Wellfleet: A Town For All Seasons

By Greg O'Brien
Codfish Press

 “Thus having had another crack with the old man, he standing bareheaded under the eaves, he directed us “a-thwart the fields,” and we took to the beach again for another day, it being now late in the morning.”—Henry David Thoreau, Cape Cod, The Wellfleet Oysterman.

 Ever since Thoreau found comfort in the Wellfleet Oysterman’s home beyond the bluff and drew up to a large, old fashioned fireplace, generations have followed in his footsteps to this pastoral sliver of sand by the sea, framed by the Great Outer Beach and Cape Cod Bay and filled with spring fed, fresh water kettle ponds carved 17,000 years ago in the retreat of the last great Ice Age. 

Late in the morning, as Thoreau set out, is a good time to take to the beach. The view from Wellfleet Harbor captures the town’s splendor in a single frame—its cobalt blue water, untainted air, wide beaches, lush marshlands, rich history and its array of people, perhaps as great a resource as its largesse of natural and secluded beauty.

Sailing into the harbor to the port at low tide is a shallow mudflat, testimony to Billingsgate Island and to Wellfleet’s fate. Once the site of 30 homes, a brick lighthouse, a fishing fleet and even a summer baseball team, the island was divided in half by a pounding storm 157 years ago, and erosion over time carted the rest of it away.

Beyond Billingsgate shoal, is the tip of pristine Great Island. Hard to imagine in the late 17th and early 18th centuries that a naughty little drinking hole named Samuel Smith Tavern graced its shores, a remote place for whalers, sailors and privates, likely “Black Sam” Bellamy of Whydah fame among them, to duck strict Calvinist rule.

Turning to the starboard, just past the jetty and with verdant Herring River Marsh in the distance, as green as the ring of Kerry, graceful Mayo Beach and Indian Neck frame the inner harbor like gates to Eden. The marina is a blend of the old and new, like Wellfleet itself. Here ancient fishing draggers queue up with pleasure craft. They seem simpatico.

A lot has changed since Thoreau broke bread with the oysterman; much has remained the same. And so Wellfleet, near the end of a dead end street called Cape Cod, has attracted a cornucopia of year-rounders and summer people from all paths of life, still does, more so than any other Cape town in its range, all sharing the same primal instinct that the land beneath them is sacred and shapes their reason for being. Artists and fishermen, lawyers and doctors, shrinks and shop owners, the corporate elite and the working class, they all share the same vision—that Wellfleet’s horizon extends far beyond its shoreline, or the South Wellfleet site where Guglielmo Marconi in 1903 sent the fire wireless transatlantic radio transmission, or even the lure of the Wellfleet Oyster, whose cold, plankton-rich local waters slow the shellfish’s metabolism, making for a sweeter taste and international approbation.

The cultural horizons here are as assorted as the calendar, with summer always bringing on fresh blossom of creature foliage.  As notable as the local color are the washashores. Square inch by square inch, you can arguably find in Wellfleet more intelligence, art, culture, theater, musical brilliance, overall creativity, gut street smarts and nurturing than any place on the planet. Always has been that way.  

“Wellfleet is the town of ‘Yes,’ says playwright and actor Stephen Russell, an actor and writer, who has lived in Wellfleet since 1981. “It’s not a town of ‘No,’ or ‘Maybe,’ it’s a town of ‘Yes!”

The essence community,Wellfleet is a place for summer people and year-rounders to play out a fantasy, scratch an itch, tap a hidden talent or advance an art form—a kinship of people celebrating their gifts and the offerings of other, not inhibiting them.

“It’s a place where one is supported for pursuing a dream, instead of people looking at you as if you were crazy,” says Ira Wood, the author of four novels, including the newly released: You’re Married to HER?, a talk show host on WOMR, a Wellfleet selectman for a dozen hears, and co-founder of Leapfrog Press with his wife Marge Percy, the renowned poet, novelist and social activist. 

“Wellfleet is a town where you can ply your trade or work your craft in full confidence and support. Nobody looks at you in the middle of the day as if to say: you ought to be out there working a corporate job.”

“It’s a place of eclectic charm,” adds Bill Galvin, longtime managing editor of The Cape Cod Chronicle, who began summering in Wellfleet in 1948 and his lived in the town for decades, his family for generations. “It is a community that has great beauty, genius and wealth, but doesn’t display it publicly.”

Here all elements of natural elegance and intellect blend in. The elegance has always attracted the intellect and creative forte in its residents and visitors, many of whom come here to stay for periods of time or forever. Individuals over the years like: writers John Dos Passos, Annie Dillard, Stanley Kunitz, Maya Angelou, and James Carroll; cellist Bernard Greenhouse, a member of the Beaux Arts Trio of musicians; Arthur Schlessinger, Jr, historian, social critic and Pulitzer Prize winner; Edmund Wilson, the famous literary critic who cultivated appreciation for novelists Ernest Hemmingway, William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald; historian, playwright and activist Howard Zinn, who wrote about the struggle for civil rights and once described himself as “something of an anarchist, something of a socialist, maybe a democratic socialist”; and distinguished psychiatrist, author and Holocaust research Robert J. Lifton.

In the 1960s, Lifton, with mentor Erik Erickson and MIT Bruce Mazlish, formed a research group to apply psychology and psychoanalysis to the study of history. They met at Lipton’s Wellfleet home overlooking the Atlantic. The group, the Wellfleet Psychohistory Group, concentrated on psychological motivations for war, genocide and terrorism, and in 1965 was awarded sponsorship from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to establish psychohistory as a separate field of study. The group’s collected works, Explorations in Psychohistory: The Wellfleet Papers, was published in 1975.

“The joke used to be that you couldn’t get a shrink in New York in August because they were all vacationing in Wellfleet,” says Janet Lesniak, executive director of Wellfleet Preservation Hall (wellfleetpreservationhall.org), an exceptional blend of Wellfleet past and present at the site of Our Lady of Lourdes. The mission of Wellfleet Preservation Hall is to offer space for the intersection of art, culture and community. At it’s opening in May 2011, former selectman Wood said Wellfleet Preservation Hall stood “as a testament to the spirit and potential of Wellfleet.”

Preservation Hall is the embodiment of Wellfleet, a project born out of need whose fruition came into play when an adjacent bank proposed a drive through on the site. Not in my backyard, preservationists—Wellfleet’s literary, cultural and artistic elite among them—said!

And that’s the way it’s been in the town since anyone can remember.“

Wellfleet is not a pass-through town; it’s a place where people come for a reason, a season and stay,” says Mort Inger, a retired writer and editor of research papers at Teachers College at Columbia University, who vacationed here with his family in the 1960s and moved here permanently many years ago. “They become a fabric of the town.”

The fabric of Wellfleet is a tapestry of abundant hues.

“Here you meet a wide variety of people in different social classes and different work and life experiences; that’s much better for a writer, and it attracts creative types,” says poet and novelist, a New York Times bestselling author Marge Piercy. “Our society today becoming increasingly age stratified. If you go to a party in Wellfleet, there might be someone who is 20 and someone who is 85. There is a lot more mixing here. Wellfleet is a town where people accept each other in ways that other places don’t.”

Perhaps that’s why they call it the “boondocks,” she muses.

Former Wellfleet Police Chief Rosenthal, an author himself of several books, once a New York City police homicide, armed robbery and narcotics detective, came to the boondocks of Wellfleet more than 20 years ago, a prototype of sorts of Men In Black’s Agent K, who relocated for a respite to the Truro Post Office. Rosenthal has seen more comings and going in Wellfleet than the tides. “People come here to get lost in the Wellfleet woods,” he says.

Decades ago Wellfleet was far more remote, and Alec Wilkinson, a writer for The New Yorker since 1980 and the author of 10 books, including the acclaimed “Midnights, A Year With The Wellfleet Police. Wilkinson’s parents began summering in Wellfleet in the 1940s, bought a summer home here in 1952. The family home was sold two years ago and now the author is a summer person. “I’ve lost my off-season footprint here,” he laments.

But he hasn’t lost his feel for old Wellfleet, the simpler times and its archetype characters.

“When I was a child you could stand on the shore of Gull Pond and look 20 or 30 feet offshore and ten to 15 feet down and see fish,” he says. “Wellfleet is still incredibly beautiful, but I get indignant about the way the woods have been carved up with overuse and undistinguished homes.”

But still hidden deep in the Wellfleet woods near the verge of pristine kettle ponds on the Wellfleet-Truro border, not far from the Great Outer Beach, is one of Cape Cod’s best kept secrets—remnants of a summer colony that once housed some of the world’s most gifted artists, writers, architects, diplomats, brainiacs and critical thinkers from the 1930s to the 1970s in elegantly simple Modernist cottages, about 80 in all, that redefined the genre.

 These summer homes, some on stilts—designed by the brightest and inventive Modernist architects in Europe and America—were functional, yet radical, “sort of a floating boxes, oriented to capture views and breezes, perching lightly on the land with flat roofs that often rise to gradual pitches,” notes Wellfleet designer Peter McMahon, who is working diligently to preserve these historic structures through the Cape Cod Modern House Trust. In architectural terms, the cottages—scores of them now in disrepair, an endangered species likely to be sold as teardowns given the increasing value of the land—are as significant to the region’s built environment as an original antique Cape or saltbox. 

That was part of the allure in the design and construction—isolation in the woods, intense privacy for creative inspiration, and low impact—buildings that were “green” before there was even such an environmental color.

Inside the Cape Cod National Seashore boundaries that shape two thirds of Wellfleet is a curious mix of mid 20th century European Modernist, avant-garde traditions taught at the Bauhous, the major German university of Modernism in art, architecture, graphic art and interior design, founded by Walter Gropius who later led Harvard’s Graduate School of Design that attracted many of the architects who designed here. Modernism has European roots in art nouveau, or Jugendstil, art deco and American modernism that was practiced in the late 19th century by Frank Lloyd Wright, who influenced many Europeans.

The serene woods attracted leading international architects like Marcel Breuer, Serge Chermayeff, and Olav Hammarstrom, and top American architects such as Charles Zehnder, Jack Hall and Nathaniel Saltonstall, and more than a dozen others.

Far beyond the intellect, artistic prowess and unparalleled raw nature of Wellfleet is its heart. Nobody knows that better than Sharyn Lindsay, a longtime Wellfleet resident whose oldest son Caleb Potter suffered a massive brain injury in a skateboarding accident in town on July 4, 2007. He is still recovering, as profiled in the March issue of Cape Cod Magazine. The town has reached out its large collective hands to comfort and to help.

 “Caring is the soul of this community,” she says. “It is not contained within the boundaries of a resume or one life’s accomplishment. Caring here is from the heart. When tragedy strikes, you don’t want to be any other place than Wellfleet.”

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