This Generation’s Caretaker

by Mary J. Metzger

“We came only in the summers, as there was no heat or electricity in our camp. Long Pond Drive was just a dirt cart path then (the late 1930’s), wide enough for a horse and cart or an old beat-up car. The first thing we would do on arrival would be to prune the path back to Brewster Road (Route 124) so the car wouldn’t get scratched up. From here, you couldn’t see another house on Long Pond, and only two other fishing camps. It was deep woods.”

What’s left of those deep woods is preserved with a conservation restriction donated to the Harwich Conservation Trust. But these memories belong to a benefactress whose ties to her pond-shore land go back to 1790.

The property is private, there is no public access, and the donor still lives there in her modest house atop the bluff. Her forward-thinking donation to the Trust helped protect important wildlife habitat and Long Pond water quality. If not preserved, then a four-lot subdivsion could have occupied the site just a stone’s throw from the water on an already crowded shoreline. Her family’s history provides a prism for seeing “old Cape Cod” rooted in a beloved landscape.

In 1790, her ancestor, Nathan Underwood, accepted an offer to take the minister’s job at what is now the Harwich First Congregational Church. Nathan had grown up on a dairy farm in Lexington, fought in the Revolution, and then studied at Harvard Divinity School, graduating in 1788. He was stepping into a contentious local squabble.

When Harwich was incorporated in 1694 it included what is now Brewster. The parish meeting house was in the northern reaches. The southern population had to traverse seven miles (one way) from Harwich to the North Parish each Sabbath through the soggy middle lands of ponds, swamps, and sloughs. A South Parish was officially sanctioned by the state legislature in 1746 and a meetinghouse and minister needed to be procured. Rev. Pell came in 1747 with the offer of grain, cord wood and a house. This deal was later sweetened with an offer of hay.

Rev. Pell never quite took to the less prosperous South Parish and expressed his doubts about its success even after his death at age 41, when his wishes to be buried in the North Parish church’s burying ground were carried out. Rev. Pell believed the South Parish’s graveyard would soon be abandoned to a pine/oak wasteland.

Pell’s successor, Nathan Underwood, came to Harwich with a realistic plan for his permanent place in the community. Drawing on his dairy heritage, he acquired land on Long Pond and at Red River with the idea of using the salt marsh hay to feed inland-raised cows. At his own expense, he built a large parsonage/farmhouse on twelve acres in Harwich Center. “Rather out of place on Cape Cod,” wrote Sidney Brooks, “containing more shining milk pans than could be well filled.”

The farmstead flourished with barns, sheds, gardens, and a “thrifty cherry orchard,” thanks in part to Mrs. Underwood, “a model of a pastor’s as well as a farmer’s wife.” She also gave him seven sons.

It was good that Nathan Underwood had planned ahead for his family’s security. In 1803, the more prosperous North Parish was able to form its own town (Brewster). By 1809, the Congregational minority could no longer levy taxes for support of the South Parish from the growing Baptist and Methodist populations. Nathan Underwood served as pastor until 1828 with very little remuneration. But what was the condition of that Long Pond property that Nathan Underwood acquired in 1790?

The first European settlers to the Cape described a “goodly land, wooded to the brink of the seas.” In less than a century, the land had been mostly cleared for crops and pastureland. Timber was used for fences, buildings, ships, windmills, and for heating and cooking fuel. The last 30 acres of Chatham’s original forest was felled in 1815, followed the year after with one of the Cape’s first pine reforestation efforts to try to stave off rapid topsoil erosion.

Yet it is possible the inland portions of Harwich remained more wooded. According to Harwich historian Josiah Paine, the Selectmen’s report of 1781 shows 58% of the land was wooded and unimproved with 34% given over to pastures, 4% to salt and fresh meadows and 4% to tilled land. When the State Legislature approved Brewster’s separation in 1803, it cited the South Parish of Harwich to have two-thirds of the woodland and all the “valuable Cedar Swamps.”

Nathan Underwood’s dairy cows were tended on what was part of the Quason purchase. These long and narrow parcels of land between the south shore of Long Pond and what is now Queen Anne’s Rd had been purchased in 1713 from the native people for the Plimoth Plantation’s Old Comer families. Settlement in this part of Harwich was sparse, not only because of its soggy nature. With the rapid loss of topsoil, Cape Codders were forced to turn to the seas for a living. And the increase of population and roads along the north and south shores reflected that reality.

While Brewster became the home of prosperous whaling captains, Harwich did well enough developing its own packet boat businesses. Like modern day truckers, these mariners transported goods all along the East Coast. There was probably not a lot of change in the Harwich woods during this time. Sidney Brooks (1813-1886) describes long walks in his youth in the North Woods stretching unfettered from Harwich Center to Long Pond. The community would have continued to cut firewood and ice from the area.

The Civil War and arrival of the railroad severely impacted the freight schooner industry, and Harwich’s tenuous hold on prosperity crumbled. The Town’s economy was saved after Alvin Cahoon’s 1846 experiment with commercial cranberry farming caught on. Any soggy plot in town could now yield a little money, and families cleared swamps everywhere. The Long Pond cart trail was extended to a cranberry bog just east of what had been Nathan Underwood’s land. (And what is now the parking lot to the Town Beach.)

Interestingly, Nathan Underwood’s descendants did not develop cranberry bogs on the Long Pond property. A remnant white cedar swamp still remains. Perhaps this is because the branch of the family that owned the land had turned from theology and dairy farming to the mercantile trade.

An entrepreneur, J. M. Moody, envisioned a golf resort west of the property. He drew up quarter acre lots along the south shore of Long Pond in the 1890’s but this plan did not materialize. By the turn of the century, the Long Pond land was still remote, used by the donor’s family only as a summer hunting and fishing camp.

Camping became all the rage in the 1920’s with upscale Adirondack styled resort cabins in the Catskills. Our benefactress’s grandmother, who was from New York, designed a “camp” to mirror these summer places. The camp house had a large stone fireplace and screened porch facing the pond.

“There was no electricity. They had an ice box, a wood stove, kerosene lamps, and indoor plumbing of sorts. A maid had to draw water from the pond to flush toilets. On summer evenings they could also sometimes hear music wafting across the pond from a speakeasy on Turkey Hill. C.D. Cahoon painted from this part of the shore and Elmer Crowell. carved working decoys for a duck-blind here. The Provincetown writer John Dos Passos also visited the house.” This simple place of spirited relaxation did not continue.

“The Mid-Cape Highway changed everything. Our land was broken in half by eminent domain. The same thing happened with the development of Long Pond Drive in 1952. The town presented a $1,200 check one day in exchange for the takeover , and our land was further divided.

We continued to use what was left to us as a summer retreat. There was an explosion of houses on quarter-acre lots that you see today.”

In 1972, her parents brought in electricity, plumbing, central heating, and added rooms to the camp, but spent their winters in Florida. The extended family continued summer gatherings. It came somewhat as a surprise, as all life transitions often do, when in 1990 her father sent her papers saying he was turning the place over to her generation.

“It was a surprise; I had a career, was still working, at 55, living north of Boston. In 1991, I decided to come home & be “This Generation’s Caretaker” as there was no one else to do it and it had to be done. I felt somewhat overwhelmed by the responsibility of taking care of properties that are part of my history and that of Harwich. I came into this with 4 acres at Red River Beach and 13 acres on Long Pond. These properties are my heritage and I wanted them to be preserved. I donated the Red River Salt Marshes to the Chatham Conservation Trust and sold a portion of the Long Pond property across the road the with the stipulation that only one house could be built. Eventually I was able to place 6 acres of my remaining land with a conservation restriction with the Harwich Conservation Trust.”

“For two decades I’ve been this generation’s caretaker, but life on Long Pond has changed. Some nights in the winter when I look out across a foggy pond I can imagine seeing it as it was 12,000 years ago. But, the huge boat races, jet skies, drinking, and loud parties in the summer can erase that image.”

Still our benefactress strives to find some place for wildlife and plants. Recently, with the American Chestnut Foundation, she has planted ten American Chestnut trees, back-bred over the past half century to survive the blight, in the hopes of restoring what was once common on this land. Nathan Underwood would be proud.