By Bill Galvin, The Cape Cod Chronicle
The Herring River was the first center of industry in Harwich, with three mills built along sections of its waterways. More than 300 years later, the Bell’s Neck Conservation Area is the mainstay of open space and wildlife preservation along the river corridor.
Made up of more than 260 acres of open space, wildlife corridors and walking trails, the Bell’s Neck Conservation Area is primarily owned by the Town. The Harwich Conservation Trust has assisted with land conservation acquisitions in the area and currently has another purchase in its sights.
The Town Conservation Commission made its initial acquisition in the area on August 19, 1966, and has continued to purchase land in the corridor. The Town’s goal is to protect the Herring River, its herring run, and the reservoir while providing open space for public recreation and wildlife.
But how did this bucolic setting get its name? It certainly wasn’t from the melodious ringing of the nearby Baptist Church bell.
Little Robin & John Bell
According to Josiah Paine’s “A History of Harwich 1620-1800,” a resident of Sandwich by the name of John Bell purchased a large tract of land along the east side of the Herring River from Little Robin, a local Native American, on December 16, 1668. Little Robin lived near Nobscussett, now recognized as a bayside section of East Dennis.
Paine writes that Bell came from Sandwich, “perhaps through the influence of John Wing and John Dillingham, who had homes established at Sauquatuckett, and before they came were townsmen of Sandwich.”
Little is known of the life of John Bell. He appeared to have resided for a number of years in a secluded place within the limits of his land. In 1690 John Bell’s house is mentioned in a Sachemus’ deed to John Wing and other proprietors as standing near the Herring River near a marked tree in the line between Sachemus and Napaoitan, an Indian Sachem in Barnstable. Bell was also one of 12 men who in 1668 laid out the way westward to Stony Brook, which was then in the town of Yarmouth, according to Paine.
Ever since Bell’s residency, the property has been known as Bell’s Neck.
Bell and his wife had two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. Elizabeth married Samuel Berry, who took care of Bell and his wife in the last years of their lives. While the date of Bell’s death is not clear, probate court records show that letters of administration were granted to Berry. In 1721 there was a dispute involving the Wing property lines to the west. Samuel Berry and his son John Berry claimed ownership of the property. The dispute was settled through arbitration, according to Paine.
West Harwich resident and planning board chair Duncan Berry noted a bit of ancestral history in a presentation he made to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation regarding the reconstruction of Route 28 through the village. Berry’s family has lived in the area since the 1630s. Samuel Berry, who was deeded the Bell’s Neck property, was his eighth great-grandfather who also signed the Town of Harwich charter of incorporation in 1694.
Native Americans Recognized Bell’s Neck Abundance
Going back further into its history, the Bell’s Neck area was an archaic summer and fishing camp for Indigenous people dating back 5,000 years.
“The Indian Camp site in this area was located on the south side of a gently sloping hill and, at one time, a small branch of the Herring River flowed close by the camp,” Eric Farnham wrote in an Indian history of Harwich, complied by the Town Historical Commission in 1971. “Innumerable springs are close by and, with an abundance of alewives, other fish from the river, marsh and water birds, deer and other wildlife natural to an area of this type, Bell’s Neck was a veritable larder for the Indians.” Large clay pots and pottery used in about 100 A.D. were discovered in Bell’s Neck. A stone gouge, likely used for woodworking around 2,000 B.C. was also discovered in the area of the camp.
“It would appear that there has been continuing occupation of Bell’s Neck-Herring River area for about 5,000 years. The original occupants enjoyed it and did little to change it. We hopefully have taken steps to preserve it,” the Historical Commission’s publication reads.
Preserving Bell’s Neck Helps Protect Herring River
The area around Bell’s Neck was purchased in the 1920s by Marcus L. Urann, a founder of Ocean Spray Cranberries and the inventor of canned cranberry sauce. Urann established the West Reservoir, damming a section of the Herring River in 1925, to create a backup supply of fresh water for cranberry growers and protect against salt water intrusion from the tidally influenced river.
In 1966 the Town made the first major step toward creating the Bell’s Neck Conservation Area with the purchase of 202 acres for $235,000. The State covered half of the cost. Since then additional purchases have been made. By 2011, the Town held 260 acres in the Bell’s Neck area. In 2013, working with the Harwich Conservation Trust, the town purchased the 6.5-acre Verrochi property south of the herring flume at the West Reservoir, and in 2015 another 4.1 acres of the Hall property was added. The Hall property was seen as a key piece of the Bell’s Neck open space puzzle to protect wildlife habitat and water quality as well as complete a trail loop around West Reservoir in conjunction with the Cape Cod Rail Trail bike path on the north.
The Town Community Preservation Committee voted to recommend $125,000 of Town Community Preservation open space funds to assist the Harwich Conservation Trust in acquiring a 2.87-acre parcel, with 1,180 feet of shorefront marsh, located along Bell’s Neck Road. The Town would hold a conservation restriction on the property. The funding needs Town Meeting approval in May.
The value of the acquisition includes protection of water quality, wildlife habitat, and more than 750 feet or the length of 2-1/2 athletic fields of scenic forest bordering Bell’s Neck Road, a public road. HCT is in the midst of a campaign to raise $325,000 to preserve the ecologically strategic parcel. A permit for construction of a house had already been approved by the Town Conservation Commission as evidence of the development risk to the land if it’s not preserved.
Little is known about John Bell, but his name will endure in association with one of the more bucolic settings on Cape Cod.