Friday, October 26, 2012

Provincetown's Town House, or Original Town Hall, From 1854 to 1877

Our original Town Hall on High Pole Hill, where the Pilgrim Monument stands today.

Provincetown's current Town Hall, the large wooden building with a spired clock tower at the corner of Commercial and Ryder Streets, is the second Town Hall we've had. This building replaced our original Town Hall, or Town House, which had stood behind this spot, on High Pole Hill, where the Pilgrim Monument stands today. That first town hall was built in 1854 at a cost of just under $15,000, with $350 paid to seven local men who owned the parcels of land that made up the hill. The business of the town was conducted there, where land deeds and other town records were kept, while the upper floor served as a high school. It made a highly visible landmark which could easily be spotted from ships more than twenty miles off our shoreline. But on February 16, 1877, at 8:25 P. M.,  the building caught fire and burnt to the ground, along with many of the Town’s records and documents. The cause of the fire was never determined.
Construction on the new Town Hall was begun in September of 1885 when Universalist Minister Dr. William Henry Ryder offered to have his house, which stood on the  corner of Ryder and Commercial streets, moved around the corner to 4 Winslow Street. There you’ll find a blue and white plaque telling of the Civil War era, when the original estate is thought to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad, giving shelter to runaway slaves being smuggled to the Canadian Maritimes, though some dispute this claim.
Once the house was moved Rev. Ryder donated the land to the Town, and purchased two adjoining estates as well, to accommodate the rather grand design of Boston architect John A. Fox, and in August of 1886 the largest town hall ever built on Cape Cod was dedicated. It had cost $50,400 to build, and stood as a testament to the tremendous success of Provincetown in its early fishing and whaling days.
In the middle to late 1800s Provincetown was the richest town per capita in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, with 56 whaling ships served by 54 long wharves. There were dozens of schooners, both Grand Bankers and George’s Bankers, and a mackerel fleet as well. At times we had 700 boats in the harbor, with ships sailing in from foreign ports as well, and the town supplied them all. Even the people on the land in those days made their living from the sea, in one way or another. For example, in 1890 there were 5 blacksmith shops on Commercial Street, even though horses were scarce here. They were just able to keep up with all of the demand for chain, anchors and other metal goods needed by fishermen, whalers and all the others in this thriving little seaport village. This period in time was truly Provincetown’s Golden Era, as witnessed by the erection of this rather elaborate Town Hall.
Ostensibly for reasons of public safety, in 2008 a two-year project updating and restoring Town Hall was begun, and in November of 2010, the restoration was completed for the most part, at a cost of more than $6 million. Some argue that the true cost was well over that amount, bemoaning the expense of relocating town offices for two years, as well as charges for many extra details, like restoring the original ceiling and chandelier in the auditorium, and reconfiguring the Judge Welsh room, which now offers far fewer seats for those attending meetings of selectmen and various other town boards and committees. A great deal of space is now taken up by a new dais, which now seats the Town Manager and Board of Selectmen, or other town boards, during their meetings. These are among several "improvement" expenditures deemed frivolous or wasteful by many taxpayers.
One of the nicest features that came out of this project is the creation of space to really highlight a bit of the Town's art collection, consisting of roughly 300 works of art which have been donated, or acquired by the Town, over many years. Some of these paintings periodically rotate into the public view when works adorning the walls of Town Hall and other town offices are exchanged for different works from the collection, while others are on permanent display. There is a new space at the far end of the first floor hallway permanently showcasing one of Charles W. Hawthorne's greatest paintings, entitled Crew of the Philomena Manta, painted in 1915 and made a gift to the Town of Provincetown by the artist in 1916.
Hawthorne founded the Cape Cod School of art here in 1899, and was perhaps the greatest influence on local artists of that time. Click to see my July 10th post about Hawthorne and his art school. By 1916 Provincetown had 8 art schools with some 300 students, in great part due to the efforts of Hawthorne and some of his early protégés. Seeing the artworks displayed on Town Hall walls is one of the best reasons to take a stroll through the building. And one of the best perks of working for the town is that these folks each get to choose one of these 300 paintings to hang in their offices. Next time you're there paying your excise tax or getting your shellfishing license, take a look around you and enjoy some of this wonderful art.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Before it's Over... One More Dinner at the Mayflower Cafe

8 ounces of broiled bluefish, choice of potato, dinner roll and salad is just $14
Before the season is really over, try to make one last visit to some of the seasonal restaurants that are favorites, for various reasons, of Townies and visitors alike. One of these spots is the Mayflower Cafe, at 300 Commercial Street. Opened in 1929, the Mayflower has been serving simple, home style food for 83 years; no frills, diner style food at reasonable prices, and served in generous portions, like the 8 ounce bluefish fillet for $14, pictured above.
I went to the Mayflower the other night because I was in the mood for steamers, which I followed with that evening's salmon dinner special. For dessert I had the homemade pumpkin pie with whipped cream for $3.50. The menu also includes hot and cold sandwiches, pizza and Italian style specialties, comfort foods, seafood, and a number of Portuguese specialties. See my blog post from September 22nd, about Portuguese Food at the Mayflower Cafe.
Try to get to the Mayflower and enjoy one of PTown's landmarks by Saturday, October 27th, their last day for the season.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Drift Whaling or Strandings Brought an Occasional Bonus to Provincetown Shores.

This is a photo from what appears to be a "cabinet card" dating back to the late 1800s, showing a whale on the edge of a Provincetown beach. These cards consisted of card stock attached to photographs in a size slightly larger than today's picture postcards, with the first postal cards designed to be sold as souvenirs made available in Chicago, at the Colombian Exposition of 1893.
The back of this card has a handwritten note reading "Finback Whale." The landline attached to the whale and the date of the print suggest that this may be a "drift whale," a dead whale that had drifted in to shore or was found drifting off the shoreline and was then towed to shore, pulled with a line from a small boat. This sort of landing of a whale was serendipitous for the finder, and in any village of that day, a multiple stranding could prove a boon to the entire community, bringing a good price for many barrels of oil extracted from a single whale. Sometimes villagers would use the oil to light their own lamps for a good period of time rather than selling off the oil when whales drifted in or stranded on the shoreline.
This whale may also have been caught at sea and brought to shore for flensing, or cutting up the blubber and other usable parts, but that doesn't seem as likely, even though these men are armed with long-handled flensing knives. There are no barrels ready to fill with whale oil, and there is no wagon ready to haul the blubber away to be melted down, so this looks more likely to have been a lucky find.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Provincetown's Best Lobster Roll May Well Be at John's Footlong, a Best Bite

I had read and heard many times that a lot of folks think that the lobster roll at John's Footlong is the best in Provincetown, so after having tasted many lobster rolls all around the town this summer, I finally had to taste John's for myself. I believe the claims of countless Townies are correct, because out of all the many lobster rolls I tried over the course of the summer, the one at John's Footlong was my very favorite. Who would have thought it?
It was absolutely brimming over (just as everything served at John's is brimming over) with enormous, tender chunks of sweet, plump lobster claws and knuckles, mixed only with the barest little bit of mayonnaise and piled onto a couple of garden-fresh, crisp lettuce leaves which sat atop an equally fresh, nicely grilled New England style hot dog bun... a purist's delight.
If you look up John's address you'll have a hell of a time finding the place. It's one of those wacky PTown addresses that make no sense at all. It's listed as 309 Commercial Street, which you would think would be roughly right across from 310 Commercial, which happens to be Lewis Brothers Ice Cream, but noooo... It's around the corner from Commercial Street, on the way down to MacMillan Pier, on what ought to be called Standish Street since it extends from Standish down toward the pier and the Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber, by the way, inexplicably has the official address of 307 Commercial Street, even though it's even farther off Commercial Street than John's is, regardless of the smaller number of its address, and is well over a hundred feet off Commercial Street as you head toward the pier from the intersection of Standish and Commercial Streets.
Don't try too hard to make sense out if it. After all, this is Provincetown, where not everything is going to make sense, or even really needs to be understood. So instead of trying to find John's from its address, find Lopes Square, the little plaza with all the seating benches and the huge anchor in the middle, just south (toward the pier) from that same intersection at Standish and Commercial. If you stand in front of Lewis Brothers, on the northwest corner, and look south toward the pier and the harbor, John's is on the right side of the street, halfway toward the Chamber of Commerce, right across the street from that great big anchor in Lopes Square. It's a walk-up, counter service joint with a seating area of its own up the stairs on the south end of the building, or you can usually find a place to sit on a bench in Lopes Square.
I also like to take my meal down to the harbor, just at the far edge of the big parking lot that sits between MacMillan Pier and Fisherman's Wharf, where you'll find a tiny little neighborhood park made up of a string of trees and benches looking out over the harbor along the seawall that runs between the wharf and the pier. Those two words are interchangeable, by the way. A wharf and a pier are virtually the same thing: a dock where boats pull up to take passengers and goods on and off the boat.
Anyway, it's worth looking for John's if you've never had the pleasure of chowing down on their huge servings of impeccably fresh seafood, their very tasty Portuguese kale soup, or, of course, their venerable footlong hot dog. TheYearRounder names John's lobster roll as a Best Bite. And just looking at the photo above makes me want to dash over and have another one before they up and close for the season.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Provincetown Shoreline Disappears, Shrouded in Three Days of Dense Fog

It's not that unusual to see a fairly heavy fog rolling over the dunes and into Beach Forrest, and on into the center of town, where it sometimes gobbles up the Pilgrim Monument from the top down. This will happen on several mornings throughout the year. But this time the fog has been hovering just above our heads for three days,  hanging over the ponds, sweeping back and forth, drifting out to sea a mile or two, and then sneaking back in over the beaches and the harbor. A misty veil of tiny water droplets suspended in midair has hidden both Wood End and the Long Point Light from view ever since Tuesday morning, leaving hapless visitors to speculate on the whereabouts of the actual tip of Cape Cod. These minuscule beads of dew have caused the breakwater in the West End, and those walking on it, to vanish less than halfway out into the harbor, and they've collected on the leaves of trees all along Commercial Street, plopping silently onto our heads as we walk beneath the dripping branches.
There's one great advantage, however, to having this salubrious mist settling quietly onto every surface in sight: it makes nature's colors just that much more vibrant. The pitch pines at the edges of the dunes become more verdant, the last purple blossoms of the sheep's laurel brighten a bit, and the brown blotches of leaves slowly dying on the scrub oaks turn golden under a bit of moisture.
Get out for a stroll on the bike trails before ten this morning, when the sun is scheduled to return, and enjoy this drizzle from a fresh perspective.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Seafood Grille at the Waterford Inn Offers a Great Lobster Special, and a Best Bite

The Seafood Grille's perfectly cooked lobster is a Best Bite
Tuesday night is lobster night at the Seafood Grille at the Waterford Inn. They have reduced prices on lobsters of most any size you care to take on. This one was a four-pounder.
I ordered it solo, with a side of corn on the cob. It took me over an hour to eat it.
When I go out for lobster I'm really just interested in a good sized lobster, and an ear of corn. I generally don't care about adding a cup of chowder, steamers, mussels, potato or any of the other things that might make the meal a New England "clambake" because I order such a large lobster that I won't have any room to eat all those other things, delicious as they might be; I am there for the lobster.
So as I settled in at my table at the Seafood Grille for the wait as my four pound lobster was cooking, I removed my wristwatch as I always do when I'm about to tackle a big lobster. I had already scrubbed my hands till they were impeccably clean, and I had turned off my cell phone and donned the requisite lobster bib. I was ready to enjoy the king of the crustaceans, without distractions or interruptions. When this beauty came out of the kitchen other diners exclaimed, and asked about its size, some of them suffering from a little "lobster envy."
Although I've eaten at the Seafood Grille many times, this was my first time trying their lobster, and my hopes were tentative, having recently been disappointed at two "lobster specials" found in other establishments where the poor lobsters had given their lives only to have the kitchen completely botch the job of cooking them. What a delightful surprise to find that this would turn out to be the best lobster I had ever had! This month marks 24 years that I've been eating whole lobsters out of the shell, having not bothered much with the skimpy, overcooked, tasteless lobster tails I'd had in western restaurants before I moved to the East Coast. This was simply the most perfectly cooked, most succulent lobster it's ever been my pleasure to crack and eat, and that makes it TheYearRounder's choice as this week's Best Bite.
Actually, eating a large lobster is a little easier than eating a small one because the legs and body are bigger, and it's actually easier to get those larger nuggets of meat out of the body, where there is a tremendous amount of good meat to be found on larger lobsters. Over the years I've learned how to get to every bit of that meat, so it can take me a while to eat a lobster.
On Tuesday nights at the Seafood Grille, at 386 Commercial Street, you can get a lobster up to five pounds at a special low price based on the weight of the lobster, and you can have it served in any of three ways: you can order your lobster as a clambake, with all the trimmings mentioned above, or have it served "baked stuffed" with a seafood stuffing, or you can have it served all by itself. They also serve a number of other entrees featuring lobster from their regular menu. There's also a Monday night "all you can eat" fish and chips special for just $18. I hope these specials go on for a while, giving me a chance to return for another big lobster, perfectly cooked and at a bargain price, and a chance to try the fish and chips, too.