On February 2, 1833, fifty three residents of South Wellfleet met and formed themselves as the Second Congregational Society of Wellfleet. Charles F. Cole’s, “History of Colonial Hall, Wellfleet, Mass.” describes this process of forming the church organization with more detail that the other histories of Wellfleet contain. However, he does not cite his sources, nor have I been able to find papers of the Second Congregational Society at the Congregational Church Library on Beacon Street in Boston. Coles’ description is the best we have, along with a few pages in the Cole Family history at the Wellfleet Public Library. Coles’ description of the church building as “Colonial Hall” came much later in the building’s history, after its abandonment as a church, and its move to the center of town.
In a second meeting on February 19,1833, the formative members of the Second Congregational Society passed four resolutions: first, that it was expedient that a Meeting House be built in the south part of Wellfleet; second, that a sum of fifteen hundred dollars be raised to build it; third, that the sum be divided into sixty shares of $25.00 each, and that no one person shall take more than two shares; and, fourth, that a Committee of seven be chosen to superintend the building of the Meeting House.
That Committee was: Reuben Arey, Esq., John Newcomb, Theodore Tarlton, Nathan Y. Paine, Richard Arey, John K. Higgins, and Elkanah W. Stubbs. All of these men, except Tarlton, are in the 1830 and 1840 Federal Census.
Wellfleet’s population grew nearly sixty percent between 1820 and 1840. No doubt this population growth spurred the movement of the South Wellfleet residents to have their own church. In the 1720s, when the process of requesting a separate Meeting House began in Wellfleet, several residents in the south part of Billingsgate chose to object, and were allowed to stay as part of the Eastham church. The establishment of the Wellfleet Meeting House – which became the First Congregational Church — led eventually to the establishment of Wellfleet as a separate town.
Erecting a Meeting House gave further definition to South Wellfleet as a distinct part of town. The term “Meeting House” originally meant the structure owned by the town that served primarily as a place of worship, but also as a setting for town meetings, social gatherings, and legal proceedings. A white meetinghouse in the center of a village is an enduring symbol of early New England.
As the 19th century unfolded, support for the Meeting House became voluntary through the members rather than a compulsory tax paid by all the residents of a town, as “separation of church and state” became more practiced. Some of the extreme forms of Sabbath regulation began to be abandoned, including stopping travel on that day. Attending Sunday services was the norm, and those that chose not to may have risked being thought “ungodly” by the members of the community. By the 1900s there was a growth in denominations beyond the Congregationalist mainstream, and rural New Englanders began to worship as Methodists, Universalists, Episcopalians and Baptists. If there were a few Roman Catholics, they may have met for Mass in private homes.
The use of the word “Sunday” became more popular in the early part of the nineteenth century, replacing the word “Sabbath” to denote the day. The observance played an important role in day-to-day life of the community with preparations on Saturday to limit the amount of work done on Sunday while people attended long services in both the morning and afternoon. If the minister was popular and preached good sermons, all the better.
In his booklet, Mr. Cole describes the thrifty way in which the lumber to build the church may have arrived in South Wellfleet. With the great number of fishing vessels owned by Wellfleet men, someone probably went to Maine and chose perfect building material, first growth timber that would have been sawed and seasoned, and then transported to Wellfleet in his ship, free of charge. While there is no record for the South Wellfleet church, this is how the Pond Hill School house was erected, with wood brought from Maine by Captain Nathan Y. Paine in his schooner.
By December 3, 1834 the Congregational Society was officially organized in their new building, with 42 members withdrawing from the First Church. While no list of original members has been found, in 1883, in an article in the Barnstable Patriot noting the church’s fiftieth anniversary, Mrs. Isaiah Barker, Ephraim Stubbs, and David Wiley are listed as the three still living originals.
There is a collection of Arey family documents at the Wellfleet Historical Society, donated fairly recently. One is a list of members with “principal” ” and “interest” earned, titled “Settlement Earned on the 2nd Congregational Meeting House.” The document is not dated, and some listed show no “principal” —making the document somewhat mysterious. The amount invested is $24, making it seem to be a list of some of the Church shares. A second document is a listing of amounts to be collected from parishioners, again, no date. Interestingly, the amounts due are referred to as “parish tax” as the old ways of taxation for religion are held onto.
The church faced east, and the County Road, built in the 1850s, was just a few feet from its door. In Mr. Cole’s booklet, he describes the church as having one entrance with a vestibule and windows later converted to doors. There was no heat until 1836 when a stove was put in, the partition between the vestibule and auditorium was taken down, and the two windows converted to doors. He describes three galleries, the one for the choir opposite the pulpit. He writes, “In 1840 the Society voted that the seats in the North Gallery be finished into pews with doors, and the South Gallery the same without doors; and that the South Gallery pews were not to be sold but free.”
Seventeen more people joined the Society in 1838, making a total of 86 as of that time. A resolution passed on March 20 that year to raise $65.00 to purchase the land around the House. The earliest grave in the cemetery in the church yard is dated 1773. Several graves are dated prior to the Church’s establishment; the notes on them indicate they were moved from Paine Hollow.
Thanks to Charles Cole, we have a second document, available at the Wellfleet Public Library a lengthy set of notes his family prepared. He discusses the South Wellfleet Church on several pages, noting that “each family owned its pew and had a deed of it.” To raise money for current expenses, members were canvassed in the fall after the fishing season was over and money was plentiful, as to the amount he would tithe for the coming year. Again, Mr. Cole references parish records, but their whereabouts today must be discovered.
In the family notes, Mr. Cole describes a Christmas celebration at the church where John Cheever, a large man, played Santa Claus. As he distributed the presents, he would make up a rhyme, such as “Here’s for the baby without a name, that belongs to Alvin and Elisa Paine.” Mr. Cheever’s house was located near the present Old Wharf Road, as it winds its way to the Bay. His neighbors, the Barkers, gave his name to their third son, Lewis Cheever Barker.
A January 1865, article in the Barnstable Patriot notes a happy celebration at the church the last week of December, 1864, when two cedar trees were erected as Christmas trees and laden with gifts. Besides the retiring superintendent of the Sunday School who received a life membership in the American Seamen’s Friend Society, the article notes that the pastor, Reverend G.F. Walker, and his family were also “handsomely remembered in gifts and money in the amount upwards of fifty dollars.” Another member of the community, who had been ill, received a “purse of forty dollars.”
Pratt noted in his history that the Church had no ordained pastor until May 6, 1842, and then were served by Reverends Timothy Davis, John Orcutt, Enoch Pratt, S. Hardy, and Wooster Willey. In Pratt’s 1844 book, the church members numbered 160.
In a notice in the October 1872 Barnstable Patriot, posted by Alvin Paine,the reader is warned not to buy a Mas & Hamlin Metropolitan, as it had been stolen from the Church.
The 1884 Hurd history notes that the Church built a new pulpit and made other internal improvements.
It’s not definite when the “Parsonage” was built near the Church. The records of the home, still standing on Cemetery Road, note the Greek Revival style home was built in the mid-1800s. It was sold as a private home in 1902.
A Reverend Joshua S. Gay served the church until 1891 when he was stricken with a stroke and retired. He may have been the last regular minister.
It’s not possible to establish the exact year when the Church began to dissolve, as the population of Wellfleet declined along with the fishing. One source said 1885, but another report had the Reverend Mr. Gay serving his congregation to 1891. Another source said that the congregation met at the Pond Hill School, then called the Social Union.
Mr. Cole’s booklet notes that the Church building was sold for $150.00 to Harry B. Swett, trustee for the Daughters of the American Revolution, in 1913. The funds were used to fence the burying ground with granite posts and an iron railing. The sale agreement provided that the church be moved to Wellfleet, repaired, and used as a Memorial Hall, also called “Colonial Hall.” In 1919, it was moved “to its present site” which we can presume is where the Town Hall is now, but the site is not specified.
Until 1940, the building stood in a partially finished condition, and needed to either be repaired or torn down. A group of interested Summer residents started a fund to restore it and make it available for Town Offices. At a Special Town Meeting in November, 1940, the Town voted to take possession of the land and building by eminent domain proceedings due to flaws on the title. In February, 1941, at the Annual Town Meeting, a committee who had surveyed the site reported the building was in sound condition, and the meeting appropriated additional funds to be added to the funds raised privately for the restoration of the building to house the Town Offices.
The building was totally destroyed in March 1960 when it burned to the ground during a blizzard. It was quite an exciting event for the Town, but, luckily, the tax records were saved, along with the bills that were ready to put in the mail. The new Town Hall, meant to replicate the old one, is a slightly larger.
Massachusetts Historical Commission, forms listing Wellfleet’s historic structures, No 77, available at the Wellfleet Historical Society
Hurd, Simeon D. Hamilton “Wellfleet Mass.” From History of Plymouth, 1884 online at http://history.rays-place.com/ma/wellfleet.htm
Freeman, Frederick. The History of Cape Cod: The Annals of The Thirteen Towns of Barnstable County, (two volumes), W.H. Piper & Co., Boston. 1869. Wellfleet chapter on line at www.capecodhistory.net
Barnstable Patriot (various) online archive: www.sturgislibrary.org
“The Notes of Charles F. Cole” manuscript from the Wellfleet Public Library
Cape Cod gravestones listings: www.capecodgravestones.com/swell.html
The Cape Codder March 3, 2000, page 3
Charles F. Cole “History of Colonial Hall, ,Wellfleet, Massachusetts” The Wellfleet Association, 1941. Available at the Sturgis Library.
E-News “Mass Moments” piece on Meeting houses in New England
Arey Family Papers at Wellfleet Historical Society
Old Sturbridge Village website: www.osv.org