Historical Society Speaker Details Evolution Of Local Tourism

By: Debra Lawless

The Wequassett Inn in the early 1970s. COURTESY PHOTO

CHATHAM – There was no need to get dressed up, or to drive somewhere, or fight for a parking space, or hope for a good seat last Sunday.

The Chatham Historical Society (CHS) joined many other institutions when it held its 64-minute annual meeting, featuring a talk on “Tourism Through the Years,” via Zoom video conferencing. About 75 people watched the presentation. At 3:30 p.m. exactly Ginny Nickerson, CHS outgoing board chair, appeared on the screen to introduce CHS Executive Director Danielle Jeanloz. And from there, everything ran smoothly.

In his keynote address Mark Novota, for 33 years managing partner of the Wequassett Resort and Golf Club in East Harwich, said Cape Cod’s first true tourist was Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau made four walking trips between 1849 and 1857 which he describes in “Cape Cod.” The book speaks to the beauty of the 19th century Cape and captures the spirit of its people.

Meanwhile, in East Harwich, on the spot where the Wequassett Inn would be founded in 1925, the Wampanoags were gardening, hunting and fishing. The word “Wequassett” is said to come from a Native American term meaning “crescent on the water,” describing the shape of the land bordering the cove. In about 1664, William Nickerson and his family built their homestead 1.4 miles up the road, in what would be North Chatham. The following year, the local sachem sold Nickerson the land where the Wequassett would later be.

From the mid-1700s to the 1800s Cape Cod proved a difficult place to reach. Visitors could travel via horseback, sailboat or stagecoach. In 1887 the train came to Cape Cod, which was dotted with little inns, and no “serious” hotels, Novota said. In 1890 the first “real luxury hotel” opened, Hotel Chatham, overlooking Pleasant Bay at what is now the fourth hole at Eastward Ho! Country Club.

“They did have the challenge of bringing people from West Chatham” to the hotel, an arduous trek at the time, and the hotel struggled, going bankrupt in 1907. “It’s not always easy to run a hotel on Cape Cod,” Novota noted. Still, in 1914 Chatham Bars Inn was founded by Charles Hardy. It began as a hunting lodge and grew to premiere luxury housing.

Wequassett House opened for business in 1925 when the Dybing family hung out an oil cloth sign reading “Welcome to Guests.” Through the next four decades, the family expanded the inn. Included on the property were the Eben Ryder House, a “square top” moved from Brewster, the 1740 Warren Jensen Nickerson house and nine cottages, making the Wequassett “a true resort.” In 1967 the Burch family bought the inn and expanded the hotel to 47 guest rooms in 15 buildings. The Burches also established a jazz festival, bringing in jazz greats. In 1973 the couple sold the property to Fred Sateriale who proposed condominiums on the site. Seventy-five abutters protested after he presented his plans. In 1975 a bank took ownership of the property and the inn did not open. In 1977 Jamie and Stephania McClennen, the current owners, bought the inn which at this point sprawled over 27 acres and included numerous buildings. As the number of rooms expanded, so did the amenities. Tennis was soon introduced.

“It was a new era,” Novota said. “A full service resort.”

Novota arrived in 1986 from Pier 66 Hotel Marina in Fort Lauderdale knowing nothing about Cape Cod. But he was full of ideas for the “cash-strapped rustic anchor,” as he described the resort. “We were struggling to stay afloat,” he recalled. But “I had the good fortune bestowed upon me to begin to execute some of my ideas.” He became a partner in 1991.

Through the years, the resort has marked many milestones. In November 2015 the resort was awarded five-star status by Forbes Travel Guide, the first and only five-star rated hotel on Cape Cod.

“Every day is an adventure,” Novota said.

During the business part of the meeting the following officers were unanimously elected: Chair Michael Woehler, vice-chair Steve Nickerson, secretary Elizabeth Schiller and treasurer Linda Cebula. Trustees Amanda Davis, Stephen Burlingame and Ginny Nickerson were reelected to the board. In her treasurer’s report, Cebula noted that “we expect to weather these uncertain times” and “we will make it to 2021.”

Jeanloz thanked Ginny Nickerson for her three years of service as chair of the board, a period during which Nickerson brought in many new people. Jeanloz offered a brief recap of the year with highlights such as Pirates’ Day, a private tour of the Stage Harbor Lighthouse, the Batwood at the Atwood Halloween party and successful fundraising events.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the society to close in mid-March when staff and volunteers began to work remotely. The Atwood Museum was one of the first in the state to open on July 8, following strict procedures, and with four new exhibits in place. Online research and virtual experiences have been expanded.

“I remain confident all will continue to thrive,” Jeanloz said. The CHS will begin planning for its 100th anniversary in 2023. Its annual gala “An Evening to Remember” will be held virtually with its auctions and much more on Saturday, Aug. 29. For ticket information visit chathamhistoricalsociety.org.