Wellfleet’s rich lode of shellfish is a theme constant with its fishing industry. David Wright has covered the history of shellfishing in Wellfleet in his book The Famous Beds of Wellfleet, A Shellfishing History (Wellfleet Historical Society, 2008).
Shellfish became a food source when the Pilgrims landed. Soon, the shellfish were on their way to Boston to feed growing numbers of Massachusetts Bay residents. One of the early oyster beds was in the bay near Silver Spring, part of the Audubon Sanctuary today. Pratt’s history comments on the 1775 ecological disaster when all the oysters died, and imagines that this had happened because it came at a time when a large number of blackfish had come ashore, and perhaps their decayed carcasses caused the death of the oysters.
The 1912 Report of The Mollusk Fisheries (Massachusetts Commission on Fisheries and Game) quotes Wellfleet’s E.P. Cook with another guess as to the diminished oysters. He thought that the early inhabitants did not understand the value of the natural shell beds for catching the spat. “They took every shell away, burning the shells into fertilizer for their farms and plaster for their houses.” Cook notes that “there once was a stand of woods near the original oyster rock, but this was cut down, and the sand gradually washed over the beds, killing the young oysters.”
The destruction of the beds, however, brought about a “new” industry: bringing southern oysters up to Wellfleet to bed them for the spring and summer, taking them to market the following fall. Mr. Cook credits Captain William Dill with bringing the first cargo from Virginia. This method grew up until the beginning of the Civil War, when it diminished. For a few years, the oysters were shipped north without the stopover in Wellfleet.
According to the same report cited above, in the mid-1870s E.P. Cook began to plant seed oysters, picking as his first spot the flats next to Silver Spring, the site of the original “natural rock.” He achieved remarkable oyster growth there and soon had others interested. Soon there was wheeling and dealing in Wellfleet for the lease of the flats for oyster cultivation.
Joseph A. Stubbs was one of the wholesale dealers who participated. There were about 200 acres of flats in South Wellfleet. One report indicated that the area on the south side of Blackfish Creek was quite productive. Eastham grants were farmed by the Wellfleet shell fishermen and the companies operating out of the town. Besides Stubbs, there were R.R. Higgins and D. Atwood & Co.
Joseph Andrew Stubbs’ business was extensive, covering much more than Wellfleet alone. He dealt in many kinds of shellfish, and had beds in Crisfield, Maryland; Warren, Rhode Island; and Pocasset, Massachusetts, as well as in Wellfleet. In her book on Wellfleet, R.E. Rickmers has a copy of the “wreck report” of the schooner Mary J. Stubbs which sank in a heavy gale off Chincoteague, Virginia on April 6, 1889, with all four hands lost. The schooner was bringing oysters from Maryland to Rhode Island. (Note: this is the ship that was lost in the story told by Irene Paine in her fictional account of her family, “Henry and Eva: A Cape Cod Marriage.”
At some point, he left Wellfleet and settled in Cambridge to be near his Boston business. He and his family are listed in the 1880 Federal census there.
Stubbs returned to Wellfleet with his family each summer, and his comings and goings are well-covered in the Barnstable Patriot town news. My favorite was a note that he had sent a cow to South Wellfleet to be ready for his family’s summer visit. In the time of fishing diminishment, late in the 19th century, Stubbs and his operation provided a number of jobs for local men. He accumulated several properties in South Wellfleet, as described below.
After he died in 1903, Joseph A. Stubbs’ business was continued by his son, John Wiley Stubbs. Unfortunately, John died at the young age of 45. His brother, Frederick, a doctor, died quite young also. The company was sold to Bernard Collins of Eastham, a cousin. About 1940, Mr. Collins sold the business to General Foods.
The Stubbs family impact on South Wellfleet went far beyond the harvesting of shellfish. Their story begins in the early days of Eastham, when Wellfleet was its northern precinct. Luke Stubbs, born in Hull, Massachusetts, arrived in Eastham where he married Mary Newcomb, whose mother was the daughter of one of the Eastham founders. While we don’t know what year Stubbs arrived in Eastham, we know that he died there in 1756. Thanks to David Kew’s research on Wellfleet families, we know that he worked as a “house wright”, and that he lived in the part of Eastham that became Wellfleet — but we do not know exactly where.
Luke Stubbs’ sons made different choices as to where they would live. His son John stayed in Wellfleet/Eastham, while his son Samuel relocated to Maine, at a time when it was still a part of Massachusetts. Those sons both had families, and a couple of generations passed. John’s children, Richard (1767) and John (1794) and his grandchildren, Ephraim (1787) and Richard (1806), were South Wellfleet property owners around the Old Wharf Road area. John Stubbs owned the Prospect Hill land that was sold to Isaiah and George Barker in 1866. Ephraim Stubbs married two Arey daughters (not at the same time), first Nancy in 1819 and then her sister Rebecca in the 1840s.
One of the Maine Stubbs family retuned to Wellfleet – Andrew Lincoln Stubbs, a carpenter, was born in Hampden, Maine, but died in Wellfleet. He may have lived near Long Pond since a biography of his son, Joseph Andrew Stubbs, indicates he was born near the Pond in 1838.
The South Wellfleet Stubbs family were leading citizens. Richard Stubbs, great grandson of Luke, became Deacon Stubbs, a leader in the Cape’s temperance movement, heading the Wellfleet Temperance Society in the 1850s and 1860s. In 1882, Richard sold his South Wellfleet home to Joseph A. Stubbs when his oyster business began to thrive. Richard Stubbs’ wife was Phoebe Arey Wiley, daughter of Ruth Arey and David Wiley, and his daughter, Eunice, married a Wellfleet Witherell. The marriages between these South Wellfleet families are not untypical of other Cape towns, where many families are intertwined.
Joseph A. Stubbs moved the Richard Stubbs house from “somewhere on Old Wharf Road” to the location where the south side of Blackfish Creek meets the County Road, just before the “causeway” or bridge that crosses the Creek. After moving the home, he added a number of additions to the relocated house and to the property, so that it became an important South Wellfleet landmark in its time, even deserving a postcard.
Joseph A. Stubbs’s wife was Mary Smith Wiley, daughter of John Wiley and Mary Ann Smith Ward. The Wards were a long-time South Wellfleet family. Thus the Wileys and Stubbs were linked in their generation even as the Areys and Stubbs were linked in an earlier generation. But the family links are even more extensive. Earlier, Elkanah Ward had married Mary Stubbs, a grand-daughter to Luke Stubbs. Mary Stubbs Ward’s daughter, Nancy Ward, first married a Wiley, and then a Harding. She was “Nancy Harding” in the 1880 census, a widow, living in the home of her daughter, Matilda Wiley. Her son, Otis Wiley, was an associate of Joseph A. Stubbs, and Stubbs bought Nancy Harding’s home.
The Joseph A. Stubbs home that once belonged to Deacon Richard Stubbs burned one night in 1934 during a windstorm that also destroyed a house “across the road.” Luckily, Ethel Stubbs, the widow of Joseph’s son, Dr. Frank Stubbs, was able to escape the fire. This was no doubt the beginning of the end of the “Stubbs’ Landing” on Blackfish Creek — I remember a couple of old stumps there when I was a child, taking a rowboat with my older brother through the marsh to the road, and anchoring the boat while we went across the road to the general store.
Joseph A. Stubbs is responsible for another South Wellfleet house, the one that still stands today — the last one on the right of Route 6 just before the wetland of Blackfish Creek appears, and the road curves over the Creek while the old road leads off to the right to the general store. It is a large white house, a Greek Revival. According to the survey of South Wellfleet buildings reported to the Massachusetts Historical Commission in 1980 (copies available at the Wellfleet Historical Society), this house was sold by Uriah Dyer’s son to Joseph A. Stubbs in September 1890 and moved to South Wellfleet shortly thereafter. As a side note, after the construction of the Marconi Station, this house was rented to the engineers at the station.
Another Stubbs historic South Wellfleet house still exists today, just past Cemetery Road. This house once belonged to Solomon Rich, and the cottage attached to it was the Nancy Harding property mentioned above. This home is also covered in the reports to the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
The Stubbs family owned many other properties in South Wellfleet which have been disbursed to many other owners.
A further note: The Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary is building an “oyster reef” in the bay off Lieutenant Island in South Wellfleet. This project began in 2008 and will be helpful in keeping the Bay waters clean, as well as providing a home for oysters. http://www.massaudubon.org/PDF/sanctuaries/wellfleet/oyster_reef_faq.pdf
D. B. Wright The Famous Beds of Wellfleet, A Shellfishing History, Wellfleet Historical Society, 2008
A Report of the Quahog and Oyster Fisheries of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Commission of Fisheries and Game, Boston, 1912
R.E. Rickmers, Wellfleet Remembered Volume 2, Blue Butterfly Publications, Wellfleet, Mass.
David Kew’s Cape Cod History site: www.capecodhistory.us
Barnstable Patriot (various) online archive: www.sturgislibrary.org
Barnstable County Deeds available at www.barnstablecountydeeds.org