Local History & the Environment

Mar 17, 2016

When you visit Wareham’s conservation areas, it’s hard not to stumble into the town’s history. Sometimes that’s literal: near the entrance to the Buzzards Bay Coalition’s Horseshoe Mill visitors can find slag, which is a byproduct of the iron manufacturing that used to occur there. At the Town of Wareham’s Douglas S. Westgate Conservation Area cranberry bogs provide a centerpiece for wide walking trails, and although the cranberries that were once cultivated there can still be found, they’re interspersed with a mixture of wild plants. Things like cranberry bogs and iron slag are easy to see, but the history that they represent can be a bit more complicated.

New pieces of Wareham’s history turn up constantly. In my early months working here, I learned that President Grover Cleveland left a permanent mark on the town: he so enjoyed dip netting for smelt here that he passed legislation to legalize it on Wareham’s Weweantic River—legislation which remains to this day, even though dip netting is illegal in other state waterways. I recently came across Lewis Hine’s photos from Wareham in the Library of Congress photo library. Hine’s photographs helped change child labor laws by documenting young mill workers and other laborers. His images from Wareham show children in bonnets and caps, sitting in the cranberry bogs, with stark captions: “Susie, said 6 years old. Picks about 5 pails a day. Clarence, said 7 years. Nine out of the seventy workers were from 6 to 12 years old. Mostly Syrians from Boston and Providence.”

I stopped in with Mack and Cathy Phinney, Wareham Land Trust board members and lifelong Wareham residents, to get an overview of town history and how it relates to conservation. Mack Phinney’s family has been in Wareham since 1770, when a mariner arrived from England and settled in the town. Mack and Cathy’s home has been in the family since the 1800s, but it was built on the land that Phinney’s ancestor settled back in 1770.

Mack tells me about some of the paths here that can be traced to the native Wampanoag—a path that runs where Fearing Hill Road is now, and ‘pole crossings,’ where a few small trees were laid across the rivers to aid in crossing. “I wish I knew where it was,” he says. “My father used to know where it was—I should’ve listened better.” Where were they headed? To the Cape, for the summer. As Wareham was settled, those Wampanoag paths became main thoroughfares.

As for Wareham’s eventual incorporation, in 1739, Cathy shared a rhyme she learned from a friend at the Rochester Historical Society. Wareham was originally part of the Agawam and Sippican Purchase, and to convince potential objectors that there was no reason not to incorporate, a little rhyme was spread about: “Agawam and Sippican are neither fit for beast nor man; / Agawam the cattle die and Sippican the people lie.”

“Wareham became worth something because of all the rivers in it,” Mack said. “They could dam the rivers and build mills. And they did it all over the place.” Today’s Papermill Road earned its name because they used to make the papers that wrapped spermaceti candles there. But iron manufacturing was where the real money was. “I’ve heard it referenced that every farmer had a furnace in his backyard to make iron,” Mack told me.

Wareham was perfect for iron manufacturing: there were rivers for power, iron ore to be smelted, and shells which could be used for the flux in the furnace. Shells were easy to find, because there were plenty of middens—piles of shells left by the Wampanoag, who threw them there after eating shellfish.

The iron furnaces grew from the small, farmer owned things to larger operations. Some of these iron furnaces were used during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812—Federal Furnace made the ammunition for Old Ironsides. Around this time, the Tremont Nail Company—which remains operational to this day, and is the oldest nail manufacturer in the U.S.—emerged. After WWI, a foundry in Wareham poured the keel for a huge naval ship, so large that nowhere else in the country could pour it.

“The other thing that happened with the dams was the fishing industry,” Mack said. “Practically as important as the iron industry was the herring.” At one point, they dug a trench from Red Brook in Wareham to White Island in Plymouth to improve Plymouth’s herring industry. At one time, the herring were so thick that people said you could walk across their backs.

As for cranberries: in the early days, each town was assigned a cranberry yard, a place where cranberries grew naturally. These were owned and managed by the town, and residents could go and pick whatever they needed. After the Revolutionary War, veteran Henry Hall settled on the Cape and became a farmer—and is credited with the origin of cultivated cranberries. After the Civil War, cultivated cranberries really began to take off, because around this time sailors left the whaling industry and took to the cranberry fields.

All of these industries both helped Wareham grow and left their mark on the town, and on its environment. Mack reminded me that this human history is directly linked to the history of our environment. “Its impact upon the environment was tremendous,” Mack said. “They denuded the place. They dammed all the rivers.”

What does all this mean? “We’re trying now to undo all the damage we did in the past,” Mack said. “Hopefully that’s going to be part of the history of Wareham.”

Conservation areas across Wareham hold pieces of the history the Phinneys told me about, but they also demonstrate how conservation is becoming part of the history of Wareham: those cranberry bogs that are being overgrown by wild plants, dams being removed from rivers, fish habitat being restored. Learning town history is a two-sided coin: we can see how history has contributed to the landscape we have today, and how our behavior can change the landscape we have tomorrow.