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Becoming Cape Cod

I am a washashore*. If you’re reading this, chances are good that you are too. I learned this description of my status while reading Becoming Cape Cod: Creating a Seaside Resort, a fascinating account of how the Cape evolved from what author James C. O’Connell called “a shunned Yankee backwater” into New England’s pre-eminent escape zone.

Cape Cod tourism official have perpetuated an image of rural seaside charm, outstanding recreational and natural attractions, and an area inhabited by "Olde Cape Cod" characters.
Cape Cod tourism official have perpetuated an image of rural seaside charm, outstanding recreational and natural attractions, and an area inhabited by “Olde Cape Cod” characters.

O’Connell knows his stuff, having served as Economic Development Officer of the Cape Cod Commission from 1990 to 2001. He researched deeply while writing this book–the bibliography includes hundreds of sources–and made great use of historical photos throughout. The images are thoroughly charming and added immensely to my enjoyment of the book.

Becoming Cape Cod is divided into three parts:

Part I covers the years 1850 to 1920 and describes how the desolate  seafaring peninsula morphed into a resort. When Henry David Thoreau took several walking trips on Cape Cod between 1849 and 1857, he encountered no vacationers. Antebellum Cape Cod was a sandy landscape bereft of both trees and tourists. In fact, O’Connell noted, “Thoreau found the austere quality of the Cape Cod beach so compelling that he predicted that it would someday draw travelers who preferred nature to the tinselly lures of fashionable social resorts” that were beginning to pop up around New England. “Artistic natures pursuing their solitary interest frequently discover tourist places first. After the artists proclaim their discovery to the world, the image making begins.”

During its seafaring years, residents–except for those in Provincetown–generally settled inland, away from the shore. Swimming as we know it today was completely unknown at that time because the shore was perceived as a place for work, not recreation.

EVGReadsBecomingCapeCod1After the seafaring period ended, the Cape largely was used as an area for hunting. That was followed by a concentration of Methodist camp meetings, which evangelists held near the shore. Campground Beach on Cape Cod Bay in Eastham was the site of many of those gatherings.

Tourism as an industry began on Cape Cod following the Civil War. It was an outgrowth of the unprecedented economic prosperity that was occurring in cities and it stemmed from the desire to forget the grimness of the war. The seaside offered an escape from the heat and dirt of Boston and nearby cities. Victorian-era hotels catered to guests who could afford to spend a month or the entire season there. Over time most of the hotels burned down or fell into disrepair, however one 19th-century hotel still exists in Provincetown. The Gifford House Inn is the oldest continuously-run hotel on the Cape.

Since Cape Cod was in economic decline in the 1870s, residents were willing to sell their land at bargain prices. Naturally, investors began to sweep in. One group bought 1,000 beachfront acres in Hyannis for $1 an acre.  It boggles the mind to think about what that land would be worth now, almost 145 years later! That purchase of land marked the beginning of the first planned resort on the Cape.

Part II of the book covers “The Golden Age of Vacations,” from 1920 to 1950. The modernizing decades between the two World Wars drove the reinforcement of the myth of “Olde Cape Cod,” which the region still lives off. “In polishing its historic image,” said O’Connell, “Cape promoters took pains to express what Cape Cod was not…No garish resorts, no teeming hostelries, no amusement parks, no boardwalks, no thrillers for jaded appetites. It is…from the very absence of these artificial accessories that the Cape has won its friends, who are legion.”

Vintage postcards are used liberally and to charming effect in "Becoming Cape Cod: Creating a Seaside Resort."
Vintage postcards are used liberally and to charming effect in “Becoming Cape Cod: Creating a Seaside Resort.”

When train travel began to decline and automobiles started coming to the Cape in the 1930s, Victorian resort hotels fell out of favor as travelers became more transient. The democratization of travel produced a demand for budget accommodations and camping became popular. That was quickly followed by the development of cottage colonies, including many along Route 6 in Eastham, Wellfleet and Truro.

In 1935 the first Howard Johnson’s restaurant in the U.S. opened just off Route 6 in Orleans. Its friendly atmosphere and full-service menu catered to the growing number of tourists who were starting to come to the Cape.

The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce launched a marketing campaign in 1937, paying a Madison Avenue firm the substantial sum of $75,000 to persuade upper-income families to buy summer homes on the Cape. Although the campaign garnered national attention, it soon was halted because residents opposed using county tax funds to pay for it.

Some years later, tourism officials began to understand the importance of shaping the Cape’s historical image. The old, ordinary Cape became something to celebrate.

Part III is called “Preserving the Golden Goose: Boom and Conservation” and covers the years 1950 to 2000. It includes information about the postwar growth of the area, the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore in the 1960s, the emergence of eco-tourism, current historic preservation efforts, the development of nature preserves, and the creation of the Cape as a year-round tourist destination.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who loves history and Cape Cod in equal measure. I found it fascinating, from the first page to the last.

* Washashore (WASH-a-shore): Someone who has come to the Cape to live but isn’t originally from there. I haven’t yet moved to the Cape, but who knows? If I get lucky, I might some day.

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