1886 by John Stith Pemberton, Coca Cola would see its popularity explode by the end of the 1890's. The boom was so sudden that after building its first headquarters in 1898 the company would need to expand it 5 times in the next 12 years. Rounding out the decade we saw the Hershey chocolate bar come along in 1894 and Jell-O in 1896. Granted the decade also contained the horrific meat-packing quality issues that became exposed by Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle in 1906 but that's a separate story.

    In 1896 the dry cell battery was invented and one can only imagine a world without AA and AAA batteries which go in just about anything electronic these days. Speaking of electronics the discovery of radioconduction by French scientist Edouard Branly in 1890 led to the eventual advent of wireless communication that came just after the turn of the 20th century by Guglielmo Marconi.

    The main thing that I'd have wanted to experience was the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. This was a place to see all of these new innovations in one place. Since the mid-1800's there have been more than 100 of these types of exhibitions worldwide. At this particular event which lasted 6 months the more than 27 million attendees got to witness the debut of Juicy Fruit gum, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Cream of Wheat cereal. They also were amazed by a dishwasher machine, the first commemorative coins and postcards.

The original Ferris Wheel at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (Public Domain)


    However despite 'Buffalo Bill' Cody setting up shop just outside of the walls to siphon off some guests with his Wild West show the World's Fair held all of the cards with its giant 264-foot tall revolving steel wheel. Invented by steel magnate George Ferris Jr., the 'Ferris Wheel' stole the show with 1.4 million people paying 50 cents each to ride it. This meant on its own it made $700,000 ($20.2 million in 2020) at the World's Fair. It would have been amazing to be there to experience the plethora of new inventions, seeing them with the wonder that people of the time did.

    I would have loved to have been alive during the 1890's. For me I find that era to be the perfect link between past and present. Wide open spaces with the first flickers of current technology. However of course it's all subjective, some people might think this would be a dumb time to be alive. So how about it? If you could live or visit another time when would it be and why?

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Friday, November 13, 2020

In Their Footsteps: New England History - Mercy Brown: The Last Vampire

    Vampires. The undead ghouls that prey upon the blood of the living for their own sustenance. The terrifying monsters have been a part of mythical folklore for centuries. They have been the subject of countless books and films beginning with Bram Stoker's legendary Dracula which was published in 1897. Despite it being highly unlikely that such evil entities truly exist the subject of vampires in fiction is actually based in reality. In fact there was a period of several decades in the 19th century when the state of Rhode Island was considered the Vampire Capital of America. Occurring roughly between 1870-1900 the most famous case during this time was that of Mercy Lena Brown. This is her story among the vampire panic that gripped New England.

The original 1897 cover of Dracula. (British Library Board/Wikimedia)

    The story begins with a seemingly normal family headed up by farmer George Brown and his wife Mary. The couple lived in the tiny town of Exeter, Rhode Island, southwest of Providence, along with their daughters Mary Olive, Hattie May, Mercy Lena, Myra, and their son Edwin. Exeter was a farming town dwindling in population in the years after the Civil War from 2,500 in 1820 to only 961 in 1892. Such a small community meant that most people knew each other making the terrible events that befell the Brown family more impactful.

    The first tragedy to strike George Brown and his family came in December 1883 when his wife of twenty years passed away. Mary had been sick and deteriorating slowly over the preceding months with symptoms of tuberculosis (TB) or 'consumption' as doctors at the time called it. Tuberculosis symptoms include a painful long-lasting cough expelling a mixture of blood and mucus, and severe weight loss among others. It is a terrible illness.

    After the loss of Mary the family had barely had time to finish grieving when George's oldest daughter Mary Olive began exhibiting the symptoms of TB. She passed in June 1884 at the age of 20. Two sad losses in 6 months stunned the family and community of Exeter most of which attended young Mary's funeral. Things remained relatively normal for the next few years until 1889 when George's only son Edwin began to suffer the same symptoms as the others. Before a similar fate could befall him Edwin and his wife Hortense were sent out to Colorado Springs where it was hoped that the mountain air would cure him. It helped to a degree but was not a cure for the TB ravaging his body.

    While Edwin was out west Mercy began suffering from the consumption as well. It is thought that both she and Edwin had what was called the 'galloping' strain of the illness. This meant it likely lay dormant inside of them for years asymptomatic. Mercy became the 3rd member of the Brown family to die of TB in January 1892.

    After 18 months in Colorado Springs Edwin returned to Exeter near the end of February 1892 after hearing of Mercy's death. Any progress he had made quickly dissipated and it was at this time that the story took a turn from tragic to unbelievable. As his illness progressed Edwin began having fever dreams which were marked by him talking in his sleep saying things like: “she was here”, “she wants me to come with her”, and “she haunts me.” At this point the small town of Exeter became convinced that there was something else going on when it came to the deaths in the Brown family. It is here that the vampire hysteria took over.

A newspaper article from Boston during the vampire panic. (Public Domain)


    For some context the vampire hysteria seemed interconnected with a rash of tuberculosis cases in the late 18th through the 19th century. The physical changes a person goes through suffering with the illness can give the illusion of an evil blood-sucking spirit having control over them. However the hysteria in rural New England took it a step further. Believing that vampires were the cause of the problem it stood to reason by these people that digging up the undead and destroying their bodies would stop said vampire from wreaking more havoc.

    This led to a series of gruesome exhumations. The process included digging up a suspicious corpse. If it looked as if it had not decayed enough to the people's liking they would perform tasks such as beheading the corpse, breaking its bones, and if available mutilating the organs, including removal of and burning of the heart. In an interview with How Stuff Works.com, New England author and folklorist Michael Bell said at least 80 such rituals took place during the vampire panic, although usually these corpses were not referred to specifically by the name 'vampire.'

    The most famous of these exhumations took place in the spring of 1892. As Edwin Brown slipped away the residents of Exeter became convinced that he was being drained by an unseen force. They begged George Brown to dig up the bodies of his wife and 2 deceased daughters to prove them wrong. Although not a believer in such supernatural ideas George was eventually convinced as he was desperate to save the life of his only son. On the morning of March 17, 1892 three exhumations took place in Exeter's Chestnut Hill Cemetery.

Chestnut Hill Baptist Church in Exeter (John Phelan/Wikimedia)


    George's wife Mary and eldest daughter Mary Olive, having been dead for close to a decade at the time were revealed to be only skeletons. However Mercy proved far different. Having only been dead for 2 months, and also been buried in the cold of a New England winter, Mercy's body looked surprisingly life-like when exhumed. Her skin receding postmortem also gave the appearance of her fingernails and hair having grown. Already on edge before the exhumations the crowd at the cemetery were stunned to find traces of blood still in Mercy's body.

    Fearing the worst her heart was subsequently removed. It was placed on some nearby rocks and burned. Not satisfied with that act the crowd convinced George that the vampire's heart could help cure Edwin. In a final ghastly twist some of the ashes of Mercy's heart were mixed in with Edwin's medicine. The macabre concoction did not help and sadly Edwin was felled by the consumption on May 2, 1892.

    News of this incident and its aftermath made its way across the ocean. It became an influence as previously mentioned for Bram Stoker's classic Dracula. It was definitely an influence on Rhode Island horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and his book The Shunned House. All subsequent vampire books and films can trace their origins to these times and to Mercy Brown.

The grave of Mercy Brown. (Josh McGinn/Flickr)


    Rhode Island's time as the Vampire Capital of America ended shortly after Mercy Brown was returned to the cold ground. The threat of vampires dwindled. Though not as severe of an epidemic today as it was in the 19th century tuberculosis is still a serious threat. In fact according to the World Health Organization a total of 1.4 million people died from TB in 2019.Her grave remains to this day along with her siblings and parents at the Chestnut Hill Cemetery. Although hers is shackled and chained to a nearby tree to stop thieves from taking it. Legend has it that the ghost of Mercy Brown haunts the area around her grave and even a nearby bridge. Perhaps when going to pay respects to the 'last vampire' of New England, keep an eye out, Mercy Brown may just be closer than you think.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Mildred's Chowder House, Hyannis

The Home of Cape Cod Clam Chowder.”

Long before there was a yearly Chowder Festival held on Cape Cod there was one restaurant which could lay claim to being the king of clam chowder. Mildred’s chowder was so beloved that everyone from Presidents to the average Joe would flock to the cozy establishment abutting the Barnstable Airport. In the forty-plus years it was in existence this restaurant and the name Mildred would become one of the most popular establishments the Cape had ever seen.

Mildred Bassett was born in 1897 in West Dennis to J. Franklin and Abbie Bassett. She married James Desmond and had 2 children, James Jr., and Bernie. After they divorced in 1925 she moved to Hyannis while James moved to Boston. She later married Maynard Johnson.  

Shortly thereafter Mildred began to showcase her cooking skills for the public. Before she opened her legendary Chowder House Mildred was already staking her claim to the best chowder on Cape Cod. Beginning in 1934 she was in charge of serving said chowder and her equally beloved apple pie at Liggett's Drug Store at the East End of Hyannis' Main Street. Years of honing her craft coupled with rave reviews from customers led her to bet on herself and branch out on her own.

The choice for her initial establishment was 251 Iyannough Road in Hyannis. A small restaurant more akin to a coffee shop it was a perfect starting point. She enlisted the help of her son James to manage it. He had been doing the same job down the road at Carl's Restaurant, formerly Brad's Soda Shoppe, in West Yarmouth. Together they crafted a homey feeling places suitable for Mildred's cooking.

C. Sturgis Library 



Opening day for the restaurant that bore her name was June 17, 1949 with the help of James and his brother Bernie. The building had the ability to seat 44 in the dining room and another 10 at the counter. It was a much quieter time on Cape Cod in the years just after World War II but the family created mouth watering dishes that soon set the senses aflame of any customer that passed through the doors.

In the early days of Mildred’s Chowder House the competition was much different than in later years. Mega-chains and fast food spots would not come creeping in until the 1960’s and 1970’s. Back then it was other one-off establishments, many run by families that dominated the scene. Quality and service were how these places got popular; it was often an uphill climb that took a while to build a reputation.

Mildred's Menu c. Sturgis Library 


Mildred did not fear the hard work it took to give her eponymous restaurant the glowing reputation it would develop. She served up fresh local seafood including classics such as fish and chips, clams, scallops, lobster, and shrimp. As tempting and necessary as the abundant seafood offerings were the Chowder House also dipped into steaks and chicken dishes as well, in case there were any customers who were not fans of meals from the ocean’s waters.

Of course any restaurant with ‘chowder’ in the name had better make a worthwhile representation of the New England favorite. Mildred’s succeeded in making a truly legendary clam chowder that is still talked about to this day. How popular was Mildred’s chowder? President John F. Kennedy would order the base from the Summer White House in Hyannis Port. He also ordered a specially made lobster stew made by Mildred’s son Bernie. It would consist of only knuckle meat; it took twenty-five pounds of lobster to get a pound of knuckle meat which was put in the stew for the President. Mildred’s chowder recipe was often imitated and never duplicated. A former employee even sent in the recipe as they remembered it to the Cape Cod Times in 2008 helping many people longing for another taste make it themselves. Although the recipe would have to be scaled down as only large batches of the sumptuous soup were made.

The purported recipe for Mildred's Chowder./Pinterest


The popularity of Mildred's Chowder House grew so much that in 1957 a larger restaurant was built diagonally across the street in front of the Barnstable Airport. It featured a casual down home atmosphere and traditional Cape Cod d├ęcor dealing with fishing and the ocean adorning the walls and ceiling. Locals loved it and soon word began to spread about the little restaurant next to the airport. The rapidly growing business soon had to continue without its matriarch though.

Mildred Johnson died suddenly at her home on Norris Street on April 13, 1961 at the age of 64. This left the immensely popular Chowder House in the hands of her two sons. They were more than capable of continuing on the legacy their mother had created. The first new step was bringing entertainment to Mildred’s. The Happy Hour at one point featured Cape Cod’s First Lady of Jazz, Marie Marcus. She played there for about eight weeks along with Jim Blackmore and Carl German before moving on to Rooster in West Yarmouth which would later become Johnny Yee’s.

Soon though the little restaurant grew to become too busy to have room for entertainment, the Desmond’s had to focus solely on the food. Mildred’s became a destination for those vacationing on the Cape during the summer. It was in 1969 that things hit the tipping point and a large addition had to be put on to the little chowder house to allow the ever-increasing crowds to be served.

In the 1970’s it became commonplace for Mildred’s to serve 900 customers a night for dinner with a line out the door waiting to get in every night of the week during the summer from 5-9pm. Despite the addition Mildred’s was still too popular to fit all of its adoring public. It was necessary to have a staff of sixty waitresses and eight busboys each summer to handle the volume the establishment was putting out. Business was booming, Mildred’s had become one of those rare restaurants that was known outside of New England, being mentioned by newspapers in New York and Chicago. The little chowder house had become a Cape Cod landmark.

C. Sturgis Library 


In 1983 Mildred’s sons Jim and Bernie had become understandably burned out from years of the high sales restaurant business. They looked to the family to continue on the legacy but seeing no takers they sold the restaurant to a group headed by Robert Allen of South Dennis. Allen had previously run Lobster in the Rough and Ship's Fare in Yarmouth. Despite the ownership change its legacy continued even as things around them were changing with an influx of big chain restaurants like Chili’s, Pizzeria Uno, and an increase in fast food spots like Wendy’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The 1990’s saw business begin to slow down at the iconic Mildred’s. The restaurant was rumored to be for sale. Then after five decades of building a reputation as one of the premier restaurants on Cape Cod Mildred’s Chowder House was sold a final time in March 2000 to Mark Bobola. He renovated the property and reopened it as Fish Landing Bar and Grill. Nothing could replace Mildred’s and the new venture was closed after the 2002 summer. The empty building was discussed as a possible homeless shelter in 2003 but nothing came of it. It was torn down in 2005 and as in 2020 all that remains of Mildred’s is the overgrown parking lot.

For five decades Mildred’s Chowder House was one of the most popular restaurants the Cape had to offer. Its chowder is the stuff of legends and countless people still speak of it to this day with adoration. Places like Mildred’s come once in a generation and are not easily replaced. Neither are the memories of it.

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