Barnstable History

Many people think the Revolution began with the shot "heard 'round the world" fired in 1775 "at the rude bridge that arched the flood" in Concord.

Not so.

The seeds of the Revolution were sown 14 years earlier by a fiery West Barnstable patriot named James Otis. One of four representatives of Boston to the provincial General Court in 1761, Otis proposed a meeting of the representatives of all the colonies. This led to the Stamp Act Congress of 1765 which eliminated the taxes on stamps and other goods. John Adams credited Otis' plea to the General Court as "the spark by which the child Independence was born." Three years later, after the British retaliated with the Townshend Act, another attempt to tax the colonists, the colonial Assembly asked the British to rescind it. When the British demand that the Assembly rescind its plea, Otis again spoke up. "We are asked to rescind, are we?" asked Otis. "Let Great Britain rescind her measures, or the colonies are lost to her forever." Unfortunately Otis was not able to appreciate the fire that his spark ignited. The year after he spoke against the Townshend Act he was attacked by British revenue officers and received a head wound that caused him to lose his mind and 14 years later he was killed by lightning.

Why do we start our history of Barnstable with this story about John Otis? Because Barnstable is still the often turbulent center for politics on Cape Cod. It is the seat of Barnstable County's government, the home of the Cape Cod Commission and the Cape Cod Economic Development Council. And John Otis, though killed by a bolt of lightning, still has a stately presence, in bronze, proclaiming the need for liberty from the lawn in front of the Superior Court House. But, speaking of Barnstable's legacy of turbulent politics, regardless of Otis' fiery oratory promoting Independence, thanks to the opposing words of Judge Nymphas Marston, of the family for which Marstons Mills is named, Barnstable was the only town on Cape Cod that did not vote for independence in 1776.

Actually, Barnstable's history goes back more than a century before James Otis came upon its scene. Barnstable began early in 1639 when Parson Joseph Hull and his small flock, apparently not wanted in Weymouth, came to settle in the land just east of the boundaries of Sandwich. Then, in October, that same year, the Reverend John Lothrop arrived with a larger flock of Congregationalists. We don't hear much more about Hull and his flock but the Lothrop settlement immediately incorporated itself as the Town of Barnstable (named after Barnstaple, Devon, England). The original boundaries of Barnstable included an area called Saconesset, which, in 1686 became incorporated and in 1693 changed its name to Falmouth.

At first the young town of Barnstable was primarily a farming community. Then its residents branched out to include fishing and various trades into their economy. Shore whaling became big business with try-works on Sandy Neck and this is why pictures of Barnstable in those days show very few trees. Most of the native forest was cut down to provide firewood for the try-works. It is interesting to note that whaling is once again a major factor in Barnstable's economy. Now, however, the emphasis is not on killing whales but watching them from the big boat that leaves from Barnstable Harbor. [Picture on file]And the trees have grown back.

While the village of Barnstable remains the center of government for the county of Barnstable, the commercial center of the town gradually shifted to the village of Hyannis. Ironically, Hyannis grew commercially, not so much of itself but because Nantucket was the major shipping port for the area. To get Nantucket's trade to the mainland, the Old Colony Railroad built tracks to the nearest point to Nantucket which was the shore of Hyannis Harbor.

Hyannis is also the center of government for the town of Barnstable. The town offices moved from the old selectmen's office on Route 149 in West Barnstable to (now an art gallery) to a new Town Hall on Main Street, Hyannis. This building was outgrown during the 1970s and in 1979 the former Hyannis Normal School, which was renovated for use as the newest town hall. This beautiful three story brick building had served over the years since the Normal School was closed as the first home of Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the first home of Cape Cod Community College and the sixth grade school for the town of Barnstable. It now forms the backdrop for the Hyannis Village Green, a popular site for town celebrations and concerts. The Town Hall on Main Street is now the JFK Museum, a very popular site. Another popular site is the JFK Memorial off Ocean Street, overlooking Lewis Bay, where JFK's admonition that "It is important that this country not lie still in the harbor" is inscribed.

Many visitors who walk down the Main Street of Hyannis do not realize how close they are to the bustling waterfront of Hyannis Harbor. This fact is being remedied by the completion of Barnstable's Walkway to the Sea, a project of the town, the Hyannis Area Chamber of Commerce and the Hyannis Main Street Waterfront Association. The harbor is home to commercial fishing vessels, the Hy-Line boats and the Steamship Authority boats.

Each of the seven villages of Barnstable have their own character, mostly derived from their early histories. Cotuit is a village famed for Cotuit Oysters, a business started in 1857 by Captain William Childs, his son and two sons-in-law, to grow oysters in the purity and chemical content of Cotuit waters.

Marstons Mills is named after Ben Marston who, in 1738, took over the first fulling mill in America from Thomas Macy, the man who built it. Osterville, surrounded by water, is home to the Crosby boat yards and has become a beautiful residential area and a specialty shopping center.

Centerville is home to the great beaches that curve around Centerville Harbor and to Wequaquet Lake, the largest inland body of water on Cape Cod. It is also home to the Eastern College Athletic Conference, diagonally across South Main Street from the famous Four Seas Ice Cream parlor, now in its 63rd year.

Barnstable Cape Cod Contact Information

279 Orleans Road
North Chatham, MA 02650

Phone: (508) 945-6443
Fax: (508) 945-7837

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