Russ Allen: Harwich's Hidden History

All over Harwich – based on the pictures I took this past week – there are over 70 of them. Some are easily visible – many are barely noticeable by people driving by – most cannot be read except by pulling off the road and getting out of a car. There is a collection of them in front of the Harwich Police and Fire Departments’ headquarters buildings, and the most recognized one is located near the Route 39-Old Queen Anne Road roundabout. An emotion-evoking set is located near Saquatucket Harbor while the most humorous one sits beside a parking lot. Several are surrounded by plants and well-tended lawns, with American flags beside them. Had it not been for that flag I would have missed one.

What am I discussing? Monuments located around Harwich that speak of its history and those who went before. Some are carved stones but most are bronze plaques attached to boulders. Many are on benches donated to the town, while others rest at the base of trees. The largest was a source of controversy at its installation, mirroring the large issues that led to the demolition of a building that once stood on the same site. One was privately given by the friends and family of a young man killed in an automobile-motorcycle accident that many believe (and others dispute) led to changes in the intersection where it occurred.

Based on research that probably missed some, 12 mark “Memorial Squares” named in honor of important figures in Harwich’s history. These plaques on small stones can be easily missed, especially the one on the triangle in the midst of the Route 28-Sisson Road busy intersection.

At least six identify memorial trees, mostly in Brooks Park, though I understand that there are also some behind the Harwich Elementary School.

Fifteen benches with plagues remember individual in various locations including the Harwich Community Center and on the Cape Cod Rail Trail. I am sure there are others of which I am not aware.

There are several stones commemorating the establishment of Doane Park in 1911 and recognizing persons and groups involved in its design, landscaping and upkeep.

At least four honor those who fought in our nation’s wars from World War I through the Vietnam conflict.

Seven remember personnel associated with the Harwich Police and Fire Departments, as well as those who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Four bear the names of the town’s sport fields, and of the persons who are memorialized there.

The largest, known by some as “The Block,” is a stone sculpture of the former Exchange Building that stood next to the current Snow’s and Masonic Temple. The decisions to demolish that structure and to create this memorial were both controversial, and many may be unaware that the dedication plaque in the Harwich Community Center refers to that newer building by the same name.

There are some 13 that are informational, such as that designating the Charles D. Holmes Memorial Forest that many who have driven on Depot Street may never notice.

The one that evoked a chuckle when I visited its location on the edge of an antique store’s parking lot near the same Route 28-Sisson Road intersection reads: “THIS PLACE SHALL EVER BE KNOWN AS SISSON’S CORNER. RANDOLPH H. SISSON.”

On the other hand, the most touching is the multi-stone and bench “IN MEMORY OF OUR HARBOR’S SAILORS WHO HAVE CROSSED THE BAR” located at Saquatucket Harbor.

This list, which only scratches the surface, is intended to introduce a topic to which I hope to devote the next couple of Discovering Harwich monthly columns. While I am an academically trained historian, over the past three years I have rarely devoted this opportunity to the history of Harwich, preferring to focus on its present and future. However, the existence of this wealth of monuments to the town’s past and its people prompted me to revise that approach in order to uncover the Hidden History of Harwich and to explore what our past has to say about who we are today as residents of Harwich, and in what direction our town should be heading.

Who, then, are the people memorialized in over 70 monuments and plaques spread out across the town of Harwich? Why were they so important that they deserved this recognition? What is their message to its residents today? How can we make these symbols of our past more visible and relevant to today’s and tomorrow’s Harwich?

For answers, I need your help. There are probably 100 or more individuals represented by these monuments, them, and my immediate task is to learn whatever I can about them. To help me with that task, I am asking any reader who may be familiar with a person or persons named on these monuments to contact me at russallen@capecodchronicle.com. The information I receive, along with my own continuing research, will become the content of my Discovering Harwich columns for the next few months.

In closing, I want to thank Colin Leonard and the members of the Harwich Old Times Facebook group for their invaluable help in locating the monuments discussed in this column.