If Chatham had its own Walk of Fame, you’d find a star with the name Bill Cullinane set right into the concrete of Shattuck Place, just outside Chase Park.
It’s the place where Cullinane has spent the last 10 years educating Cape locals and tourists alike on the history of the Godfrey Windmill, one of Chatham’s most iconic landmarks. And he’s done it with a twist.
Over the past decade, Cullinane has volunteered as the mill’s on-site historian, dressing as its 18th century namesake, Colonel Benjamin Godfrey, and relating the tale of his early American roots. This year marks Cullinane’s retirement from the volunteer post, where he became a friendly fixture in Chatham’s historic downtown.
It all started with a fateful visit to the Chatham Men’s Club in 2009, where Cullinane crossed paths with Frank Messina, chairman of the town’s historical commission. Messina was looking for a few willing hands to help renovate the old Godfrey Windmill — an intriguing proposition for Cullinane, a former history teacher. So he, alongside fellow volunteers Bruce Paige and Dave Porter, joined Messina to form the Chatham Windmill Group, tasked with restoring the old mill to its former glory.
By 2012, the windmill restoration project was finally complete, thanks to Andy Shrake and Jesse Lambert of Shrake Construction and the support of the Chatham Parks and Recreation Commission and the Community Preservation Act. It was at that point Cullinane sparked a bright idea to help spread the word of the town’s incredible achievement.
“For people coming to see the windmill, they needed something more than just a docent standing there, telling the history of this inanimate object,” he said. “They needed to get a sense of its personal history and how it’s tied to someone real.”
So Cullinane hit the books, studying the life and times of Colonel Benjamin Godfrey to get a thorough understanding of his early American past. The more he learned about Godfrey, the more he liked the man, and it inspired him to share the real history of one of Chatham’s most notable residents.
“Initially, when I began researching Godfrey, I found accounts naming him as a participant in the Battle of Bunker Hill,” he recalled. “But he didn’t fight at Bunker Hill; he only served with local militia, helping out three days here or four days there before returning home to Chatham in between. Other accounts had him taking part in the Siege of Boston, but if you know anything about history, you’d know that wasn’t a specific event, but an 11-month period of British containment. So, I had to rectify a lot of information that had been previously recorded.”
That’s exactly what Cullinane did. Through his research, he was able to piece together a more accurate depiction of Colonel Godfrey, reconciling inaccurate accounts to uncover the historical truth and Godfrey’s many contributions to the town. One remarkable gem Cullinane uncovered was the story of how Godfrey managed to chase a crew of British privateers from the harbor with a couple of long-arm shotguns. “At this point in time,” said Cullinane, “Godfrey really embodied what it was to be a true and perfect American patriot.”
Thinking back on his 10 years’ time as Colonel Godfrey, Cullinane says it’s been nothing short of a blast.
“I love when young people come to visit, because I feel as though I’m getting them to appreciate the past and recognize it does bear relevance to their present-day lives. More importantly, I really like to break down the mythology behind historical figures like Colonel Godfrey. I want to give them a piece of reality,” he said.
Since hanging up his three-cornered hat this past September, Cullinane has been busy training volunteer successor Roald Lokken, who’s set to take over the role of Colonel Benjamin Godfrey in 2023. But that’s not to say Cullinane plans on slowing down anytime soon. He’s recently joined a local affordable housing advocacy group and earned his Irish citizenship. This winter, he plans on putting that new passport to good use, traveling overseas with his wife and two children.
For anyone interested in getting a hands-on history lesson at the Godfrey Windmill next season, visit chathamwindmill.com for the latest updates and information.