Russ Allen: Harwich’s Hidden History 4.0

Opinion

A couple of weeks ago I posed a question to folks on my social media network: “What are the 20 most historically significant buildings and locations in the town of Harwich?”

Harwich has an historical society, an historic district and historical commission, a handful of addresses listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and at least two facilities specifically dedicated to its history. It has over 70 stone memorials and monuments celebrating people and places of significance in its past. Pictures and related information on 45 of them are on display for ArtWeek 2019 at the Harwich Cultural Center.

My goal in posing this question was not to obtain official answers from bodies whose stated purpose is to record and celebrate Harwich’s past. Rather, I was seeking nominations from average citizens of Harwich that could give an indication of their general knowledge of the town’s history.

Many replies were received—over 50. Since some were duplicates or did not fit the criteria, initial judgments shortened the list closer to the number set in the original request.

In the process it became apparent that the track record for historic preservation, as well as historical accuracy, is mixed at best. Most know the story of the demise of the Exchange Building in Harwich Center. Great effort and expense have gone into the restoration and repurposing of the South Harwich Methodist Church on Chatham Road, while the looming West Harwich Baptist Church shows increasing signs of neglect as does the nearby former youth center, the object of some contemporary preservation efforts. An historic structure in the Herring River, once targeted by neighbors for demolition, has now been repurposed for aquaculture uses.

Preservation projects are often met with varying responses. Repainting the Albro House in its original colors prompted some criticism, despite the attractiveness of the result, as did the effort, as reported in the Jan. 25, 2017, edition of The Cape Cod Chronicle, of the historic district and the historical commission to require “the 1855 bank building and 1880 Brooks building be restored with historically accurate colors, which include brown, gray, off-white and brick red” rather than with the bland white with which the Brooks Free Library was recently repainted.

Furthermore, debate continues over the historic preservation of the “great captains’ houses” on Route 28 in West Harwich and can be expected regarding proposals for significant upgrades to the Brooks Academy despite the fact that the building is closed to residents for a major part of the year.

Several buildings and one section of Harwich were nominated for inclusion in the Top 20 List due to the belief they are listed on the National Register of Historic Places: Captain James Berry House, 27 Main St., Harwich, Greek Revival architecture, built in 1858; Chase Library, 7 Route 28, West Harwich, Colonial Revival architecture, constructed in 1911; South Harwich Methodist Church, 270 Chatham Rd., East Harwich, nineteenth century Cape Cod architecture, built in 1836; Herring River Fish House, an early 1900s commercial fish house located in the Herring River; the aforementioned Albro House located next to town hall; the Sydney Brooks Home, next door to the Brooks Free Library; and the Harwich Historic District, an area of Harwich Center designated by an irregular pattern on both sides of Main St., west to Forest Street and east to the junction of Route 39 and Chatham Road.

It is interesting to note, however, that only the Captain James Berry House, South Harwich Methodist Church and the Harwich Historic District are actually listed on the National Register, according to its official and an unofficial website.

Among other popular nominees for the list: Brooks Academy at the intersection of Sisson Road and Parallel Street, built in 1844 housing the Harwich Historical Society; Crowell Barn Museum, originally opened in 1912 and recently renovated and relocated to the grounds of the Brooks Academy; Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas “Tip” O’Neill’s grave in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Harwich Port; Ocean Grove Campgrounds in Harwich Port, also referred to as The Campgrounds and The Grove; the Ice Plant and the Barrel Factory in South Harwich; Gershom Hall's Mill (later Ryder's Mill or the "Middle Mill”), the first mill in Harwich; Crowell's Bog off of Punkhorn Road, a dirt road opposite Long Pond on Route 124; Brooks Free Library in Harwich Center, as well as the Harwich Port Library on Bank Street; Pilgrim Congregational Church on Route 28 in Harwich Port; First Congregational Church in Harwich Center; East Harwich Methodist Church on the corner of Church Street and Queen Anne Road; the old recreation building/school (now Harwich Junior Theater Arts Center) in West Harwich, which may once have housed a Masonic Temple; the Belmont Hotel in West Harwich; the Ocean Spray Cranberry screen house in North Harwich; and the Native American Burial Grounds off lower Lothrop Avenue and on Queen Anne Road, also known as the Old Methodist Cemetery.

Unfortunately, there is limited or no information available on many of these nominated sites; some may no longer exist, and most are not clearly and noticeably identified at their locations as historic sites. Which is why I have titled this as another column on “Harwich’s Hidden History.”

The history of Harwich is best understood and appreciated when it is known by its residents and visitors, and it becomes known through historic resources like guidebooks, markers, maps, walks and trails that allow people to learn and experience the events, people, and places that helped make Harwich what it is as a place and people today.

Further nominations as well as information on any of the locations mentioned in this column may be sent to russallen@chronicle.com.