Provincetown wars with its Past

Lipton Cup

      In 1907 a race was run for Grand Banks schooners between Gloucester and Boston. Sir Thomas Lipton, of Lipton tea and Americas Cup racing fame, provided a silver cup as a trophy for the winner and the trophy was taken by the Schooner 'Rose Dorothea' out of Provincetown.

      The trophy rests today in Provincetown's Heritage Museum next to a half scale model of the 'Rose Dorothea'. The model and the building which houses it have become a source of controversy in the town and are a good example of how the maritime heritage of our seacoast is being lost as we near the millenium.

Rose Dorothea

      During the 1970's a group of townspeople engineered the preservation of an historic church by convincing the voters in Town Meeting to buy the building and establish a town museum in it. They also convinced Frances "Flyer" Santos, one of the town's last remaining wooden boatbuilders to have worked on the Grand Banks schooners, to construct a half scale model of the 'Rose Dorothea' on the second floor in what had been the nave of the church. Half scale proved to be a little large. The model completely fills all of the available space leaving only narrow walkways around the display. The masts extend into the ceiling.

      Now it must be remembered that everything in Provincetown is built on sand. There is no topsoil and there is no bedrock. There's just sand. The historic church had been settling and shifting for over 100 years when work began to construct the very heavy model on its second floor...

      It must also be remembered that the church is an immense wooden structure and the skills and costs involved in maintaining wooden structures are much more difficult to find and expensive than they used to be...

      In recent years the town's taxpayers have not been happy about footing the bill for preserving the museum. There appear to be three factions today among the town's voters.

      A "financial responsibility" party exists which advocates selling the building and the land it stands upon in order to return it to the tax rolls. Legend has it that the town originally acquired the building and land in order to avoid having private interests buy it and turn it into a parking lot so what the "financial responsibility" group advocates is in opposition to the majority sentiment of Town Meeting back in the 1970's.

      A "creative re-use" party advocates adapting the building for another use by the town. There are obvious problems with this idea because the town already provides abundant examples of creative re-use gone wrong and the building itself is already victim to an abortive adaptation to turn it into an art museum which left it with the unfortunate subdivision of the old nave that so cramps the 'Rose Dorothea' model.

      Finally there is an "inertia" party which wants everything left as it is right now. This party's agenda presumably includes allowing the building and its exhibits to continue to deteriorate since no proposals have been made for long term solutions to the existing problems.

      At the end of the 1999 Spring Town Meeting the "inertia" party was clearly, if temporarily, triumphant. An article to relocate the model to a glass shelter in the center of town was roundly defeated. An article to authorize the Town's Board of Selectmen to sell the building was also defeated and an article to finance a study for creative re-use was also turned down. Limited funds were grudgingly authorized to "seal the envelope" of the building. As nearly as I can tell "seal the envelope" means fix the roof and keep out the rain...

      There is a missing faction which I'll label the "party of zero". This non-existent group should include people who want to spend the necessary money to restore the old church and update the displays it contains. Logic would seem to dictate that investing in a good museum in a town devoted to the tourist trade would make sense. Unfortunately there are no members, hence the "party of zero". Why are there no advocates for finishing the job which was started over twenty years ago?

      The simple answer is that history is lost and forgotten when people no longer care about it. A more long-winded, and probably more useful, answer requires an examination of the town's history, demographics and economics. As the population of the town has changed interest in its roots as a maritime community has decreased. The current population seems preoccupied with a view of the town as a gay ghetto and the economic pressure from the short summer tourist season has led to some very unusual accommodations. For instance one of the two remaining piers was recently enlarged to provide parking over the water for shoppers, covering up the very resource which makes the town attractive to tourists - the interface between land and sea.

      Provincetown seems always to have been a town at war with its own heritage. The town, which was the first landing place of the Pilgrims before they came to their senses and departed for the mainland to found Plymouth, became a haven for fugitives and religious dissenters during colonial times. When fishing boats were propelled by wind it served as a useful place to unload catch from the Grand Banks. The catch was then transported by rail to the mainland and sold fresh in the markets of Boston and New York. Until just before the beginning of the twentieth century Provincetown was a congested busy fishing port. Almost 100 piers reached out into the harbor. Chandleries and marine supply firms were everywhere and ships were frequently built with timber brought down from Maine.

      Most of the piers were destroyed in the Portland Gale. Fishing boats began to rely upon engines instead of sails and it became more practical to return to a mainland port than to offload in Provincetown. The handwriting was on the wall by the time of the 'Rose Dorothea' and the Lipton Cup race in 1907.

      Provincetown had enjoyed a tourist industry since the days of Thoreau. During the later years of the 19th Century it became a favorite summer spot for artists. The main industry of the town became tourism. Fishing continued to contribute to the local color, but began to have a progressively less and less important role in the town's economy.

      After the turn of the century wealthy Manhattan socialite Mabel Dodge began to summer in Provincetown and encouraged a group of bohemians to follow her example. Included in this group were the founders of the Provincetown Players. Since the town was already accustomed to tolerating eccentric artists it welcomed the newcomers (and their money) and turned a blind eye on their sexual experiments as it had turned a blind eye toward the eccentricities of the 19th century painters. Once a reputation for tolerance had been established Provincetown quickly became a leading summer destination for homosexual men and women. The character of the town had changed but the change was not very visible.


      Fishing boats still motored in and out of the harbor. Things looked the same as ever... Heavy reliance on the seasonal tourist trade left considerable financial hardship each winter. Old buildings weren't torn down and replaced. They were repaired and reused. Things went on and the shape of the town didn't really change very much as the years passed. It remained a 19th century wooden fishing village with quaint but impractical narrow streets, a constant danger of fire and questionable plumbing. And so it remains to this day...

Dave Murphy


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