An old article in The Cape Codder about the burning of Wellfleet’s Town Hall in 1960 recently came to my attention. That fire totally destroyed the building. I’ve already written briefly about the history of Town Hall in a post about South Wellfleet’s Second Congregational Church. Now I wanted to expand that history of the movement of the church to the center of town, its re-naming to Colonial Hall, and its eventual conversion to Wellfleet’s Town Hall.
Charles F. Cole’s 1941 booklet “History of Colonial Hall” provided a good beginning. Mr. Cole dates the sale of the building to 1913, and the actual move to 1919. He names Harry B. Swett as the new owner, a trustee of the DAR.
Another important fact regarding the movement of the church building is that empty space was created on the north side Wellfleet’s Main Street in 1909, when John Swett’s house and several other buildings were consumed in a large fire. While the Barnstable Patriot usually reported such events, no mention was ever made about the fire, nor did two other newspaper databases.
Thanks to the work of Ruth Rickmers in her series of booklets about Wellfleet history, that she produced in the 1980s, there are significant details about the fire. The fire burned on the night of November 9, 1909. It burned John Swett’s home to the ground, along with several businesses in smaller buildings: a barber shop, a bakery shop, a grocery store, an ice cream parlor, the telephone office, and the Wellfleet Free Public Library. The Library moved to temporary quarters on the second floor of the Payne Higgins store on Main Street. The Library soon purchased the building and established itself on the first floor. Today, this building houses the Wellfleet Historical Society and Museum.
John Swett was Harry Brooks Swett’s grandfather. Harry B. Swett was the force behind saving the old church building and its move to the Town center. The Swetts were an old Wellfleet family of sea captains and businessmen. Harry B. Swett’s father, Horace Swett, and his wife, Nellie Baker, had died when he was quite young. Harry was born in 1885; his father died in 1887, and his mother in 1896.
In the 1900 federal census, Harry is in Wellfleet, living with his grandmother, Ellen Baker. In 1902, Harry’s official guardian, his uncle John A. Swett, sold Harry’s interest in several of the properties the Swett children were left by their father when he died in 1901. Perhaps he did this to pay for Harry’s education. In the 1910 federal census, Harry is living in Boston. In 1913, he is listed as an “architect” in a Harvard Alumni Directory. Harry Swett is also listed as the architect on a 1915 project to expand the Hyannis Public Library beyond its initial historic cottage.
The Hyannis Library project was noted in the 1916 journal published by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. The Society was advocating for the preservation of the old cottage, and that any new building should be designed to compliment it. The Society was founded in 1910 by Bostonian William Appleton for the purpose of preserving New England’s built heritage. In New England and the other original American states the “Colonial Revival Movement” was underway. Many were seeking to highlight the heritage of Americans whose families had been here since the nation’s founding at a time when increasing immigration was seen as a threat. The movement also underscored a time of increasing tourism when towns and villages began to think about their old buildings as an attraction to visitors.
Finding the mention of Harry B. Swett in the Society’s Journal Old Time New England also led me to an article dated July 1920:
In the town of Wellfleet, down on Cape Cod, is a quaint old Meeting House which, on an isolated plateau in the cemetery of South Wellfleet village, for many years survived the chances of change and decay. The shifting centre of population having made the location less and less convenient, the Meeting House was final abandoned and for lack of repairs was to have been destroyed. Mr. Harry B. Swett of Wellfleet, architect, determined that this loss if possible should be avoided and consulted a representative of our Society to make sure that his own opinion of the structure was not unduly high. The building proved to be decidedly worth saving, the interior arrangement of gallery, pews, framing, etc., being particularly quaint and pleasing, one of which the writer knows of no other example. Mr. Swett was accordingly encouraged to proceed with his plans, and through his efforts the Cape Cod Colonial Society was formed to save the building, and acquired a valuable site in the centre of Wellfleet village. The old Meeting House was carefully taken apart, removed to and resurrected on this site, where it now stands in an unfinished condition, a monument to Mr. Swett’s public-spirited energy. Much money must be raised to complete the repairs and put the Cape Cod Colonial Society on a permanent foundation and doubtless many Cape Codders and former residents of Wellfleet will wish to do their share in helping. The Sociey is fortunate in having Lieutenant Governor Channing Cox as its President, as well as an excellent Board of Directors.
In Mr. Cole’s brochure about Colonial Hall, he states that Harry B. Swett purchased the old church in 1913, but it was not moved until 1919. The Church’s parsonage had been sold as a private home in 1902. In 1914, a Frank A. Kendall sold some land and buildings in or near Wellfleet Center to Swett; this deed confused me as it was well before 1919 when the building was allegedly moved. As one of my key advisors pointed out, the sale of the church building would have been represented in a bill of sale, not a deed. I concluded that Kendall may not have owned the church building, but the deed to Swett may have been his effort to secure ownership of land in the Town center.
After this 1914 deed, there were no other documents about the church building until 1917. These were the years that the United States fought in World War I. Harry B. Swett was a young man and, indeed, I found a record of his service in the U.S. Navy in those years, given in great detail in a book of Harvard University graduates and students’ service in the War.
The Cape Cod Colonial Society was founded in 1917 according to its Massachusetts incorporation papers. In 1919, several Swett family members turned over their Main Street Wellfleet property to the Society. One of the pieces of land had a store standing on it. The deeds list names the Trustees of the Society: Henry Trainor, Fred W. Chipman, and George Higgins. Harry B. Swett also signed over his land that he had bought from Kendall in 1914. The deeds giving the Cape Cod Colonial Society ownership of the building also declared that if the Society could not keep the building in good order, the ownership would change to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities.
I never found any evidence of Harry B. Swett’s relationship to the DAR as mentioned in Mr. Cole’s booklet. He did appear to have a relationship to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, although I found no mention of his holding the position of Trustee.
The Cape Cod Colonial Society Trustees were well-known Wellfleet men. Trainer was a Selectman and Chipman from an old Wellfleet family. George Higgins was to inherit his grandparents’ home on Bound Brook Island and add other buildings to the site to create a kind of mini-Williamsburg village. Eventually the old 1730 house became today’s Atwood-Higgins House, one of the key sites in the Cape Cod National Seashore. In the article quoted above, Channing Cox is named also; he married into the Young family which owned the house next to the John Swett property that had burned. The Young house is still standing in Wellfleet, now a restaurant called Winslow’s Tavern.
Whatever the plans were for the development of the Cape Cod Colonial Society and its building in the 1920s, nothing much seems to have happened. In 1922, the Provincetown Tercentenary Commission placed a granite boulder with a bronze tablet in front of the building with a note that the Pilgrims explored Wellfleet Harbor on December 6 and 7 in 1620, naming the men who participated in the event.
In 1922, Wellfleet’s Eight Busy Bees Girls’ Canning Club held an exhibition of their work in Colonial Hall on October 9th and 10th. Other exhibitions and eventually high school sports events took place there regularly. No historical exhibitions were ever reported in the local news.
In 1925, the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities received a set of architectural drawings of “the land surveyed for the Cape Cod Colonial Society. These plans are in their collection today.
On February 16, 1928, the Hyannis Patriot reported on the highlights of the annual Wellfleet Town Meeting, giving a brief history of the Town’s Colonial Hall, and how the conversion into a Historical Society did not seem to be possible. Now the Town’s citizens were eager to have a Town Hall of their own like other Cape towns. The Town Clerk, Arthur H. Rogers, complained about having to keep his records in multiple locations. At that time, Wellfleet had the rooms above the Public Library, having moved from the old Lyceum building which was located where the Congregational Church parking lot is now located. The Lyceum building had served a number of purposes, ending up as the movie theater in the 1920s. It was razed in the 1950s.
The actual purchase of Colonial Hall was on the warrant for the Town Meeting in 1929. A copy of “Highlights of Wellfleet Town Meetings,” sent to me by the Town Clerk, lists an appropriation of $5150 for the project. However, later that year, in an October 24, 1929 article in the Hyannis Patriot, it was reported that the Colonial Hall was to be auctioned. The article stated that neither the Cape Cod Colonial Society nor the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities wanted it, as there was no possibility of the building becoming a historical society. Mr. Frank Dudley of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, became the owner. The following October, 1930, a newspaper report noted that Mr. George Dudley and friends were staying at the building while they enjoyed a seasonal gunning trip.
Another reference reported Frank Dudley as the man who helped move the building from its location in South Wellfleet. Indeed, as I checked on the Dudley family, I learned that Frank Dudley and his brother Fred were general contractors. It may be that the payment for his work was tied-up in the building, as one report referred to unpaid bills of the Colonial Society.
Despite the now-private ownership, a 1932 newspaper report noted that Colonial Hall was being renovated for use by the high school for athletics and sports.
In July 1940 Colonial Hall was in the news again. Now the Town wanted to create more parking in the center of the village. The Town appropriated funds to purchase the land needed, but realized that the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities held “reversion rights” to the property and that the Society would only sell if “some organization guarantees to restore and preserve Colonial Hall.” A later article that summer worried that another organization might take the Colonial Hall from Wellfleet and transplant it. The writer noted that at a time when Europe’s heritage buildings were being destroyed, Wellfleet’s preservation if its heritage building should be considered. Soon, a petition to save the building was circulated with “several hundred” signing it.
By November 1940, a Special Town Meeting was set to consider the project. Selectman Charles Frazier Jr. promoted the project. The meeting voted to acquire the land needed for parking and the Colonial Hall. A Committee was appointed to plan the construction of Town Offices. Selectmen Frazier and Gardinier were appointed to take the property by eminent domain, putting it officially in the hands of the Town.
In January 1941, the Town Offices planning committee recommended removing the store that stood in front of the Colonial Hall so that the land in front of the building could be landscaped and a suitable path from Main Street to the building established. The store was Herbert Newcomb’s Trading Post.
In March 1941, the Town Meeting voted unanimously to fund the cost of the Colonial Hall conversion to Town offices and the landscaping. Opposite the Post Office (today’s AIM Thrift Shop), the Hall’s exterior and belfry were preserved, and plans made to create five town offices and a conference room on the first floor. The basement would have a vault for the town records, welfare and other quarters, and “conveniences.” The description goes on: “The long windows of cathedral design will be repaired and as far as possible the old fashioned ‘ripple glass’ will be replaced. On the front and west sides, the ample grounds will be graded with drives around the building with parking spaces and shrubbery.” The architect is Harold Wrenn of Baltimore and Wellfleet.
A May 1941 news report included a note that Bill Newcomb was constructing a new Trading Post. This change would leave the Town Hall “alone and unobstructed, commanding the landscaped grounds and parking place.” In July, the contract for the interior work was awarded to Horace Little of Chatham. Selectman Lawrence Gardinier volunteered to construct a new weathervane, modeled on the original. Finally, in late August, the news reported a “Wellfleet Fair”, attended by 3500 persons, with the Town Hall opened for inspection. All the businesses in town were decorated with bunting for the occasion.
It wasn’t until November 1941, however, that the Town Offices were actually relocated to their new space. At an open-house on a Friday afternoon, more than 200 residents of Wellfleet dropped by to see their new offices.
In May 1942, the news reported a flag-raising ceremony on the grounds of Town Hall. While this article did not refer to the flagpole itself, an article much later in The Cape Codder noted that the flagpole at Town Hall was originally at the site of the old Lyceum Hall where the Town Offices were once located. Edwin P. Cook had donated the pole which he had previously removed from a wreck.
The Town Hall stood until the night of March 4, 1960, during a nor’easter when the building burned to the ground. The fire was said to have been started in the wiring. Only the vault was left. Wellfleet’s Public Library, located on the second floor, lost all of its books once again. Very soon after the fire, the Town decided to rebuild its distinctive Town Hall as a replica of the old South Wellfleet church, expanded by eighteen additional feet.
Cole, Charles F. “History of Colonial Hall, Wellfleet Mass.” 1941
Massachusetts Historical Commission Form B for “The Parsonage, South Wellfleet
Rickmers, Ruth Wellfleet Remembered, Volume 6 Wellfleet, Mass., Blue Butterfly Publications, 1986
Ancestry.com “Harvard’s Military Record in the World War” accessed March 7, 2022
Swett Family genealogy on Ancestry.com
Newspaper databases on newspapers.com. The Barnstable Patriot and The Hyannis Patriot accessed at www.sturgislibrary.org
The Cape Coder archive accessed at www.snowlibrary.org
Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities website: https://www.historicnewengland.org/
Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities “Old Time New England” (Journal) Vol XI, No. 1 (July 1920), pp 27-28 and Vol VII, No 3 (December 1916) p 14.