Historical Commission, Conservation Trust Explore Common Ground

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Conservation , Historic preservation

Nauset Heights illustrates historical commission chairman Ron Petersen’s view that “the land tells our story.” Native Americans, European settlers, and a German U-boat crew are part of its history.  RON PETERSEN PHOTO

ORLEANS Chairman Ron Petersen admits that most people think of the historical commission as working to preserve the historic buildings of the town, and that’s a big part of its mandate. But in a talk last month hosted by the Orleans Conservation Trust, Petersen noted that the commission’s charge extends to historic landscapes as well.

“We’re charged with preserving and developing the historic resources of the community: buildings, land, stories, and artifacts,” he said. “We’ve really taken another look at the importance of land in Orleans. This land we’re sitting on has historic value and significance you wouldn’t believe.”

A year ahead of the commemoration of the landing of the Mayflower, Petersen spoke of “the direct and compelling connection of our land to the Mayflower story.” Although Orleans itself was incorporated in 1797, the area was originally part of Nauset, established in 1646 as the fourth community in Plymouth Colony (after Plymouth, Duxbury, and Marshfield).

This section of Nauset, known as Namskaket, was settled by the likes of Constance Hopkins Snow, who arrived on the Mayflower as a child, and her husband, Nicholas, who came over in 1623 on the Anne. This place’s connections to the first European settlers, said Petersen, are “direct, significant, and profound.”

The quadricentennial of the Mayflower’s arrival “is a good time to be thinking about our heritage and preserving our land and structures,” Petersen said, but Orleans lacks some important tools to do so. Displaying a photograph of the recently demolished John Kenrick house on South Orleans Road, he said, “We are the only town other than Mashpee on Cape Cod that has no historic districts. Most others, like Eastham and Chatham, have several. I’ve come to the conclusion that we are racing toward a decision point. Are we going to be part of historic Cape Cod, or are we going to become something else?”

The next slide showed a sign placed by the Orleans Bicentennial Committee in 1976 to mark the site of Higgins Tavern, a stage coach stop once visited by Henry David Thoreau. “We still have the marker,” Petersen said, “but we lost the building.”

Then to Main Street in East Orleans, and the site of the elegant Calvin Snow mansion and grounds, which later served as the original location of the Southward Inn. Now there’s a boxy modern-day building that sits empty. “The heritage was destroyed,” Petersen said.

More examples followed until the chairman showed two existing houses, 21 Great Oak (built in 1810) and 261 Tonset Rd. (1850). Both are under demolition delays imposed by the commission as other resolutions are sought, but, he noted, “I have absolutely no confidence that is going to happen.”

The interaction of historic homes and historic landscapes is easy to perceive on Great Oak Road, according to Petersen. It’s “only about three-quarters of a mile long, but there are something like 12 properties on the historical property survey on that road, and the properties that aren’t are compatible,” he said. “When you drive down Great Oak Road, you feel like you’re in old Orleans.”

Another place where history and the land come together—or did—is the location of the demolished Kenrick house and the nearby John Kenrick Woods Conservation Area maintained by the Orleans Conservation Trust.

“John Kenrick was one of the leading figures of the refoliation of Cape Cod after it was basically defoliated by construction and shipbuilding,” Petersen said. “You can see the history of that by a walk in Kenrick Woods. It shows the symbiotic relationship between a building and the land. The building may be gone, but the land is being preserved in a very appropriate way.”

The history of Orleans can be told through its landscapes, said Petersen, starting with Nauset Heights. “The agreement under which the land was allowed to be settled by the Pilgrims stipulated that Nauset Heights be reserved to the Nausets to continue their thousands-years practice of growing corn and harvesting shellfish,” he said. “That went on for decades.”

The Heights also saw “defiant and self-reliant” Orleans residents stand up to the World War I German U-boat shelling of a tug and barges as well as the shoreline. American flags flew from porches, the local militia dug in on the bluffs, and a doctor kept a phone line open to The Boston Globe to deliver a “live” report.

Other areas where the land helps tell the story include Nauset Beach, which saw shipwrecks from the Sparrowhawk to the Eldia and generations of lifesavers pushing off from the shore to come to the rescue. There’s Academy Place, the triangle that holds the town’s war monuments today but once was home to Rock Harbor Academy, a private school operating from 1827 through the mid-1850s, and was later the first site of Snow Library.

Snow Shore is where explorer Samuel de Champlain anchored in 1605, and where the 1800s undersea communication cable known as Le Direct made landfall. Sea Call Farm, on the National Registry of Historic Places, underscores the town’s farming heritage. Rock Harbor was where the local militia pushed British invaders back to sea in 1814.

“Orleans history doesn’t start with 1797,” Petersen said. “Our historic properties survey has 50 or thereabouts houses and structures built before we were incorporated.”

The historical commission was created by town meeting in 1965. “The vote was not unanimous,” Petersen said. “About 42 percent voted not to have it. We fight an uphill battle. Not everybody’s a preservationist who agrees that old buildings should be preserved.” A later attempt to create the town’s first historic district, which would have provided greater protections, was rejected by the voters.

“We want to do it right this time,” Petersen said of the commission’s many months of preparations toward bringing forward another historic district proposal to town meeting. “We understand why it failed. Many people look at historic preservation and say, ‘We don’t want the town to have another power over how we use our land.’ We know we’re fighting that battle.”

But the commission’s philosophy, he said, is that “we can’t preserve everything, nor should we. We must make room for progress and advancement as our town evolves. However, we should, selectively and judiciously, preserve those areas and structures that represent and elucidate our rich and varied history.”

Petersen said the commission accepts that “many of our buildings evolve and change over time. If a homeowner wants to change the location of the main entrance from the front to the side, that’s fine. Solar panels, skylights, all can exist very well with historic preservation.” He noted that some districts “go too far regulating paint colors. We have no intention of going there.”

The town’s first historic district could be along the south side of Main Street from the United Methodist church at Route 28 to the fork just before the Barley Neck Inn. “There’s a huge amount of history concentrated in that area,” Petersen said. “We’ve decided that’s our number one priority.” Other areas of interest are Nauset Heights, Prince Dyer Road around Bridge Street, Academy Place, and South Orleans up from the town line with Brewster.

 

That last stretch includes the now-destroyed John Kenrick house. “We really need to stop that kind of thing from happening in our town,” Petersen said, “and preserve those things that really speak to who we are.”

ORLEANS — Chairman Ron Petersen admits that most people think of the historical commission as working to preserve the historic buildings of the town, and that’s a big part of its mandate. But in a talk last month hosted by the Orleans Conservation Trust, Petersen noted that the commission’s charge extends to historic landscapes as well.“We’re charged with preserving and developing the historic resources of the community: buildings, land, stories, and artifacts,” he said. “We’ve really taken another look at the importance of land in Orleans. This land we’re sitting on has historic value and significance you wouldn’t believe.”A year ahead of the commemoration of the landing of the Mayflower, Petersen spoke of “the direct and compelling connection of our land to the Mayflower story.” Although Orleans itself was incorporated in 1797, the area was originally part of Nauset, established in 1646 as the fourth community in Plymouth Colony (after Plymouth, Duxbury, and Marshfield).This section of Nauset, known as Namskaket, was settled by the likes of Constance Hopkins Snow, who arrived on the Mayflower as a child, and her husband, Nicholas, who came over in 1623 on the Anne. This place’s connections to the first European settlers, said Petersen, are “direct, significant, and profound.”The quadricentennial of the Mayflower’s arrival “is a good time to be thinking about our heritage and preserving our land and structures,” Petersen said, but Orleans lacks some important tools to do so. Displaying a photograph of the recently demolished John Kenrick house on South Orleans Road, he said, “We are the only town other than Mashpee on Cape Cod that has no historic districts. Most others, like Eastham and Chatham, have several. I’ve come to the conclusion that we are racing toward a decision point. Are we going to be part of historic Cape Cod, or are we going to become something else?”The next slide showed a sign placed by the Orleans Bicentennial Committee in 1976 to mark the site of Higgins Tavern, a stage coach stop once visited by Henry David Thoreau. “We still have the marker,” Petersen said, “but we lost the building.”Then to Main Street in East Orleans, and the site of the elegant Calvin Snow mansion and grounds, which later served as the original location of the Southward Inn. Now there’s a boxy modern-day building that sits empty. “The heritage was destroyed,” Petersen said.More examples followed until the chairman showed two existing houses, 21 Great Oak (built in 1810) and 261 Tonset Rd. (1850). Both are under demolition delays imposed by the commission as other resolutions are sought, but, he noted, “I have absolutely no confidence that is going to happen.”The interaction of historic homes and historic landscapes is easy to perceive on Great Oak Road, according to Petersen. It’s “only about three-quarters of a mile long, but there are something like 12 properties on the historical property survey on that road, and the properties that aren’t are compatible,” he said. “When you drive down Great Oak Road, you feel like you’re in old Orleans.”Another place where history and the land come together—or did—is the location of the demolished Kenrick house and the nearby John Kenrick Woods Conservation Area maintained by the Orleans Conservation Trust. “John Kenrick was one of the leading figures of the refoliation of Cape Cod after it was basically defoliated by construction and shipbuilding,” Petersen said. “You can see the history of that by a walk in Kenrick Woods. It shows the symbiotic relationship between a building and the land. The building may be gone, but the land is being preserved in a very appropriate way.”The history of Orleans can be told through its landscapes, said Petersen, starting with Nauset Heights. “The agreement under which the land was allowed to be settled by the Pilgrims stipulated that Nauset Heights be reserved to the Nausets to continue their thousands-years practice of growing corn and harvesting shellfish,” he said. “That went on for decades.”The Heights also saw “defiant and self-reliant” Orleans residents stand up to the World War I German U-boat shelling of a tug and barges as well as the shoreline. American flags flew from porches, the local militia dug in on the bluffs, and a doctor kept a phone line open to The Boston Globe to deliver a “live” report.Other areas where the land helps tell the story include Nauset Beach, which saw shipwrecks from the Sparrowhawk to the Eldia and generations of lifesavers pushing off from the shore to come to the rescue. There’s Academy Place, the triangle that holds the town’s war monuments today but once was home to Rock Harbor Academy, a private school operating from 1827 through the mid-1850s, and was later the first site of Snow Library.Snow Shore is where explorer Samuel de Champlain anchored in 1605, and where the 1800s undersea communication cable known as Le Direct made landfall. Sea Call Farm, on the National Registry of Historic Places, underscores the town’s farming heritage. Rock Harbor was where the local militia pushed British invaders back to sea in 1814.“Orleans history doesn’t start with 1797,” Petersen said. “Our historic properties survey has 50 or thereabouts houses and structures built before we were incorporated.”The historical commission was created by town meeting in 1965. “The vote was not unanimous,” Petersen said. “About 42 percent voted not to have it. We fight an uphill battle. Not everybody’s a preservationist who agrees that old buildings should be preserved.” A later attempt to create the town’s first historic district, which would have provided greater protections, was rejected by the voters.“We want to do it right this time,” Petersen said of the commission’s many months of preparations toward bringing forward another historic district proposal to town meeting. “We understand why it failed. Many people look at historic preservation and say, ‘We don’t want the town to have another power over how we use our land.’ We know we’re fighting that battle.”But the commission’s philosophy, he said, is that “we can’t preserve everything, nor should we. We must make room for progress and advancement as our town evolves. However, we should, selectively and judiciously, preserve those areas and structures that represent and elucidate our rich and varied history.”Petersen said the commission accepts that “many of our buildings evolve and change over time. If a homeowner wants to change the location of the main entrance from the front to the side, that’s fine. Solar panels, skylights, all can exist very well with historic preservation.” He noted that some districts “go too far regulating paint colors. We have no intention of going there.”The town’s first historic district could be along the south side of Main Street from the United Methodist church at Route 28 to the fork just before the Barley Neck Inn. “There’s a huge amount of history concentrated in that area,” Petersen said. “We’ve decided that’s our number one priority.” Other areas of interest are Nauset Heights, Prince Dyer Road around Bridge Street, Academy Place, and South Orleans up from the town line with Brewster.That last stretch includes the now-destroyed John Kenrick house. “We really need to stop that kind of thing from happening in our town,” Petersen said, “and preserve those things that really speak to who we are.”