Life in Falmouth

by the late Wor. Edward Huguenin

In order to understand what life was like in the town of Falmouth at the time of the founding of Marine Lodge, it is necessary to go back to the turbulence of the Revolution and its aftermath. The Revolution was particularly hard on Falmouth for a number of reasons.

A lot of its wealth was expended during this period due to the negative impacts of the war on many of its maritime means of livelihood and contributions to the war effort. Livestock was also depleted due to British plundering. Falmouth was literally on the front lines, with British warships and landing parties in the immediate area for much of the war. British interest was due to Falmouth’s strategic position as a chokepoint for sea-borne communications and shipping (there was no railroad, highway system or Cape Cod Canal).

Falmouth was also the strategic staging point for patriot political and military efforts to hold Martha’s Vineyard, the Elizabeth Islands and even Nantucket. The British bases in the immediate area were in Tarpaulin cove and Vineyard Haven, from which smaller vessels, called “shaving-mills,” of up to three masts with a cannon on the bow and well-armed crews of about 25, roamed the coast looking for provisions and livestock, as well as patriot shipping.

They were fast and maneuverable.

They often landed to raid individual farms and homesteads – Falmouth has a long coastline, which was very difficult to monitor and protect. It was a war of long uneventful watches, false alarms, raid and counter raid, ambush and mixed loyalties. Only a fraction of these events were even recorded (usually due to some noteworthy or particular actions of an individual). There were clearly Tories who knew well the area and its people that sided with the British. These problems were compounded by the fact that the town was not self-supporting with respect to food staples.

Some of the firefights involved ships with foodstuffs, which sometimes changed hands several times. The local militia, under the superb leadership of Major (later General) Joseph Dimmick, was usually successful in these endeavors, which involved both land and sea actions.

British frustrations with Falmouth led to the planned attack of April 3, 1779. Without prior warning from a known “Tory” on Pasque Island, the town would have been taken and burned. Four militia companies responded, Falmouth Center, North Falmouth, Sandwich Center and Sandwich Snake Pond, totaling about 200 men opposing an assault force of about the same number. It was a one-sided affair. There were no local casualties. The cannonading of the defenders and the town did little real damage and started no fires (believed due to the spring thaw). The assault forces being in open boats, while the militia was behind earthworks, were reported to have taken fifteen killed and twenty wounded, including the Tory commander. Interestingly, a very similar scenario was to be repeated during the war of 1812, involving the British warship Nimrod with about the same results.

The situation in Falmouth after the revolution mirrored the rest of the country but was probably somewhat worse due to the proximity and duration of local war activity. There were huge national and state debts, confused and changing national governmental structure and a war ravished economy. The general confusion was great; there were disagreements and conflicts about what should be done (demonstrated by Shay’s rebellion of 1786 in this state). Economic recovery did not start immediately.

The new Constitution was ratified in 1788; Worshipful George Washington was sworn in as the first President in 1789 and Congress passed in 1790 an act to redeem wartime paper money at $1 for $100 of paper. The State forgave Falmouth’s unpaid Revolutionary War assessments, due to particular hardship. Falmouth was one of only four towns on the Cape to be so designated. These events worked to stabilize the situation and 1790 started a decade of prosperity for Falmouth.

The first U.S. Census of 1790 (comparable 1800 census data are in parenthesis) lists 217 (268) families, 783 (910) free white males, 816 (931) free white females, with 38 (41) “free other”, for a total of 1,637 (1882) free souls in Falmouth. The 1790 Census summary lists no slaves in Massachusetts, but there is reason to believe that this may not be completely true for Falmouth (detailed records indicate 2). The national numbers in 1790 were a total of 3,893,635 people, which included 694,280 slaves.

The town’s population was divided up pretty much as it is today, with a town center around the Green and eastward along Main Street, population clusters in Woods Hole, West Falmouth, North Falmouth and East Falmouth. The number of families indicates the number of houses in the whole Town. A road map of 1795 shows the Town’s main roads as they are today, with Route 28 and Woods Hole Road, Main Street, Route 28 to Hyannis, Sandwich Road and Old Barnstable Road.

A Mixed Economy

The economic activities in the town involved agriculture, hay production of about 500 tons/yr (1802), sheep, cattle and orchards particularly being noted. There were eight mills in the town (1800), one a fulling mill and the others grist and possibly saw mills. Most were wind powered. There was also substantial salt production of 35,000 bushels/yr (1800), mostly located around Salt Pond, and maritime industries.

There were 60 vessels owned in Falmouth averaging 55 tons in 1800. Six were fishing vessels (two fishing the Straits of Belle Isle and four fishing the shoals) and the rest were coasters. The majority of the coasters were involved in lumber and trade with the southern states, especially the ports of Charleston, Beaufort and Savannah. During this era many “mechanics” from the town went to the South in the fall and returned in the spring or early summer. These were the original “snow birds.”

“Mechanics” were skilled workers primarily in wood. They were probably mostly ship/house wrights, and carpenters. There are also indications that “prefabbed” houses may have been shipped south during this period along with the workers to assemble them. These winters in the South were stated to be a lucrative enterprise for the skilled craftsmen involved.

The ship building era associated with offshore whaling hit Falmouth much later, starting about 1820. However, Nantucket had begun whaling about a hundred years before Falmouth. Men from Falmouth undoubtedly shipped out on ships from Nantucket and other ports. There was local shipbuilding. A shipyard did exist in Quissett harbor in 1802 and West Falmouth and Waquoit are also mentioned in this regard. The substantial amount of coastal shipping vessels used during this era had to be built somewhere in the area, but specific information is lacking.

Community Growth

Only two sects dominated the religious life of Falmouth during the 1790’s, the “official” Congregational Church and the Quakers. Prior to the revolution there were only two exceptions Cape-wide, both Baptist, one in Harwich (1756) and the other in Barnstable (1771). The Methodists did not appear in Falmouth until the start of the 19th century, with the first meeting house in 1808 and first church in 1811.

The first Episcopalian Church in Falmouth was The Church of the Messiah started in Woods Hole in 1852. The first Catholic Church, St. Joseph’s in Woods Hole, wasn’t founded until much later in 1872. It was not religious freedom but rather religious tolerance, and Falmouth was more tolerant than many other New England towns. It wasn’t until the 19th century (petition to the General Court and a town vote, both in 1810) that Quakers and Episcopalian/Methodists were relieved of having to pay a church tax to support the local Congregational Church. However, as late as 1825 Congregational Church records tell of a committee appointed “to look up delinquents and bring them back to their duty.”

The decade saw a number of innovations in the Town. The first Post Office was established in 1795. The first Postmaster was Capt. Joseph Palmer, a former Revolutionary War Militia Company Commander.

An inoculation hospital for smallpox was established by Dr. Francis Wicks—Charter Member and first Master of Marine Lodge—at Nobska Point in 1797. It was isolated, due to the skepticism about the viability of the new procedure, with the nearest population being about ten houses in Woods Hole. There had been a smallpox hospital on Great Hill (Falmouth Heights), as early as 1777. Presumably it was an isolated site at that time. It was run by Dr. George Hugh Donaldson (Charter member and first Senior Warden of Marine Lodge), who came from England in about 1776.

Dr. Donaldson was instrumental in bringing the vaccination technique to Falmouth by his correspondence with Dr. Jenner in England. Tradition says he overcame opposition by inoculating his own children and sending them to stay with small pox patients. On a different line, the first Poor House in Falmouth was established on Shore Street in 1800.

There were a few contentious town issues during the 1790’s. One issue involved problems resulting from animals running free. This got to the point that a town ordinance was passed in 1795 to ban pigs running lose. A town “Hog Officer” was appointed to enforce this statute.

Another recurring issue involved the “center” of town. The town had grown eastward from the Town Green extending along Main Street. The controversy was about where to place the new meetinghouse and Congregational Church. The issue was finally settled by building two meetinghouses, although the East End Meeting House was not a separate congregation until 1821. The first was completed on the Town Green (actually on the green, not its present location) in 1796, and the “town bell” made by M∴W∴ Paul Revere was bought and installed the same year. In 1799, a town ordinance was passed to ring the bell at 6 AM, noon, and 9 PM. This bell is presently in the tower of the church. The East End Meeting House was completed in 1797.

Another issue involved the herring fishery, which was used primarily as a source of bait and was of some economic consequence. The controversy involved the damming of the streams for mills or other purposes, preventing the fish from going upstream to multiply. The core of the issue was conflicting rights of property owners versus public rights of access to the common resource fishery. The General Court in 1798 passed a law “regulating the fishing of alewives in Falmouth”. Feelings got so high that in 1800 some town’s people loaded a town cannon on the Green and then filled it with herring (aimed at someone’s house maybe?). Unfortunately, when fired the canon burst, killing one person.

There were also sufficient disagreements and unhappiness with town policy that the northern part of the town petitioned in 1797 to be allowed to secede from Falmouth and join Sandwich. This was strongly opposed by the rest of the Town in the General Court and the petition was denied. Interestingly, these issues are not that different from current town politics.

Falmouth had been criticized by the State for deficiencies in its educational system both before and after the Revolution. The first permanent schools were not established until 1767. Before this time a teacher rotated around Falmouth teaching for 3 months in each “quarter” of the Town. The 1767 change established both a “man’s school” and a “woman’s school”. The women’s school was a form of “lower” school for younger less-accomplished students. The town in 1788 voted 140 pounds for a grammar school. However, The first specifically built school building of record in the town was built by private subscription in 1800 by Wor∴ Elijah Swift (second Master of Marine Lodge) for $675. It was a combination school and Masonic Temple for the newly chartered Masonic Lodge of Falmouth. This building still exists and forms the rear part of the current Marine Lodge.

Growth, Prosperity and Relative Peace

Well, what was the year 1798—the year Marine Lodge was Chartered—specifically like in Falmouth? The second President, John Adams, was in national office. The Governor of Massachusetts was Increase Sumner, elected the year before and destined to die the year after. The Selectmen of Falmouth were Jonathan Robinson, Samuel Nye, Paul Swift, Nathaniel Shiverick and Joseph Hatch. The Town was well into an era of prosperity, largely based on coastal shipping and other maritime endeavors.

This era was to go on until about 1805 when European wars started affecting American maritime activities leading to the War of 1812 with Britain. There was a disquieting short quasi-war at sea with revolutionary France during the year of 1798, involving privateers on both sides. Capt Rowland Crocker of Falmouth, in command of an American privateer, fought a battle at sea with a superior French vessel. He was severely wounded and his First Officer surrendered. He survived, was taken to France as a prisoner and got to shake the hand of Napoleon. He later had a long and distinguished maritime career as a ship’s Captain.

Rowland Crocker was the son of Brother Timothy Crocker (Charter Member of Marine Lodge)—probably the town’s most influential citizen of the era—who lived on The Green in the house later bought by Worshipful Elijah Swift.

Marine Lodge was founded during a period of growth, prosperity and relative peace. This was a Falmouth whose form and structure were not fundamentally different from the present time. The main differences today are — much greater scale, with greater diversity and a large number of tourists.

Recommended References

Freeman, Frederick, 1858. The History of Cape Cod: The Annals of Barnstable County and of its Several Towns, Including the, District of Mashpee, Vol. 1 (803 pages), Vol. 11 (803 pages), Geo.’ C. Rand Avery, Boston, (Chapter in Vol. 11 on Falmouth, pp.415-488)

Geoffrey, Theodore, (Dorthy Wayman), 1928. Suckanesset: A History of Falmouth Massachusetts, 188 pages, Reprinted by Falmouth Historical Society with Index, 1992

Jenkins, Charles W., 1889. Three Lectures on the Early History of the Town of Falmouth Covering the Time from its Settlement to 1812, Lectures Delivered in 1843, 113 pages and Index, published by L. F. Clarke, Steam Printeis (The Local Press), Falmouth, MA

Smith, Mary Lou, 1986. The Book of Falmouth, A Tricentennial Celebration 1686-1986, 582 pages, Published by Falmouth Historical Commission.

Deyo, Simeon L., 1890. History of Barnstable County, 1010 pages, published by H.W. Blake & Co., N.Y., Chapter XX — Falmouth (pp. 632-706)