As Main Street looks to the future, Historical Society remembers its past

Apr 17, 2023

“In the ‘50s, you could go to Wareham Center and get anything you wanted in the world,” said Marie Strawn as she looked over photographs of Main Street from that decade. “From a coffin to an appliance… You didn’t need to go anywhere, because everything was right on Main Street.”

Strawn, 87, was one of many who took a stroll down memory lane during a Wareham Historical Society program at the Methodist Meeting House on Monday, April 17.

Hundreds of historic photographs, showing over a century of homes, businesses and gathering places, aided their reminiscences.

The photographs were compiled for Wareham’s 2014 Summer of Celebration by Judy Galavotti of the Wareham Village Association, with the help of her “girls:” Mary Beth Cormier, Phyllis Decas, Deanne Fearing, Linda MacKenzie and Pamela Kiernan, the latter of whom died in 2018. 

“It’s nice to know the way Wareham was back then,” said Galavotti, 81. “You didn’t have the mall, so everything took place on Main Street.”

There were many “oohs,” “aahs” and smiles of recognition as folks recalled the excitement of when Cornwell’s Department Store got an elevator “like the big city,” and the opulence of the Wareham Theatre, with its carpets and balcony. 

“It had a real snack bar,” said Len Gay, 79, “instead of a grumpy old lady peddling candy.”

The “grumpy old lady” worked at the movie theater in Buzzards Bay. 

The program’s timing couldn’t have been better. At Town Meeting this month, Wareham residents will be asked to vote on an ambitious rezoning plan that would increase building height and density on much of Main Street. Town officials say that the proposed changes will bring new economic life to Main Street, making it resemble its ‘50s heyday. 

Town Meeting will take place on Monday, April 24 at 7 p.m. in the “cafetorium” of Wareham Elementary School, 63 Minot Ave.

“We’re talking about saving downtown in a way that makes sense financially,” said Historical Society President Angela Dunham. 

Dunham moved to Wareham in 1954, the same year that Hurricane Carol devastated the community. She remembers asking her father why he moved his family to “such a horrible place.” 

Main Street, Dunham said, has gone through much upheaval over the years. Like San Francisco, Wareham suffered a great fire in 1906. In the 1980s, “there was a great deal of turmoil” as many buildings were demolished. To her, the proposed urban renewal plan is just one more transition. 

She hopes that the urban renewal plan will succeed, but is concerned about the ever-increasing threat of flooding and that developers will “tear down and build whatever they like,” harming Wareham’s historic feel. 

Everyone in attendance agreed that Main Street was nifty in the ‘50s, but they were split as to what the future will bring. 

Strawn said that the urban renewal plan is “hopeless,” as strip malls have sucked the vitality out of village centers.

“If I could get to Town Meeting, I would definitely vote against it,” she said. “Putting 60-foot buildings up is just going to ruin the view of the river.” 

Gay said that he wished the Redevelopment Authority well, but was skeptical that businesses would come back to Main Street.

“Retail establishments are now pretty much the big box stores,” he said.