John's Seacoast NH Real Estate Blog


Sandy Neck in Barnstable MA...Where Time Didn't Stop, But Sure Slowed Down

Sandy Neck in Barnstable MA...Where Time Didn't Stop, But Sure Slowed Down

Among my very earliest childhood recollections were Map 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.

MapClustered 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 Lighthousemost 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 Photobuilt 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.

Pitcher Pump & SinkTo 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 Antique Telephoneof 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.




Sandy Neck Village

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!
Sand Dune
Sand Dunes
Water Boats
People Around Bonfire
Water Cottages
Beach Sand Water
Boat Water

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Comment balloon 26 commentsJohn McCarthy • May 22 2011 11:15AM


John, what a great walk down memory lane!     Sandy Neck sounds like a piece of heaven, and definitely a piece of your past that will always bring a smile.   Too bad this property is not in your family anymore, but nice to visit and remember some great childhood times!   Thanks for sharing!

Posted by Joan Cox, Denver Real Estate - Selling One Home at a Time (House to Home, Inc. - Denver Real Estate - 720-231-6373) about 9 years ago

John, what a wonderful story! I so enjoyed the memories you shared. The crank up phone is much like the one that my Grandma and Grandpa used. Oh, and the bonfire! - so many memories stirred up. Thank you!

Posted by Maria Morton, Kansas City Real Estate 816-560-3758 (Platinum Realty) about 9 years ago

Joan - I always keep an eye out in case other cottages may be for sale. As I inducated, no more building is permitted. And of course, the invitation for a return visit is always open.

Hi Maria - That was my hope - to stir up memories for everyone out there! If there are special places in your life, please write about them and share them here!

Posted by John McCarthy, Realtor - Seacoast NH (Bean Group Portsmouth NH) about 9 years ago

John, oh how wonderful! Sorry your place was sold. I have memories of the Cape as a child, my grandparents lived in West Harwich. Nothing like your memories however. I visit a friend on Martha's Vineyard who has a place on Chappy, in the Cape Poge Light House Preserve. No electricity, no roads in, only the beach, it is fantastic!

Hope you find a place for sale, then you can have us all up!!!! And thanks for taking me along on a trip down your Memory Lane. I so enjoyed myself.

Posted by Andrea Swiedler, Realtor, Southern Litchfield County CT (Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices New England Properties) about 9 years ago

Hi Andrea - West Harwich is a very nice town. In fact, Chris and I stayed at the Claddagh Inn on Main Street for a couple of nights to attend a wedding before we went over to Sandy Neck on this trip. I haven't been to Chappaquiddick, but I know it is beautiful. BTW, you are always welcome to visit. Glad you liked the post!

Posted by John McCarthy, Realtor - Seacoast NH (Bean Group Portsmouth NH) about 9 years ago

Thanks for sharing your wonderful family memories and beautiful photographs. When I was young, my father and some of his friends owned a cottage at Duck, NC and it was always a summertime destination. 

 Blooming for you!

Posted by Roy Kelley (Realty Group Referrals) about 9 years ago

When I ride the Harley with Rick and we are riding around the beaches I often daydream of how wonderful it would be to be fortunate enough to have a parent or grandparent who had gotten property back in the day.  God knows we couldn't afford it today.  Rick's Uncle owned an old place on Plum Island and we visited many times as teens.  It was sold years ago.

Reading your story I was so happy that you had lived my dream, but then I was sad to hear it was sold.  What a terrible loss that must have been at the time.  It's cool that you have access to it now, at least it's a friend that owns it.  


Posted by Sharon Tara, New Hampshire Home Stager (Sharon Tara Transformations) about 9 years ago

Roy - I have heard of Duck. I remember it is a surfer's paradise and the fishing is very good. That must have been a great place to vacation in your youth.

Sharon - Although my father built this cottage, a few years later his brother Charles offered to donate some furniture and my father in exchange included him on the deed. Sandy Neck was a place you either loved passionately or hated. Sand was everywhere, on the floors and in your bed. My mother was never a fan because she always felt it was her job to clean up. Charles' wife Ruth eventually had rheumatoid arthritis so badly they could not use the camp and it seemed inevitable my folks would would sell it. Ownership on Sandy Neck meant you were willing to participate in the struggle to hold onto your dream against all the forces trying to take it away. The elements took their tolls on the roofs and shingles, anything painted needed paint every year. The wind would sand blast the windows and the tides threatened to undermine your cottage. The Town and park regulations become more difficult to deal with each passing year. Every property owner there is willing to fight the fight to fiercely hold onto his home. You are right though, our cottage is in good hands and we can visit anytime.

Posted by John McCarthy, Realtor - Seacoast NH (Bean Group Portsmouth NH) about 9 years ago

John, what a great trip down Memory Lane. I have been to Cape Cod many years ago and was instantly in love with it. The grayish ocean and the ruggedness of the land speaks of people who are not afraid to take on any challenge. It is not a Caribbean paradise, but more like "I challenge you to survive here" place. I'm glad to hear your childhood vacation home is in good hands of your friend.

Posted by Elizabeth Byrne, Arlington Virginia Real Estate (Keller Williams Realty) about 9 years ago

Hi Elizabeth - So glad you came by! There is something very special about the Cape Cod standard of gray weathered shingles. The shingles lasted maybe 10 years before they needed replacement. As I mentioned, my father worked for the phone company and could take around 8 weeks vacation the last few years, so we spent a lot of time there. Back to the struggle part, these photos below were taken New Years Day 2010. I knew exraordinarily high tides were predicted and contacted my friends who sent these back. This one was close to a disaster.
Houses and Flooding
Cottage Flood

Posted by John McCarthy, Realtor - Seacoast NH (Bean Group Portsmouth NH) about 9 years ago do an amazing job with these posts.....well done!
Hope you had a great day!!!---Rob

Posted by Rob Thomas, Bristol TN-VA & Tri Cities Agent, ABR, GRI, e-Pro (Prestige Homes of The Tri Cities, Inc. CALL....423-341-6954) about 9 years ago


Your post reads like a feature story in a Yankee Magazine. You've done a great job documenting your family history. It's a beautiful story and lots of good memories too. I felt like I was part of the story. You must have lots of good memories - that's something nobody can ever take away from you. If you're ever in Cataumet, look up the Labyrinth. It's a B&B and it's owned by one of my best friends Denise.

I enjoyed the photos and your story. It read like a good book.


Posted by Patricia Feager, MBA, CRS, GRI,MRP, Selling Homes Changing Lives (DFW FINE PROPERTIES) about 9 years ago

Hi Rob - Thank you for your kind words! I love reaching back and finding old memories. Hope you share some of yours!

Patricia - This one was special. Sandy Neck was a terrific place to grow up, even if it was time spent through family vacations. I know just where Cataumet is located and promise to look up the Labyrinth. Thank you for stopping by!

Posted by John McCarthy, Realtor - Seacoast NH (Bean Group Portsmouth NH) about 9 years ago

Good morning John;  Excellent information about a beautiful place.  BTW;  my cousin was a cop in Barnstable county, and he started the K-9 service around 1960-62 or so.  I was there, visiting,  while on active duty in the Navy, 1963 and again with family in '69.  Love to visit again.

Posted by Kenneth Cole, NYS Licensed Real Estate Salesperson (Weichert Realtors Appleseed Group, 2043 Richmond Ave. S.I.N.Y. 10314. office phone 718-698-9797, -) about 9 years ago

It looks like a great place to unwind! 

Posted by Robert Rauf (HomeBridge Financial Services (NJ)) about 9 years ago

Kenneth - It really is a beautiful place. The photos don't do it justice. I'm glad you had a chance to visit there. Funny how small the world can get sometimes with your cousin in Barnstable Cty. Maybe you will make it back again sometime. Staten Island isn't all that far away!

Robert - With the exception of landline phones, there are no "modern" conveniences. Good place to strengthen family bonds. Your area of the country is also very nice. I lived in Holmdel and Marlboro for about a dozen years from '83 to '95. I just can't get too far from the ocean.

Posted by John McCarthy, Realtor - Seacoast NH (Bean Group Portsmouth NH) about 9 years ago

I cant be too far from the water myself.. I was out sailing last night .. Its a great area to live.

Posted by Robert Rauf (HomeBridge Financial Services (NJ)) about 9 years ago

Robert - I agree. There is so much to do, including sailing. Have an awesome day!

Posted by John McCarthy, Realtor - Seacoast NH (Bean Group Portsmouth NH) about 9 years ago


If you get to the Labyrinth B&B and see my friend Denise, mention the telephones that you reference in your post to her. When I worked at Wyonegonic Camps in Maine, I worked in the office and Denise was the Camp Nurse. Whenever a child got sick or hurt, she'd ring the office with her long, long, short, long, long long ring! I remember it well!!!

Once again, your family history is unique and should not be forgotten. You have a very special past.


Posted by Patricia Feager, MBA, CRS, GRI,MRP, Selling Homes Changing Lives (DFW FINE PROPERTIES) about 9 years ago

Patricia - You surely have some precious memories too! The old crank phones was the beginning of "party" lines, where a lot of people shared the same copper wire line and phone privacy was based on the honor system. Contrast that with the total lack of privacy most people have when talking on their cell phones in public. These are just signs of times gone by. Hope someday to meet Denise at the Labyrinth and I will certainly remind her of the rings at Wynegonic Camps! Thank you for all your precious comments!

Posted by John McCarthy, Realtor - Seacoast NH (Bean Group Portsmouth NH) about 9 years ago

Hi John

   Great article....remember the Nourse Girls, Kathy, Doreen and Cheryl?

Posted by Kathy Nourse Hirtle almost 9 years ago

Hi Kathy - I sure do, and your mother & father as well! Certainly hope all is well with you. We ran into Cheryl on our last trip and seems like things are going well for her. And you and Doreen? My Chris and I live along the Seacoast in North Hampton, NH and just love it here. I have a son Patrick, 32, and a daughter, Meredith, 25 who live near Worcester. Chris has a son, Eric, 31, who is a pilot for IFL and lives in Pompano Beach, FLA. We are looking forward to a visit to SN sometime in September. Hope to see you!

Posted by John McCarthy, Realtor - Seacoast NH (Bean Group Portsmouth NH) almost 9 years ago
Hi John, My great uncle was Dutch Holland. Definitely a character and I have great memories of his cottage and the Neck. I visited by both boat and four wheeler, as well as on foot. Your pictures were great and I felt like I was there!
Posted by David Payne over 8 years ago
Hi John, My great uncle was Dutch Holland. Definitely a character and I have great memories of his cottage and the Neck. I visited by both boat and four wheeler, as well as on foot. Your pictures were great and I felt like I was there!
Posted by David Payne over 8 years ago
Hi John, My great uncle was Dutch Holland. Definitely a character and I have great memories of his cottage and the Neck. I visited by both boat and four wheeler, as well as on foot. Your pictures were great and I felt like I was there!
Posted by David Payne over 8 years ago

Hi David - Sandy Neck was a place of magic for all of us, and your great uncle, Dutch, was a prominent figure among the residents. All of us knew him and respected him. To this day, I have a very vivid mental image of him from over 40 years ago in washed out fluorescent orange swim trunks with the ever-present cigar. I love Sandy Neck and am so greatful for all the memories I have from that very special place. I am curious how you found this blog. Feel free to email me at Love to hear from you.

Posted by John McCarthy, Realtor - Seacoast NH (Bean Group Portsmouth NH) over 8 years ago