Prospect Hill, on the south side of Blackfish Creek, past the marsh on the road to the Old Wharf, became part of my family’s landscape in the early part of the 20th Century. In 1910, my great grandfather, John Edward Irvine, had the foresight to buy four adjoining house lots and “put up a cottage” as they used to say. In 1915, he built a second cottage. Since then, many other family members have been part of this lovely South Wellfleet spot.
I thought it might be a good idea to document what I’ve learned about our family’s arrival on Cape Cod, and when certain cottages and houses were added on Prospect Hill. If I had stuck with that plan, it might have taken just thirty minutes. Instead, spurred on by a newfound interest in family history research — thanks to the increasingly detailed information available online — I began to look back on two South Wellfleet families that played an especially prominent role in Prospect Hill’s history: the Areys and the Barkers.
This initial local family research led me to dig further into Wellfleet’s history, the development of the village of South Wellfleet, and to the lives of other families that lived there in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I’ve spent some time looking back even further to the 17th and 18th centuries, broadening my understanding of Cape Cod’s history. Add in the churches, the graveyard, the railroad’s arrival, the stores and post office, the Wharf, and most notably, the Marconi Wireless, and the project has grown far beyond my initial plan.
Thanks to Chet Lay, local professional land surveyor, I’ve learned how to understand the deeds posted on the Barnstable County data base. There is a treasure trove at the Wellfleet Historical Society. Neighbors have been helpful too, particularly Bill and Alice Iacuessa, Ed Ayres, Eric Eastman, and others whom I hope to meet. So far, I’m focused on the land south of Blackfish Creek and south to Lieutenant’s Island Road, but I hope to expand my historical vista to Lieutenant’s Island, Pleasant Point, Drummer’s Cove, and Cannon Hill across Blackfish Creek.
Now I’m interested in sharing this information, since blogging has come along. This new media allows me to share without the discipline of writing a book with extensive footnotes, although I will try to cite my sources. When a photo or other image is available, I’ll include it too, but not images that are copyrighted. I will also not give addresses of certain places so we can maintain the carefully crafted privacy of homeowners in the area.
The Barkers owned Prospect Hill beginning in 1866, when Isaiah and his son, George, purchased it from John Stubbs for $62.00. (I will be writing about the Barker family in future posts.)
George Washington Barker (1844-1917) had the property surveyed by Tully Crosby Jr., and laid out lots in the 1890s. This appears to be the first time the area is named “Prospect Hill.” Like his fellow Wellfleetians, he saw the opportunity to develop his land for summer cottages. His 1893 brochure sells the area as very desirable, mentioning the development of South Wellfleet as a resort, and the “push and energy” of the Cape Cod Land Company, which “owns much of the seashore property here”. That company was busy selling Lieutenant’s Island. He mentions the views of the Cape from shore to shore, from the broad Atlantic to the harbor on the bayside. There were few trees at this time, but Barker seemed to hope that the grassed-over soil of Prospect Hill would support the planting of trees. He notes that his house lots are larger than the Cape Cod Land Company’s, and offers them from $15 to $50 — for cash or monthly installments. Finally, he gives the directions on the Old Colony Railroad or via the Steamer Longfellow to Provincetown, and by train up to South Wellfleet where he will meet you at the station. He even tells the prospective buyer that the railroad fare will be $4.15 round trip.
George Barker was right there to take advantage of the changes in American society leading to the idea of resorts, vacations, summer homes, escaping the urban environment, and a new appreciation for the natural landscape. The Cape — and particularly Wellfleet — transitioned from a place where harvesting the marine environment was the prime source of economic sustenance into a place where vacation visitors contributed to a major portion of the local economy. The transition took a number of decades, as fishing diminished and the resort culture grew to support local people. This transition is played out in the history of the South Wellfleet families, with the loss of population as children grew up and moved to the mainland and beyond.
My great grandfather, John Edward Irvine, was a cabinet maker and sash-and-blind maker. He was born in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, the first son in a large family. By the 1870s, he had most of his brothers and sisters in his household in Melrose, Massachusetts. Married in the late 1870s, he and his wife lost three children early in their lives, and ended with just one, my grandmother Louise. When his wife died early in 1903, he spent some time in a mining town in South Dakota, but soon returned to the Boston area.
The Barnstable Patriot, in the 1890s and early 1900s, regularly ran a series of “notes” about who was coming and going in South Wellfleet. In September, 1893, the paper notes J.E. Irvine renting the Robinson cottage on the Old Wharf. There is no record of when his interest in Wellfleet developed or why he made his first trip here. His wife was ill for a number of years before she died, and perhaps he was looking for “sea air” to help her. Perhaps it reminded him of Mahone Bay, a seaside town in Nova Scotia. He was living in Everett, Massachusetts, at the time, and the Robinson family was from Lowell. There is no record of how Irvine came to find the rental.
The 1910 map of Wellfleet shows the property owners with four names in the vicinity of the “Old Wharf” as the area where the 19th Century South Wharf was located. Grandfather Irvine is noted as the only property owner on “Prospect Hill.”
Barnstable Patriot, available on line through the Sturgis Library site, www.sturgislibrary.org.
Barnstable County Mass. Index Map to the town of Wellfleet, available at www.ancestry.com U.S. Indexed County Land Ownership Maps, 1860-1918.
Barnstable County Deeds available at www.barnstablecountydeeds.org.
George W. Barker’s “Seashore Lots” brochure, March, 1893; cover illustration posted here.