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The Kettle Ponds of Wellfleet (Part II)

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Article by Lucy Vivante.

The Sluiceway between Gull and Higgins Pond, Wellfleet, Old Post Card, courtesy of the Wellfleet Historical Society
The Sluiceway between Gull and Higgins Pond, Wellfleet, Old Post Card, courtesy of the Wellfleet Historical Society

In November of 1620 the Pilgrims found a little spring in Truro and were very glad to have fresh water after their endless trip from England. Since the spring was so small, they decided to search further, ultimately landing at Plymouth. Had they found the kettle ponds of Truro and Wellfleet, history might be quite different: we’d have the plantation with guides in period costume explaining in “olde English.”

In Wellfleet, the pond names are derived from fauna: Gull, Duck, Herring, and Turtle; from family names: Higgins, Williams, Dyer, and Kinnicum; by attribute: Great, Long, and Spectacle; and by geographic direction: Northeast and Southeast. The Cape has close to 1,000 ponds and names are often repeated, Wellfleet’s neighboring towns both have ponds called Great Pond.

Gull Pond is termed a “great pond” (ponds over 10 acres by a Colonial Ordinance of 1641) and is the most written about, photographed, and swum in. Thoreau in “The Wellfleet Oysterman,” first published  in 1864 in the Atlantic Monthly, and then as chapter five of his Cape Cod (1865), writes of the pond as “the largest and a very handsome one, clear and deep, and more than a mile in circumference…”    He tells of the 92 year old oysterman John Newcomb’s sweetly naive observations about the kettle ponds “… were not so high as formerly. There was an earthquake about four years before he (the oysterman) was born, which cracked the pans of the ponds, which were of iron, and caused them to settle.”

Iowa University, with the Thoreau Society, have put Cape Cod and other works by Thoreau online at  http://thoreau.eserver.org/capecd05.html. The Cape Cod manuscript is housed in a few collections including the New York Public Library and the Morgan Library. One of the pages from “The Wellfleet Oysterman” chapter is in the Wellfleet Historical Society Museum, a small but excellent collection in the center of town at 266 Main Street. Another jewel in the collection is an 1851 ambrotype of the ten Gross sisters, born in Wellfleet between 1767 and 1794 and all devout Methodists. The Gross house was near Gull Pond and it was said that their eyes were as brilliantly blue as Gull Pond’s water. The longevity of these sisters is often remarked upon and also that their uncle, a seaman, married an Hawaiian royal.

The Gross Sisters, courtesy of the Wellfleet Historical Society
The Gross Sisters, courtesy of the Wellfleet Historical Society

Today the ponds are used for recreation: swimming, boating, fishing, and skating.  In the 19th century they were an important source of income. Alewives, a type of herring, and blue-back herring travel up the Herring River to Herring, Williams, Higgins, and Gull Ponds to spawn and the young fish spend the summer in the fresh water. The Cape is very flat so that it is an easy trip for the herring, so different from the salmon one remembers in school films, who have to struggle pitifully up rocky streams. There is said to be evidence that the sluice-way between Gull and Higgins Ponds was dug by Native Americans about 600 years ago. The channel is very shallow between the two ponds and fish are easy marks for sea gulls and other predators.  In the late 1900s the Herring River was leased to the highest bidder for the season, with the understanding that each of the town’s families were allowed 200 fish at a half penny each.[1] The fish would be cured and stored for the year. Those fish that were not netted, would travel into the bay and lure great schools of striped bass and blue fish. The numbers of herring have greatly diminished since the 19th century, in large part because of a dyke built to control saltwater mosquitoes. There are plans for the dyke to be demolished and for the restoration of the Herring River.

The ponds were also a source of ice for the town’s residents and for the packing of fish and shellfish for shipment to Boston and elsewhere. Ice Houses were located just by the ponds and with salt hay used as an insulator, ice could be cut and kept through the warm months.

Photographs of late 19th and early 20th century Wellfleet tourists invariably show swimmers enjoying the bay and not the ponds. The perceived curative powers of sea bathing were a reason.  The ponds, with all the woods and shade, were also known as very buggy. So insect-ridden that Jack Phillips, an early resident of the Wellfleet woods, was warned by relatives not to accept the gift of a family friend of hundreds of acres of wood and pond land. He, smartly, ignored their advice and made a living by selling parcels of land to people and ultimately the National Seashore. The earliest seasonal cottages on the ponds were mostly used as cabins for fishing and hunting. It was not until after WWII that the woods became popular for vacation houses and for freshwater swimming.

  Yellow Water Lily, Spectacle Pond, photo Michael Miller
Yellow Water Lily, Spectacle Pond, photo Michael Miller

Next to Thoreau, Edmund Wilson is the most famous literary figure associated with the Wellfleet ponds. From Michael McDonald in “The Admirable Minotaur of Money Hill”[2] we hear of  Edmund Wilson in Gull Pond doing the crawl with one arm, what Wilson called the “one arm treadle.”  This August we’ve seen (image attached) the beautiful yellow water-lily buds that Wilson likened to to the yolks of hard-boiled eggs in his diary entry for June 7, 1949 at Spectacle, his favorite pond.[3] The diaries are full of wonderful passages about the ponds and plants, particularly flowering plants.

Houses within the park range from the 18th century to 1961, when the National Seashore was founded. No new houses have been allowed since 1961, though many existing ones have been greatly enlarged. The Samuel Rider House, no longer open to the public, on Gull Pond Road is a mid 18th century Cape Cod cottage and is clearly visible from the road. Architectural style and time range can be seen at Williams Pond which has both Marcel Breuer’s summer house built in 1948-49 and the Cape Cod cottage of John Newcomb whom Thoreau visited one hundred years earlier in 1849. The Cape Cod House Trust has a worthwhile website which discusses the Cape Cod work of Breuer, Serge Chermayeff, Olav Hammerstrom and other modern architects. An appealing feature of many of the modern houses is that they blend so well with the woods.

Trees at Long Pond, photo Lucas Miller
Trees at Long Pond, photo Lucas Miller

Jurisdiction over the ponds is difficult to grasp and the relationships between the federal, state, and local governments and private owners are often acrimonious. Great ponds, those over ten acres, are owned by the state and the public must be given access. This is, of course, an annoyance to the property owners on the ponds. The town maintains landings (Wellfleet collected about a quarter of a million dollars in beach sticker fees in 2004) as the Commonwealth passed along the authority. At the smaller and more remote ponds, parking areas and paths are the National Seashore’s.

Access to natural patrimony, water quality and quantity, erosion,  private property rights, the enlargement of cabins to hotel-sized structures, septic trouble, elevated mercury levels (from fossil fuels in the atmosphere), and fish mortality are issues accelerating in gravity and which require concerted efforts.

[1] Earle Rich, More Cape Cod Echoes, Salt Meadow Publishers, Orleans, 1978, pp. 36-38.

[2] Edmund Wilson: Centennial Recollections, ed. by Lewis Dabney, Princeton Univ. Press, 1997, p. 160.

[3] Wilson: The Forties, ed. by Leon Edel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY 1983, p. 308.

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