Featured Stories & Articles from Cape Cod Travel Magazine: The Evolving Cape
Before the Cape was considered a vacation playground, or the pursuit of pleasure was an accepted principle, people came to the Cape for religion, renewal and salvation. Revival meetings attracted thousands to campgrounds, most notably in Oak Bluffs, Sagamore Beach, Eastham, Wellfleet, Harwich, Yarmouth and Craigville.
They came to worship, teach, reflect and socialize. Although the meetings were primarily religious, the campgrounds had the lure of woodlands, ocean vistas, dunes, salt marshes and the ethereal Cape light.
As sites for prayer meetings, picnics and multi-purpose celebrations, the campgrounds combined healthy doses of “hellfire and brimstone,” along with steamers and cherrystones, within a self-contained environment. Under religious auspices, the annual meetings nurtured courtships, acknowledged births and deaths, and any other event or occasion that could benefit from fellowship and a good meal. As Paul Schneider observed in The Enduring Shore, “Baptists baptized, Quakers quaked, and a few Presbyterians got very excited.”
Methodists held revival meetings on the Outer Cape in the 1700’s and then moved to Eastham in 1828, establishing the 10-acre Millennium Grove campground. Thousands of campers pitched their tents to hear preaching around the clock. The meetings moved to Yarmouth in 1863 to be near the railroad, where they continued through 1939.
The Christian Churches of Southeastern Massachusetts established the Christian Camp Meeting Association at Craigville in 1872. In its peaceful setting overlooking Nantucket Sound, it continues to hold meetings and conferences today, including the annual Cape Cod Writers’ Conference.
The Wesleyan Grove campground on Martha’s Vineyard in Oak Bluffs, which started in 1835, was one of the country’s earliest, largest and most influential. Tiny multi-colored cottages eventually replaced tents as the “Cottage City” campground expanded and became increasingly popular for family vacations. The compact architecture of the cottages features steep gable roofs, batten-board siding, turrets, verandas and eaves trimmed with scrolls and the wooden lace commonly known as “gingerbread.” Each cottage is no bigger than the footprint of the original tent it replaced. The dense congregate layout gave the campgrounds a strong sense of identity, community and belonging. The architecture of the Oak Bluffs campground, where many descendants of the original campers still vacation, inspired the architecture of the Yarmouth and Craigville campgrounds, as well as new planned resorts.
Inspired by the popularity of the campgrounds, developers applied a campground/subdivision model in Falmouth Heights, the Cape’s first planned resort, and Hyannisport, ultimately the home of the Kennedy compound and one of the Cape’s most popular summer enclaves. To capitalize on accessibility, both resort colonies were strategically located near the railroad.
The Cape Cod Railroad, which reached Provincetown in 1873, took travelers from Boston to Provincetown in just over five hours and opened the Outer Cape to vacationers. The railroad remained the primary travel mode to and around the Cape until the 1930s and played an important part in promoting tourism. Each railroad station influenced residential and commercial development, and became the focal point of towns throughout the Cape. Chatham began to develop as a resort community after the railroad was extended from Harwich in 1887.
Until the early 1900s, despite improved accessibility and popularity, the Cape retained a backwater image. Early tourism promotions emphasized charm and quaintness, capturing as Henry James saw it, “the drowsy Cape, the languid Cape, the Cape not of storms, but of eternal peace.” Perhaps suggesting the earlier religious influence, the Cape was promoted as a simple, nostalgic place, where people came for camp meetings, salvation, and clambakes.
As the message of tourism evolved, and the railroad improved access, Victorian hotels began catering to a growing tourist market. The hotels touted a structured, self-contained social environment, where guests relied on the hotel and its immediate locale for entertainment. Croquet was the walk on the wild side. The hotels invited the emerging middle class to enjoy family vacations in a refined Cape environment without the elitism of Newport and other glitzy “Gilded Age” resort areas.
When the automobile enabled tourists to hit the road, a period of redefinition began. Resort hotels started to seem constraining, with the Cape offering so many attractions and beaches, and the roads feeling wide open. The automobile changed vacation priorities, patterns of exploration and the identity of the Cape. The two biggest casualties were resort hotels and the railroad, which ended regular railroad passenger service on the Cape in 1959.
With automobiles inspiring road trips, tourists looked for thrifty budget options and, evoking earlier days, campgrounds enjoyed renewed popularity. The latter day campgrounds did not necessarily have a religious affiliation, but had the community spirit of earlier camp life. During the 1930’s, numerous campgrounds, and cottage colonies became ubiquitous, especially on the Outer Cape along Route 6. One of the first cottage colonies was Days Cottages on Beach Point in North Truro, which opened in 1931. Days Cottages still stand, much unchanged, and frequently painted and photographed.
Catering to the mobile traveler, the motel boom in the 1950s and 1960s was the natural successor of camp grounds and cottage colonies. Many of these motels remain today, clustered along the Route 28 corridor in West and South Yarmouth. These properties still offer the affordable family vacation venues, for which Cape Cod had become known. In more recent years, high-end resort properties, such as Chatham Bars Inn and the Wequassett Resort and Golf Club, have become nationally renowned for offering a luxurious Cape Cod vacation option.
A perhaps unexpected evolution in the tourism industry here was the proliferation of inns. Some historic inns, such as the Dan’l Webster Inn & Spa, were welcoming travelers even before the arrival of the railroad. The Dan’l Webster, originally used as a parsonage, began operating as an inn than 300 years ago.
Generally a British and Irish tradition, the bed and breakfast concept didn’t really begin to hit America until the mid-1970s. In 1974, voters from Bourne to Eastham elected to create preservation organizations to ensure that Route 6A, the Cape’s oldest macadam covered roadway, remain as untouched as possible. This vote, along with a huge number of grand historic homes, began the B&B craze on the Cape. There are now more than 250 inns all over Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
Today, Cape Cod has become a vacation tradition for many, a place where generations of families return year after year to its pristine shores to reclaim cherished childhood memories of sandcastles and seashells, flip flops and the freshest fried clams. To others, the Cape’s lure is its well-earned distinction as a world-class locale, renowned for some of the most challenging golf courses, the finest dining and the most beautiful beaches.
The following famous faces have graced the Cape and Islands’ shores:
President Grover Cleveland - during his second presidential term “Grey Gables”, in Buzzards Bay, was the summer White House. Four generations of Kennedys have summered in Hyannisport. President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard several times. Senator John Kerry continues to summer on Nantucket. Speaker of the House Thomas P. O’Neill summered in Harwich Port until his death in 1994. Katherine Lee Bates, author of the words to the anthem “America the Beautiful” was a resident of Falmouth. Helen Keller, author and activist, vacationed in Brewster.
Charles W. Hawthorne, Edward Hopper, Ross Moffett, Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock all had homes in Outer Cape towns. A. Elmer Crowell, of East Harwich, was the nation’s most highly regarded carver of duck decoys. The highest price ever paid for a Crowell stands at $1.1M (Sept. 25, 2007).
Henry Beston, e.e. cummings, Michael Cummingham, Sebastian Junger, Jack Kerouac, Stanley Kunitz, Sinclair Lewis, Norman Mailer, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Edward Gorey and Tennessee Williams are just a few of the writers who have lived on the Cape. Judy Blume, Art Buchwald, Dashiel Hammett, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Beetle Hough, Lillian Hellman, Caroline Kennedy, David McCullough, Patricia Neal and John Updike have all lived on Martha’s Vineyard at some point.
Theater, Film and Television:
Bob Vila, Gene Rayburn, Judy Garland, Neal McDonough, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Julie Harris and John Waters have had, or have, homes on Cape Cod. John Belushi, James Cagney, Walter Cronkite, Spike Lee, Michael J. Fox, Mike Nichols, Diane Sawyer, Mike Wallace, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Diana Ross and Beverley Sills have all called Martha’s Vineyard home at one time. The Cape Playhouse, America’s oldest professional summer theater, which opened July 4, 1927, attracted many stars, including; Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda and Gertrude Lawrence. Falmouth Playhouse, established in 1949, hosted stars including Tallulah Bankhead, Marlon Brando, Carole Channing and Lillian Gish.