Making Democracy Work

Falmouth Past and Present

Incorporated in 1686 as Suckanessett, Falmouth contains about 44 square miles

Geographical Setting

Falmouth map
Located on the southwest corner of Cape Cod, Falmouth is bounded on two sides by large bodies of water: Buzzards Bay on the west and Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds to the south; the towns of Bourne, Sandwich, and Mashpee lie to the north and east. Its roughly square shape is stretched out at the southwest corner where the village of Woods Hole forms one side of the passage between the mainland and the string of Elizabeth Islands.

Falmouth contains about 44 square miles, including 1740 acres of freshwater ponds and about 1500 acres of sheltered saltwater bays and harbors. Sixty-eight miles of seashore, 12 miles of which are sandy beaches, edge the town. The mean tidal range is from two to four feet along this coastline. Like the rest of Cape Cod, Falmouth owes its existence to the glaciers, which melted some 12,000 years ago. They left behind moraine, low-lying hills of glacial debris, from Woods Hole to North Falmouth. The highest point in town, 206 feet, is located on this ridge. To the south and east, sloping gently toward Nantucket Sound, is outwash plain, formed of sand and silt carried seaward by icy rivers from the melting glaciers. As it built up, the outwash plain was furrowed by these rivers into what is now the series of long, narrow salt ponds along the south shore of the town. The landscape is dotted with small ponds or "kettle hole" depressions caused by isolated blocks of ice that eventually melted. Since glacial times, the coastline has been modified by rising sea level and the ongoing action of the waves and coastal currents.

Falmouth enjoys the temperate climate of southern New England, made more moderate by the surrounding ocean which prevents extremes of heat and cold. Only in January and February does the average temperature drop below freezing; then the harbors are fringed with sea ice and the ponds are safe for skating. Winter and spring snowfalls annually average about one and a half to four feet, but they are often mixed with rain; deep accumulations are unusual. In the summer the average temperature of both land and sea is 65 to 70 degrees. There are occasional days of fog along the shore. The growing season is about 200 days with 42 inches of rainfall a year distributed fairly evenly among the seasons. Except for the rare tropical hurricane, the most severe storm is the northeaster which brings high winds and tides and heavy rain for two or three days.


As the sea has modified the shape of the land, so has it influenced human activities throughout the history of Falmouth. The town's first known settlers, the Wampanoag tribe, called it Suckanesset or "place by the sea where the black wampum is found". Valuable black wampum was made from quahog shells, always plentiful in Falmouth. The Native Americans also recognized Falmouth's advantages as a resort, and Queen Awashonks of the Narragansett tribes in Rhode Island is said to have spent several summers in what is now Falmouth Heights.

European explorers and settlers sailed to Cape Cod and then used the sea as a major source of livelihood and commerce. Today, Falmouth businesses depend upon the sea and its beaches to attract vacationers, and marine scientists use the sea for research.

Colonial Times

Bartholomew Gosnold is credited with being the first Englishman to set foot on Cape Cod. Other explorers as far back as the Vikings undoubtedly visited our shores before him, but it is Gosnold who gave Cape Cod its name and about whom the record is most clear. In May of 1602 he landed with 33 men on the island of Cuttyhunk, intending to start a colony there. The colony was never established but Gosnold and his men did explore what is now Falmouth and were overcome with its beauty. One of Gosnold's companions wrote:

"We stood a while like men ravished at the beautie and delicacy of this sweet soile; for besides divers cleere Lakes of fresh water (whereof we saw no end) Meadows very large and full of greene grasse; even the most woody places (I speake onely of such I saw) doe grow distinct and apart, one tree from another, upon greene grassie ground, somewhat higher than the Plaines, as if Nature would shew herself above her power, artificial."

In 1660 fourteen families came by boat from Barnstable to Suckanesset and built their homes on a strip of land between what is now Siders Pond and Salt Pond. They were led by Isaac Robinson, who had incurred the wrath of the Barnstable elders by protesting harassment and persecution of Quakers. Settled by families with principles of religious toleration, Falmouth remained tolerant. There is no record of Quaker persecution here, and the Native Americans also were generally treated fairly. In particular, Jonathan Hatch, one of the original proprietors, developed strong ties of mutual friendship and respect with the local Wampanoag tribe. It was a point of pride with the settlers that all land for settlement was bought rather than taken from the Indians, and that Cape Cod Indians did not join other New England tribes in the bloody uprising of 1675 known as King Phillip's War.

Isaac Robinson and his companions built a permanent community; many of their descendants are still living in Falmouth and their memory is perpetuated in many of the street names of the modern town. The original settlement and the first meeting house were located close to the landing place, near the old town burying ground off Mill Road. In 1749, the present village green was laid out and a new meeting house was built there. Gradually other villages developed around family homesteads like that of the Nye's in North Falmouth. The Benjamin Nye house, built in 1699, is still standing as are other reminders of those early days. One is the Saconnesset Homestead in West Falmouth, which was built in 1678 by Thomas Bowerman, a Quaker who had been imprisoned in Barnstable.

Fishing and farming were the major sources of income; industry was represented in the salt works along the south shore, where solar evaporation of sea water produced salt for preserving fish and game. Windmills were used to pump the water through pipes made of wooden logs. The cultivation of Sassamanesh (cranberries) by the Wampanoags was continued by the settlers, providing one of Cape Cod's major crops.

The settlers were governed by the Court of the Council of Plymouth until 1686, when their settlement was incorporated as a township under a charter from the Court. The document itself has never been found but there is evidence that Falmouth applied at the same time as the town of Rochester and was chartered under the same general laws. The 1686 Charter provided for self government on the pattern of traditional town meeting. When Falmouth was incorporated it was still called Suckanesset. The earliest use of the name "Falmouth" is found in 1694; presumably the town was named after Gosnold's home port of Falmouth, England.

Revolution and War of 1812

The growing troubles with the mother country affected colonists on Cape Cod as elsewhere. A British fleet cruising the Sounds virtually cut off coastwise shipping, and raiding parties occasionally came ashore for cattle and supplies. In the fall of 1774, the citizens of Falmouth met on the Village Green and voted to arm every man from 16 years old to 60. The following spring, townspeople were appointed to procure firearms for the militia. A night watch was established and Major Joseph Dimmock of the Barnstable County Brigade became commander of Falmouth's company of minutemen.

The British continued their depredations, operating from a safe haven in Tarpaulin Cove on Naushon Island, but the alert colonials staunchly defended their coast and even took the offensive against enemy shipping on occasion.

There was one major skirmish during the war. In April 1779, a British landing party in Woods Hole was forced by the minutemen to flee. Their plot to return and burn the town was overheard by their Tory host who, despite his allegiance to the crown, sent his son to warn the mainlanders. Help was sought from neighboring communities and entrenchments were thrown up along shore. Supported by ten armed vessels, the British next morning attempted a landing at Surf Drive Beach and then near Nobska Point, but Major Dimmock's troops drove them off with gunfire. After firing a few cannon the British withdrew. Dimmock was later promoted to Brigadier General and also served as county sheriff and state senator. His house still stands, facing the west side of the Village Green.

The post-war period was a time of growth and building. The present home of the Falmouth Historical Society was built in 1790 by Dr. Francis Wicks, who with Dr. Hugh G. Donaldson introduced smallpox vaccinations to Falmouth. In 1796 a new meeting house for the First Congregational Society was built on the Green, with an 807 pound bell cast by Paul Revere. There was some debate about the location of the building as the town had expanded to the eastward, so the following year the East End Meeting House was erected on Sandwich Road in Hatchville. Although records of public schooling in Falmouth go back to 1715, the first known village schoolhouse was finished in 1800 on Main Street east of the present post office. It was also used as a Masonic Hall and still serves that purpose. The old Stone Dock at Surf Drive Beach was constructed in 1806 to serve as a landing place for coastal trading schooners and packets.

The War of 1812 brought another British blockade, with its attendant inflation and more raiding parties. Under Captain Weston Jenkins the Falmouth Artillery Company provided a defense. In 1814 the 18-gun British brig Nimrod cannonaded Falmouth and damaged some buildings, including the present Nimrod Club on Dillingham Avenue, and Elm Arch Inn, both of which were then on Main Street. Captain Jenkins later captured a British privateer with a surprise attack in Vineyard Sound.

Nineteenth Century

The subsequent peace ushered in an era of industry and progress. Farming, fishing, and trade flourished. The ship-building and whaling industries were of importance in Falmouth. A few whaling vessels were built here, but they were usually fitted out and manned in New Bedford, a major whaling center. Some whalers put in at Woods Hole, the only deep water port in Falmouth; the old stone Candle House on Water Street was built in 1836 as a supply house and factory for the making of spermaceti candles. Some Falmouth men made careers of whaling, but it was more common to ship out for only one or two voyages (each lasting several years), to sail with the mackerel fleets from the lower Cape, or to join the coastal trade. Fine mansions with widow's walks or lookout rooms on their roofs were built by several Falmouth sea captains in those days.

There were other sources of livelihood; all sorts of small businesses grew up, flourished and in many cases disappeared without a trace in different areas of the town. Wool carding, glass making, candle making, herring companies, salt works and carriage works contributed to the economy. During the Civil War one of Falmouth's mills produced cloth for the Union Army uniforms. A unique enterprise was the Pacific Guano Company in Woods Hole which mixed sea bird deposits from mid-Pacific islands with local scrap fish to make commercial fertilizer.

To commemorate these early industries, the Committee to Encourage Public Art oversaw the financing, production and installation of a series of bronze plaques entitled Looking Back: Falmouth at Work. The plaques were created by Falmouth artist Sarah Peters and have been placed in the Falmouth Public Library lawn adjacent to the sidewalk on Main Street.

Town meeting then, as now, was a great event of the year. "It was a good-natured gathering of neighbors when the entire day was spent, sometimes two days, discussing town affairs and each other with the utmost freedom..."

It was in this sort of community that Katharine Lee Bates, author of "America the Beautiful," was born in 1859, while her father was serving as pastor of the First Congregational Church. She spent her early years in Falmouth and went to Newton High School and then Wellesley College, where she later taught English literature. Her famous poem was inspired by her first trip west in 1893. She died in 1929 and is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in Falmouth. There is a statue of her on the Public Library lawn.

The second half of the century also brought to Falmouth three groups of townspeople who continue to be of major importance to the community: the Portuguese, the summer vacationers, and the scientists.

Of the three, the Portuguese have become most thoroughly woven into the fabric of the town. Arriving first as skilled seamen, harpooners and boat steerers for the whale fishery, and then as farmers and gardeners, they came from the Azores and Cape Verde Islands as well as the mainland. Still later they migrated to the Cape from inland cities after the decline of the textile mills. Through their industry, Falmouth became a major strawberry and vegetable growing center. Now, with roots often going back more than six generations, descendants of the Portuguese settlers constitute about one third of the town's year round population, and there is a continuing slow but steady immigration. The typical American immigration cycle turned once again in the 1990's when many Brazilians arrived to take part in the work and life of the town.

A few wealthy Bostonians came to Falmouth in the summer in mid-century but it was not until opening the railroad in 1872 that the community began to develop as a summer resort. Men of great prominence and wealth built imposing "cottages" on Penzance Point in Woods Hole, in Quissett, Sippewissett and Chapoquoit. Some of the summer residents became important benefactors to the town.

The Church of the Messiah in Woods Hole was built by Joseph Story Fay of Boston who bought up a great deal of land in Woods Hole and Falmouth. He is credited with having planted a variety of deciduous trees which has given Falmouth a different appearance from the rest of the Cape. The Fay Family gave Goodwill Park to the town. The Beebe family from Boston, who spent their summers at what is now called Highfield Hall, was responsible for the building of St. Barnabas Church across from the Village Green.

A few landowners have continued this generous tradition. In 1961, Dewitt Ter Heun donated part of the former Beebe property to build the Falmouth Hospital. In 1972, Josephine and Josiah K. Lilly III bought the remaining 487 acres of the estate and then donated 383 acres of its woods and ponds to the town for conservation. In 2001, Highfield Hall itself was purchased for the town by Historic Highfield, Inc. which has restored it for public use. Falmouth Town Seal

Another early summer resident, Edward N. Fenno of Boston, is credited with suggesting that Falmouth have a town seal. The designer of the seal is unknown, but it was adopted by the town in 1897 and was painted into the dome of Memorial Library when it was built in 1901.

For more than a century Falmouth has been a center of unparalleled scientific opportunities. The present laboratories are described in Chapter X; they began in the early 1870's, when Louis Agassiz established a marine laboratory on Penikese Island in Buzzards Bay and Spencer Fullerton Baird began investigations into the marine fisheries of New England from a station in Woods Hole. As a deepwater port with access to the major universities of the eastern seaboard and also to the major fishing grounds, Woods Hole soon became a focus for sea-going investigators. Over the years the laboratories have become year-round establishments and the scientific community has become part of the economic, social and political life of the town.

The Present

The central fact about Falmouth in the 20th century has been rapid growth, and the blessings and inevitable problems that accompany it. In 1960 there were 13,000 year-round inhabitants, by 2003 there were well over 30,000, and the population in 2010 is 30,602 . The influx of summer visitors has increased just as rapidly; they outnumber permanent residents about two to one.

All but two of the schools in Falmouth were built since 1950. Roads have been built, parks and beaches developed, water supplies extended, and a sewer built to serve the most densely populated parts of town. The Planning Board, Conservation Commission , Coastal Pond Management Committee, Coastal Resources Working Group, Energy Committee, Waterways Committee, Agricultural Commission, and Beach Committee were all established to deal with the increasing pressures on the town's open lands and waters. In 2010 the Board of Selectmen created a Plan Review Committee for the purpose of reviewing the proposed Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan (CWMP).

The Town of Falmouth contains eight villages: Falmouth, East Falmouth, West Falmouth, North Falmouth, Hatchville, Teaticket, Waquoit, and Woods Hole. All but Hatchville have their own post office and four have elementary schools.

Religion. As the meeting house was a focus of community life in colonial Falmouth, so churches and synagogues remain important both as houses of worship and centers of activity. There are dozens of religious groups in the Upper Cape, another indication of the area's diversity. The Falmouth Enterprise publishes a directory every Friday, with details of religious observances and community programs.

Economy. Falmouth's economic base is characterized by a strong retail and service sector. Since the 1970's, the town's population has grown faster than in the rest of Massachusetts and the United States. The town's retail and service sectors have expanded to meet the needs of this growing market. Supplementing these sectors is a growing industrial component of Falmouth's economy which has traditionally centered on printing, lumberyards, and construction, but which now includes scientific and other high tech industries.

The Falmouth Chamber of Commerce is a valuable resource for the residents and tourists alike. It produces maps, studies, and initiates local events such as the annual Antique and Crafts Fair at the Barnstable County Fairgrounds. An annual visitor's guide and Consumer Resource directory is also produced by the Falmouth Chamber of Commerce.

Oceanographic and marine research institutions such as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Marine Biological Laboratory, the Northeast Fisheries Research Center of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the United States Geological Survey, the National Academy of Sciences, the Woods Hole Research Center, and the Sea Education Association employ many hundreds of people on a year-round basis. In addition, Falmouth has a major Coast Guard base.

The Falmouth Economic Development and Industrial Corporation (EDIC) has helped to diversify the local economy by developing a 106-acre technology park, housing over a dozen companies that employ approximately 400 people. The EDIC is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization established in 1981 by a Falmouth Town Meeting vote, in accordance with Chapter 121C of the Massachusetts General Laws.

The Massachusetts Military Reservation (MMR), adjacent to the towns of Falmouth, Mashpee, Bourne and Sandwich, employs hundreds of people. The Reservation includes the following facilities: Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod , Upper Cape Regional Water Cooperative, Barnstable Co. Correctional Facility and Sheriff's Office, Otis National Guard, Mass. National Cemetery, Army National Guard Camp Edwards, Air Force Center for Engineering & the Environment, Sixth Missile Warning Squadron (PAVE PAWS), and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Community life in Falmouth changes drastically with the season. Summer gives Falmouth a tremendous economic boost. In addition to direct income for merchants and landlords, there is revenue to the town from beaches and marinas, as well as from the owners of summer houses, who pay a full share of property tax but don't use town services year-round or schools. But there are headaches, too, besides the irritations of summer crowds. Parking, traffic, and noise problems have increased, zoning questions arise from the growth of summer businesses, and there are the usual problems involving young people at loose ends. The problems of the summer are actually part and parcel of the business of the town throughout the year, just as the activities of one season anticipate the next. The following pages show how the town of Falmouth is organized to govern itself and to provide all its residents with education, safety, health care, welfare, and recreation.