South Wellfleet Schools and Libraries

Pond Hill School built in 1857

South Wellfleet Pond Hill School built in 1857

Massachusetts prides itself on its premier role in education, pointing to the 1642 Massachusetts Bay Colony law requiring that children be taught to read and write. In 1647 a law set out the size of a settlement that would be required to maintain a school: “It being one cheife piect of yt ould deluder Satan to keep men from knowledge of ye Scriptures …it is therefore ordered, every township in this jurisdiction, aft ye Lord hath increased ye number of 50 households ..”  The Colony had already established Boston Latin School (1635) and Harvard College (1636) along with their support, another indication of the importance of education for the Puritans.

Eastham in the 1600s was an offshoot of Plymouth Colony, not of Massachusetts Bay. Some writers indicate that the Pilgrims/Separatists were less interested in education. However, when the two colonies merged in 1691, laws governing the provision of education were applied throughout the settlements. To their credit, Eastham records indicate that in 1665 Jonathan Sparrow was appointed to be the schoolmaster. In these early days, the schoolmaster spent some time in a number of houses so that the boys could attend a “school.”  Girls were not thought worthy of such effort.

After the Colony’s merger in 1709, Eastham received a formal complaint from the General Court, urging them to find a schoolmaster. Eastham divided the town into two districts, and a recent Harvard graduate, Peter Barnes, was engaged as a teacher. Since the town encompassed the area from Orleans to Truro, this must have been a difficult job.  A few years later, another teacher was employed who had to teach — but also help the Reverend Mr. Treat, Eastham’s fire-and-brimstone preacher. However, the effort to employ a teacher proved difficult, perhaps because the colony was not producing enough Harvard graduates. Eastham was fined in 1719 for not providing a school.

In the 1720s, Eastham refused the petition of Billingsgate to become a separate town but did allow a minister to serve the northern portion of the town. In 1749, Eastham divided the town into three parts, with the northern division — the part that became Wellfleet in 1763 — consisting of 103 families. For each division, there was a committee appointed to settle and supervise a school. Was there a school in South Wellfleet? Impossible to discern, as land records that would show settlements are not available. We do know that some of Wellfleet’s early settlement was on Bound Brook Island and the Chequesset Neck areas, the latter being the site of the first meeting house. (In 1798 a group of men built Wellfleet’s first schoolhouse, with 32 shares. Everett Nye indicates in his Wellfleet history that it was north of Herring brook about 15 rods south of the Truro Line.)

The first census of Massachusetts was taken in 1765, two years after Wellfleet separated from Eastham. Wellfleet’s population was 917. One of the town’s first acts was to raise money for the support of the ministry and the schools. The homes where the school was to operate were named: five weeks each at James Atwood’s, Joseph Atkins’, Joseph Pierce’s, Zoheth Smith’s, and then at Widow Doane’s for the remainder of the six months.  Without records, however, we don’t know if any of these homes were in the South Wellfleet area.

In 1768 Wellfleet appointed John Greenough (Harvard 1763) to keep a grammar school for one year to teach reading, writing, and cyphering, but also Latin and Greek, the languages a boy needed to gain admission to Harvard. In this act, there were 48 families in the south division, but the area is not defined. In 1770 the records show 58 pounds allocated for the common school.

Greenough became a citizen of Wellfleet, but caused some trouble in 1774 when he purchased a damaged chest of tea, after the town had adopted a resolution not to use or purchase any imported item on which the Crown had imposed “unlawful duties.” Another teacher, Dr. Nutting, was appointed to run the school, but Greenough seems to have been forgiven, as he represented the town at the 1779 County Convention in Barnstable. He died in 1781.

In 1790, Wellfleet named eight school districts, the eighth being “all the remainder to Blackfish Creek.” Then we see an expansion of districts, with a sixth in South Wellfleet as that part of town grew in population. There were ten schools in Wellfleet by 1844 and twelve by 1857.

Mr. Nye, in his history of Wellfleet. quotes from a manuscript written by Eben Freeman, who was born in Wellfleet in 1790. He states:

In those days there was always someone who went to sea in summer and stayed home in winter. The neighbors would select someone to teach their boys, hire some kitchen in an old house, fit it up with rough seats and tables. School begins next Monday, it would be announced. The master calls the names to see if all who applied are there. All in, he directs them to their seats. Those with slates and writing books sit at the tables and benches, and readers only sit on low benches. School begins. The schoolmaster brings Pike’s Arithmetic, the Bible, and Westminster Catechisms. The scholars bring the same if they have them. Some bring a book called the Psalter. …A scholar who could read a chapter in St. John’s gospel without spelling the words was thought a good reader; and if he could cipher as far as the rule of three he was then considered finished, left school and went to sea for a living.

At the Wellfleet Historical Society, I found a South Wellfleet School document (possibly from the 1840s) that recorded the school support charges for each family calculated by the number of days their children attended the local school. The Areys, Doanes, Hatches, Wileys, Goodspeeds and others brought in nearly $32, which when added to the $64 the town covered, made expenses of $96 for the school in South Wellfleet. But where was the school?

The 1858 Walling map of Wellfleet shows a school in South Wellfleet south of Fresh Brook, as well as the one that became the Pond Hill School. The South Wellfleet Neighborhood Association’s 1938 brochure indicates that there were two schools south of Blackfish Creek. Mr. Coles’ memory piece that I’ve quoted in previous posts confirms this fact. He names four South Wellfleet Schools: Trout Brook or Silver Spring and Monkey Neck south of Blackfish Creek. The two schools north of Blackfish Creek were the Pond Hill, and the one in Spring Valley or Dogtown. These documents are the only ones I have found that use the term “Monkey Neck” to refer to part of South Wellfleet south of Old Wharf Road, perhaps near where Lieutenant Island Road is today. Somewhere, I recall reading that there was a school near where Rookie’s Pizza stands today — perhaps that was the Monkey Neck School.

The remainder of the 19th Century was spent by the town of Wellfleet in arranging and re-arranging school property and funding to meet first population growth and then decline. In 1855, the Town voted to own all the school property, showing us that the early schools were built by the families they served. In the 1860s a major effort was made to enforce truancy laws.

In 1866, the town established its first high school, and moved it to Main Street in 1889.  Before the high school was established, the Orleans Academy, started in 1827, was the only alternative for those seeking education beyond that provided by the neighboring towns’ schools; the Academy may have also provided enough education so that a student could qualify as a teacher for a town school.

The Pond Hill School was closed in 1880, another sign of the South Wellfleet population diminishing. The Wellfleet Town Meeting voted in 1880 to move “South Wellfleet Schoolhouse Number 1” to a location near Solomon Bell’s house.  The Barnstable Patriot covered that story, noting that the South Wellfleet “number 1” school was moved to be near the Second Congregational Church. In 1884, a note on the start of the school year indicated that a Miss Smith of Dover, New Hampshire would be the teacher.

Charles Coles’ memories of growing up in South Wellfleet include several pages on his schooling, perhaps more important because he became a teacher himself, and he could reflect on what was important in his education. He remembers the “three R’s” as well as learning U.S. history and grammar. He claims that the “A B C method of teaching” was such that it took several years for the average child to learn to read. Writing consisted mostly of copying exercises in copy books. Penmanship may have been learned, but spelling was oral, with no practice in writing words or sentences.

Pond Hill School before construction

Pond Hill School before construction

Mr. Cole attended District School #3 in 1860, in the red Pond Hill School he says was built (in 1857) to take the place of the one-story little  red schoolhouse which had become too small to accommodate all the children of the district. All the children were in the lower room in the summer, taught by one teacher. In the winter when the boys older than ten years were not away fishing with their fathers, the upper level was opened for their education, as well as that of the older girls. This is where the term “fisherman’s school” comes from.  The older children were taught by a male, usually a young man who was studying to be a teacher himself. Mr. Cole took that role himself somewhat later. Since his grandfather, Collins S. Cole, had left a considerable estate, Mr. Cole was allowed to attend the high school in North Wellfleet, as he did not have to embark upon a fishing career. Eventually he attended Bridgewater Normal School and held many teaching positions.

Today, the Pond Hill School is undergoing restoration so that it can continue serving the South Wellfleet community as the headquarters for the Neighborhood Association. Please consider making a gift to this venerable South Wellfleet institution:

Wellfleet Libraries

South Wellfleet has a library also, one of the ways in which adults continue to educate themselves. As I began to explore the history of the Wellfleet Library, I found a State report on statistics from the state’s 1875 census. Here there were four libraries in Wellfleet: the Worker’s Library, the Smith Circulating Library, and the Sunday School libraries of the First Congregational and the Methodist Episcopal Churches. The Barnstable Patriot reported in 1882 that there were twelve “entertainments” in Wellfleet that year to support and enlarge the “Wellfleet Worker’s Society Library.”  There were additions to the Worker’s Library in 1883 and 1884. However, I have not (yet) been able to find the source of this library.

The Worker’s Library was absorbed into the Town Library which that had been established in 1894 under the Massachusetts State Library Act of 1890. A report about the library noted that it was in the Town Hall in 1895 with 587 volumes, with a circulation of 1,847.

The Wellfleet Library sent me a 1941 paper written by Mary S. Freeman about the history of the Library. In that document, she notes that during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, a few men each contributed a dollar to begin to obtain free reading matter to be collected into a Library. Perhaps this was the beginning of the Worker’s Library. However, Ms. Freeman indicates that the Worker’s Library was started in 1893. More research is clearly needed to untangle the history of these various Wellfleet Libraries.

In 1914, the South Wellfleet Library was established on the second floor of the Pond Hill School under the direction of Mary E. Paine. The building, at that time, was the South Wellfleet Social Union and had been purchased from the Town for $100. The Wellfleet Library made the South Wellfleet Library an official branch in 1923. By 1939, it had 3,000 volumes. Today it is no longer a branch but is under the auspices of The South Wellfleet Neighborhood Association and Social Union.

After the restoration work is done and the books and records unpacked, I may be able to write more about the SWNASU archives. I have happy memories of stopping by the Library on summer afternoons and choosing volumes in the Bobbsey Twins or the Nancy Drew series as I worked my way through these  books for young readers.


Pratt, Enoch A Comprehensive History, Ecclesiastical and Civil, Eastham, Wellfleet and Orleans, From 1644 to 1844, Yarmouth, W.S. Fisher and Co., 1844  (available on Google Books)

Barnstable Patriot (various) online  archive:

“The Notes of Charles F. Cole” manuscript from the Wellfleet Public Library

“Town Meeting Highlights” list supplied by Dawn Rickman, Wellfleet Town Clerk in 2007

South Wellfleet Neighborhood Association booklet on line at David Kew’s site:

“History of the Wellfleet Public Library,” a paper by Mary S. Freeman, July 1941

Nye, Everett History of Wellfleet from Early days to Present Time 1920 (online at Google Books)

South Wellfleet Neighborhood Association:


Family history researcher living in New York City.
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