Telephones and Electricity

My earliest childhood days in South Wellfleet were without electricity or telephone service, so I’ve been curious about when these modern devices reached Wellfleet, and how they were assimilated into the lives of the town’s citizens.

Kerosene lamp

Kerosene lamp

There were just two houses on Prospect Hill that were not summer cottages: George and Harriet Barker’s home, built in the 1920s, and the Sexton’s home, built in the early 1930s. Both had electricity and telephones. One family emergency in the 1950s made us thankful for a phone, to summon an ambulance to the hill.

In Wellfleet as elsewhere, the telephone came along first. The Barnstable Patriot reports regularly on the development of telephone service in the 1880s and 1890s. In the 1880s, the “government line” serving the Life Saving Stations was initiated, and there are reports of how the Life Saving Service communicated between stations to handle ships floundering offshore. The men in the Nauset station would notice such a ship, and now could call Cahoon Hollow to be ready to assist. When a severe thunderstorm it the outer Cape in March 1891, the phone system at Highland Light was destroyed.

Like any new “contraption,” the telephone took time to become accepted and recognized as a useful tool. The Barnstable Patriot carried ads for non-Bell telephones that anyone could set up between two points. Early on, the instrument was recognized as a way for a businessman or a doctor to communicate between his home and his office. One news report told of a Barnstable citizen listening to music from a church in New Bedford, and the reporter marveling at this wonderful telephone instrument.

The Barnstable Patriot reported in 1882 that the Signal Service Bureau wanted to use the telephone to notify towns on the Cape of frost warnings, so that the cranberry bog owners could take action to protect them. Wellfleet was one of the towns agreeing to be forewarned.

In 1900, a Barnstable Patriot report notes telephone poles being carried along the County Road from Wellfleet to Provincetown, foreseeing that soon telephone communication will be completed all along the Cape.

In an earlier post about the night Marconi sent his first wireless message in January 1903, I wrote about the news reporters using the telegraph at the Railroad office in Wellfleet. One enterprising journalist made sure he got a key to the post office in Wellfleet so he could use the only public telephone in town. He reported taking a call from the Marconi Station, so they too must have had a telephone there.

A Barnstable Patriot article in 1900 reported on some of the locations in Wellfleet that had recently installed telephones: Dr. F.S. Cannedy, the F.A.Wiley & Co. store, the residence of Dr. E.F. Perry, Captain L.D. Baker, and Mr. M.D. Holbrook.

Early telephone, candlestick model

Early telephone, candlestick model

In 1912 the Barnstable Patriot reported that New England Telephone and Telegraph had installed 93 phones in Wellfleet. A similar story in 1918 reported 130 telephones. At that time, telephone subscribers (as they were called) needed an operator to connect them. The 1912 report noted that there were 13 “exchanges” on the Cape, each employing 2 to 13 operators.

Thanks to David Kew’s detailed site, I found a reference to the Wellfleet Exchange, in the home of Agnes Rich. Unfortunately, the story that elicited this information concerned Mrs. Rich’s murder by her husband in 1913. I think that the home was on Holbrook Avenue. In 1910, the Federal Census lists Agnes and her husband, and Agnes’ parents, James and Mary Rich, living next door to each other (but possibly in the same house) and both couples as grocers.

Agnes’ brother, Solon Rich, and his wife, Emily, were listed as the Telephone Exchange Manager and an operator. A young woman named Caroline Wert who lived in their home was also a telephone operator. By 1915, Solon Rich had moved to Orleans, but continued his employment with the telephone company.

In 1916, according to a Barnstable Patriot article, the New England Telephone & Telegraph Company’s “central office” in Wellfleet was moved to the home of Miss Lila Higgins.
In the 1920 Federal census, I found two young women with occupations as telephone operators, but I did not find any reference to the telephone exchange.

Radios with Batteries
A 1926 Barnstable Patriot article noted that Frank Dill of South Wellfleet had a new radio installed in his home. The reporter notes that many South Wellfleet citizens were visiting Mr. Dill to “hear the messages”: M. Burton Baker, Earl Atwood, Alton Atwood, W.A. Short, L.B. Paine, Clarence Hicks, Fred W. Bell, Dave Buitekan, Isaac R. Paine, Isaac (Ikey) Paine, Fred Doane and E.J. Davis. I found a 1925 ad for a console “radio telephone” loaded with heavy-duty batteries – priced at $139, pretty high for 1925.

Electricity came to Wellfleet much later. At the February 1927 Town Meeting, Wellfleet turned over its old almshouse property to the Cape and Vineyard Company to build a substation there.

The Barnstable Patriot reported in 1925 that the Cape and Vineyard Company petitioned the Public Utilities agency to extend its service to Wellfleet and Eastham. That article also noted that Provincetown had its own power plant.

News reports of how electrification proceeded are scarce; we don’t know how fast it proceeded through town. By the time of the 1930 Federal Census, there are two electricians listed in Wellfleet: Mr. Murray and Mr. Gates.

Mary Freeman noted in her regular Wellfleet column in the Barnstable Patriot of July 17, 1930, that “Electricity has at last reached its pencil of light to Nauhaught Bluffs and the Checquesset Girls Summer School even to the top of its flagpole.”

Another 1930 article mentioned the installation of electrical lighting to light the town clock in the tower of the First Congregational Church, and thanked the donors who had contributed to its cost.

Electricity’s arrival in the town also brought on nostalgia. An article in the Springfield Republican in 1927 was headlined “Progress Robs Wellfleet of Its Cape Cod Quaintness,” and goes on to say “Little Gasoline Lamps that lighted its winding streets give way to electricity – modern life goes on under the shadow of Old Whaling Captains who look down from the walls of the homes and their days of fame.” The writer, J.C. Johnson, also notes that modernization is a necessity, as Wellfleet hoped to become a “popular summer place for the rich.” In 1929 newspaper ads, the Cape and Vineyard Company offers Cold Control Frigidaires and Hotpoint Electric Ranges for sale.

Mr. M. Burton Baker, serving as selectman during that time, is quoted in the Barnstable Patriot in 1928 about the possibility of lights coming to South Wellfleet, reporting that the Cape and Vineyard Company were looking for 65 houses to wire. Baker is concerned that the South Wellfleet wiring is a problem due to most homes there serving as summer residences, and they would not be able to produce 65 new customers.

Before electricity came to Wellfleet in the conventional way in 1927, two New Bedford engineers proposed a scheme at a special town meeting in 1921. They sought to use Drummer Pond for an experiment that involved using salt water to generate electricity. The reporter at the Barnstable Patriot noted that “similar experiments had been without success in Saugus and Marblehead.” However, the men had found two ponds, and wanted to make a third. Making electricity using salt water is a long-time DIY science project, with illustrations now on YouTube.

In 2011, a news report from Stanford University stated that Stanford researchers had developed a rechargeable battery that uses freshwater and seawater to create electricity. The report notes that the researchers were aided by nanotechnology, and that the battery employs the difference in salinity between fresh and salt water to generate a current. The report imagines power stations built wherever a river runs into the ocean. Now it looks like the men who had wanted to harness Drummer Pond were just ahead of their time!


David Kew’s Cape Cod History site:
Barnstable Patriot (various) online archive:
Federal census documents at:
Newspaper accounts online at:


Family history researcher living in New York City.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Telephones and Electricity

  1. chsunspirit says:

    Excellent….a history I knew nothing about….thanks for your efforts….great job….

    do you have any history/accounts of when the Hall was last Red….I have been saying that there is no one in Living memory that remembers it RED…..the microscopic evidence says that the original 1857 colour was a brown/red stain…..and the Postcard calls it the Social union Hall…..and That was over in 1945….I/we have no evidence other than that as to when it was red…..The ladies Social Union years were `1888 til 1945…..maybe one of “their” diaries would have the “discussion” ….keep your eyes and ears open…

    looks pretty good….Yes????…we’re all smiles !!!!….ch Co

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s