The Massachusetts Historical Society began publishing papers in their collection in the late 1700s. One of the earliest writers about Wellfleet, quoted often, is the town’s minister, Levi Whitman. In 1794 he wrote a letter called “An Account of the Creeks and Islands of Wellfleet.” He began at the Eastham border with Silver Spring Creek, then moving on:
Advancing further north is Blackfish Creek, the head of which was formerly a fresh pond. A way was cut from it to the main creek, for the purpose of erecting a fulling-mill, which in time went to decay, and the time has worn a passage for vessels of sixty or seventy tons.
This held two surprising facts: first, that Drummer Cove (what we now call the head of Blackfish Creek) was once a fresh water pond, and second, that South Wellfleet had a fulling mill. I had to check out what a fulling mill is, or was, as these pre-industrial mills have disappeared.
Fulling mills processed hand-woven woolen cloth. We know that the early settlers of Eastham, including Billingsgate which became Wellfleet, kept sheep, so it’s no surprise that they needed to process the cloth they wove. Woven wool is not very compact and the wool contains excess grease and oils. Fulling is a process involving beating the cloth in a wooden tub filled with water and soap to remove the oils. The beating “felts” the fibers to form a denser, more compact cloth. In a fulling mill, a waterwheel powered a pair of wooden mallets that beat the cloths in a tub for an extensive time.
After this processing, the cloth would be attached to a “tentering” frame, a long framework of horizontal bars covered with L-shaped nails called tenterhooks. The cloth would eventually dry, and then would be stroked with teasels to raise its nap, and finally sheared smooth.
From this second process we get the expression “on tenterhooks” or held in suspense. Does anyone say this anymore?
New England used its many streams and brooks to build grist mills, saw mills and fulling mills. Eastham and Wellfleet had windmills for grinding corn, but I was unaware of a fulling mill until I read Levi Whitman’s letter. There was also a tide mill in South Wellfleet, in the small channel in Loagy Bay near Mill Hill now a conservation area.
When I first read Levi Whitman’s essay, I had thought he was referring to “Drummer’s Pond” at the head of Blackfish Creek. I know that in the nineteenth century the fishing schooners were brought in there for winter storage, and his reference to “a passage for vessels of sixty or seventy tons” confirmed my assumption. Several people commented to me as I was working on this research that the tidal movement into Drummer’s Pond would not have been strong enough to power a mill. Could the minister have been referring to the part of Blackfish Creek now cutoff and to the east of today’s highway?
However, another source for believing Whitman was referring to today’s Drummer Pond is the 1775 map of Wellfleet which Chet Lay provided recently. On this map, a “mill pond” is clearly marked, with a very small water passage between Blackfish Creek and the pond.
(This map also marks the “water mill” near Loagy Bay, separating Lieutenant’s Island from the mainland South Wellfleet.)
The Brewster Grist Mill at Stony Brook once had a fulling mill; one account says that it was across the road, another says that the grist mill there today was built on the foundation of the fulling mill. Marstons Mills, further up the Cape, claims to have had the last fulling mill in operation, it closed in 1830.
Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society Volume IV 1795, available at Google Books.
1795 Map of Wellfleet by Waterman and Hamblin (State Archives of Massachusetts)