Sandy Neck in Barnstable MA...Where Time Didn't Stop, But Sure Slowed Down
Among my very earliest childhood recollections were summer vacations with my family at our camp on Sandy Neck in Barnstable MA on Cape Cod. Probably most of you recognize Cape Cod as the arm-like extension of the southeastern portion of Massachusetts that forms Cape Cod Bay.
Sandy Neck in Barnstable MA is an unusual sandy peninsula created by wave action about 4,000 years ago and forms an important barrier system that protects Barnstable Harbor and the marsh ecosystems. Sandy Neck is a little over six miles long and in places, a half mile wide.
Clustered at the southeastern portion of the peninsula is a village of summer cottages and camps built by mostly average people who had found this paradise and longed for a piece of it. Although there are a few scattered cottages in the marsh, almost all the cottages can be found in this cluster.
The lighthouse, originally built in 1826, occupies the most eastern part of the cluster. The adjacent dwelling, the lighthouse keeper's home is a 6 room Queen Anne Victorian. Through various iterations and numerous lighthouse keepers, the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1931. Shifting sands had caused the "point" to move toward the East and the original lighthouse, lit by whale oil, was replaced by a mechanical steel structure. The house was the only residence I remember on Sandy Neck that had a basement, and because of that, could have carpet on the floors. In 1933 the lighthouse and home was auctioned for $711 with 1.93 acres of land and is now privately owned . A really good history of this landmark has been written by Jeremy D'Entremont.
By the early 1920's, there were a couple of dozen cottages/camps erected on Sandy Neck near the lighthouse. By 1965, no more building was permitted. Sandy Neck had become a refuge for the Piping Plover and Diamondback Terrapin Turtles, now declared threatened species. Vehicle access was limited and access to the park was administered by the Town of Barnstable. This, of course, created some tension between the residents, who had claimed their stake long ago and the new park rangers. No one was going to start telling the "Neckers" what they could and could not do.
Access to the village could be had in one of two ways. You could travel across Barnstable Harbor by boat, a trip that could run about 20 minutes, or drive across the back beach and dune trails by beach buggy, where the trip could take at least an hour, depending on how many times you got stuck in the process.We would drive our family car some three hours from the Worcester, MA area to Barnstable, then transfer everything and everyone to our beach buggy we kept at a friends gas station. We would then drive a couple of miles to Sandy Neck Road, let most of the air out of the oversize balloon tires, and proceed down the sandy beach "road."
I wish I could put a time stamp on when my father built our cottage, but I can't, as my recollection only goes back to the '50's. I'm not sure when my father discovered this little paradise and when he decided to build, but I do know he discussed the prospects with his mother and borrowed $200 from her for the building materials.
All of the lumber was brought across by boat from Barnstable Harbor and hauled by hand some three hundred feet across the sand from Front Beach to his plot. There was no electricity, so all these cottages were built entirely by hand, each piece of lumber painstakingly hand sawn and erected piece by piece with determination driven by love of this special place.
By this time, since you know there is no electricity, you are probably wondering about other amenities in this seemingly desolate place. Well, there was no running water, and if you read my blog yesterday, you know we had to drive sand point wells to a depth that would produce water...fresh water. All of the Cape, because of the natural sandy composition of the land, depends on the delicate balance of fresh water staying above the water table salt water that surround the entire land mass of the Cape. The principle of "perched" water, staying above and pushing down on the lower salt water, is called a "lens," and there is always a concern to avoid over-drawing the fresh water supply and allowing the salt water table to rise to a level where no water source will remain potable.
To draw water, we relied on antique "pitcher pumps" to pull water from the depth of the well point. In the Spring, after a long Winter of being vacant, we had to "prime" the pump by pouring water back down into the well, and lubricate the "leathers" (plumbing washers) that would eventually create enough suction to entice fresh water, some twenty feet or so below grade to flow from our hand pumps at the Kitchen sink. Of course, if you needed hot water, you pumped up what you needed and heated it on the gas stove. Foods that we hauled across by beach buggy that needed to be kept cold were refrigerated in the gas refrigerater. My father and I hauled bottled propane tanks across a couple of times a year to provide fuel for the camp.
In the evenings, we gathered as a family to play board games or cards at the dinner table under the light of kerosene lamps scattered throughout our 4 room camp. We all learned how to trim the wicks of the lamp to produce the best light and cleaned the glass chimneys when they smoked up. Even today, the smell of kerosene lamp oil brings a special comfort to me when the power goes out, and reminds me of the simpler and happier time of my childhood.
By now you are probably also wondering about the bathroom facilities. Well, we all had something known as an outhouse, which was a moveable structure that...well I guess most of you remember the Mash series of the seventies. Oh you don't? Eventually by chemical means, we all found ways to avoid moving the outhouses and could build semi-permanent structures.
Were we cut off from communication with the rest of the world?
I guess the answer, by today's standards, is yes. When I was really young, there was no phone, at least in the sense you and I take for granted. My father worked for New England Telephone & Telegraph, aka the Phone Company. He "appropriated" enough of the old hand-crank wood box telephones and enough wire to connect just about all of the cottages in the community, laid all the wire through the sand and installed all the phones. We all knew our individual phone numbers by the number of rings produced by cranking the old phones. One ring might have been Lockie Crocker, or two rings might have been the Kittridges, Crowells three, and so on. At some point during my lifetime, a trans-harbor cable was laid and brought a modicum of convenience to the cottages out on Sandy Neck. Did it really make life better for us? In retrospect, I don't really think so. It just added another layer of the complication of life I think we were all trying to avoid.
In the early days, all the residents of the Sandy Neck community were squatters, building here and there without the regulation of Building Permits and Inspections. We all knew if we built our cottages tough enough to withstand the constant beating and extreme weather conditions inflicted by the coastal winds and extreme seasonal high tides, our cottage would probably still be there in the Spring. Most of the camps were built on cement block piers, and ours was no exception. Eventually, the Town of Barnstable gave everyone deeds to their plots so tax dollars could be collected.
Our neighbors in the community were all "characters" by some measure.There was a State Senator (unnamed) who built his home on Front Beach. His neighbor, Dutch Holland swam EVERY morning, regardless of the weather with a cigar in his mouth. There was Herbie Lovell, lobsterman, who enjoyed taking the kids in this community out at O'Dark Thirty in the morning out to haul lobster pots and share a special piece of his lobsterman's life. There was Margaret Rourke whose special mission was to teach all the kids how to persuade a small watercraft to move under the power of sail.
Food on the "Neck" was abundant. You could dig clams on Front Beach, find quahogs with your feet squishing through the mud in the mud flats toward the marsh, and surf cast for stripers off Back Beach. Beach plums were there for the picking as well as wild blueberries from the marsh, if you could ward off the mosquitoes and avoid the poison ivy. Sea clams could be found all over Back Beach and mussels had not yet been declared a delicacy. With a boat, you could easily fill a cooler with flounder or mackerel in a couple of hours by navigating out to the red nun or green bell buoys following the channel into Cape Cod Bay. When the bluefish were running, hold on tight and enjoy the fun!
We had traditions there, like the Labor Day bonfire. Everyone would gather out at the "Bowl," a natural basin formed by the dunes, and sing along to guitar, harmonica and jews harp played by our neighbors and watch the fire burn down slowly to embers. By Midnight, we would all file slowly home, after an evening of fun and sharing, and look forward to gathering the scrap wood for the bonfire next year.
My folks sold the old cottage in the early '70s. My two siblings and I were heart-broken at the loss, but we could understand our parent's motivation. Unfortunately, my siblings and I were not in a financial position ourselves to hold onto this paradise. My parents sold the cottage to a Lawyer and a Realtor from New York City, who believed they could make a fortune on the property. Sadly for them, by that time, there were too many restrictions on the deeded land, and ultimately, they sold the property. One or two conveyances later, my friend, next door neighbor, well driving compadre, clam digging, quahog gathering, blueberry picking, snake and terrapin catching, getting-stuck-in the sand while surf casting, learning how to pilot a watercraft, learning how to play a guitar, learning just about everything in life that is important, Doug, bought our old cottage and proceeded to add his own personal touches to the place. I am happy to see it owned and cared for by a great childhood friend.
Sandy Neck in Barnstable MA is indeed a place where time didn't stop, but surely slowed down. Below I have included a few random photos from my last visit on Labor Day a couple of years ago. Hope you have enjoyed this stroll down Memory Lane!
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