From the Archives — A Town Called Nobska: a Cautionary Tale?

By Les Garrick

100 years ago some wealthy shore-dwelling summer dudes proposed to divide Falmouth Township into two distinct towns. Their mouthpiece was realtor Horace S. Crowell, the developer of Penzance Peninsula in Woods Hole. It was not an idle threat. Crowell was backed publicly by wealthy Bostonian Henry H. Fay, a son of the late Joseph Story Fay, who in 1850 and 1852 had purchased a large part of Woods Hole from Ward M. Parker. The father and later the son bought more land in Woods Hole and in Falmouth. Henry built a summer residence on Nobska Point in 1879. The senior Fay, a respected public benefactor, reforested some land in Woods Hole and donated properties in Woods Hole for churches, a school and a recreation field, as well as giving the town Good Will Park in Falmouth.

In December 1906 Crowell filed “An Act to Incorporate the Town of Nobska” at the Massachusetts General Court. If it became law, the new town would consist of all coastal lands on Buzzards Bay from Woods Hole to Bourne and all land west of a line bisecting Long Pond thence to the western edge of Deep Pond in Hatchville and finally to the town line where Sandwich and Bourne meet. It would contain three-fourths of coastal Falmouth.

These wealthy summer people had felt aggrieved for years about being taxed to pay for improvements voted at town meetings that they said ignored their needs. Henry Fay and others pounced on the actions taken at the February 1906 town meeting as justification for an act of secession. They protested, specifically, the town’s expensive purchase of John S. Bleakie’s private water system; a new high school, grammar school, and library; and road construction.

But it was the funding of the Article for an inner harbor at Deacon’s Pond, the most contentious issue at the February 1906 town meeting, which likely led Fay and his cronies to move ahead with his plan for secession. The debate pitted influential citizens who wanted a free harbor run by the town, which would lift Falmouth’s status as a summer resort, against Fay and E.P. Beebe, who favored an outer harbor at the old stone dock and salt pond. At that town meeting the vote was 183 to 11 to raise $11,000 from the sale of bonds for the town’s contribution to inner harbor project.

Were these town meeting appropriations reasonable for a town that was growing and modernizing? Town meeting in 1906 appropriated $100,629.81 and spent $97,810.70, of which salaries of town officers were 7 percent, roads 11 percent and schools 25 percent. Payment on bonds for town-owned water extensions, roads and the grammar school was 13 percent of expenditures. The residents of North Falmouth benefited by a new shell road costing $2,289.05. And Henry Fay had his pet projects funded: a road near his Nobska home cost $300 and Good Will Park improvements cost $229.18.

Afterward, an editorial in the February 17, 1906 The Enterprise praised the town meeting as harmonious, because everyone wanted to keep the tax rate low, and that: “There was a noticeable absence of offensive personalities”. Meanwhile, the petition of separation for the General Court was prepared.

After they learned of it, an editorial in the December 15, 1906 The Enterprise had a different tone. Commenting on the proposed division of the town, the editorial justified the February 1906 town meeting appropriations but also noted that: “In many cases they (the summer people) have been treated shamefully by our townspeople”. The editorial called for the citizens to respect the business skills of the summer people, acknowledge their financial contributions to the town and to consult them.

Perhaps as a result of The Enterprise’s editorial, on 11 January 1907, representatives of the town and some summer people met at Young’s Hotel in Boston. Representing Falmouth were Selectman Silas Hatch, Postmaster George Washington Jones, Joseph Walsh, D.B. Phillips, Alexander McL. Goodspeed and Andrew W. Davis. They came to the meeting pledging unity and good government.

The summer people at the meeting included E. Pierson Beebe, F.H. Beebe, N.H. Emmons, Henry H. Fay, E.N. Fenno, Harry W. Harris, Charles H. Jones, W. Taggart Piper and Patrick Meehan. Their position was that there would either be good government or town division. Crowell lowered the temperature of the debate when he said that the petition for division might be withdrawn “if we could be assured of the election of good men to office, and the government of the town carried on in a business and economic way”.

Could the residual town of Falmouth survive without the new town of Nobska? Crowell declared that Falmouth would have sufficient revenue to prosper without the shore-dweller’s financial contribution. But the town fathers disagreed. They said that even if they increased taxes the town would still not be economically secure. The school system would be in shambles. And without those harbors, especially Great Harbor in Woods Hole, a perpetual engine of economic development and an important gateway to Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and New Bedford, economic development would slow.

Needless to say, division was the talk of the town before the February 1907 town meeting. Meanwhile, the development of the inner harbor continued, and the first boat sailed into it from Vineyard Sound on 10 September 1908.

As the February 1907 town meeting approached, Fay spoke out again. Falmouth’s problems, he asserted, “resulted from mismanagement, extravagance and carelessness” – particularly high salaries, which should be halved; an interesting conclusion from a man who had seven servants at his Beacon Street home. He urged a vote “for those in whom we have confidence”. In other words, elect men at town meeting who would cut expenditures, or else. For selectman and assessor, retired whaling Captain Edwin F. Lawrence of Falmouth won over Charles A. Bailey of West Falmouth at the 1907 town meeting, joining selectmen Silas Hatch and Tristram P.S. Phinney.

Town meeting of February 1907 also defeated the sale of intoxicating liquors and cut appropriations 18 percent, to $82,183. But were these cuts made in response to Fay’s threat? Not likely, as most came from non-recurring expenditures. Appropriations for schools and highway repairs didn’t change appreciably from 1906.

And then there was the issue of salaries. After a heated debate, town meeting voted to reduce total salaries 25 percent. The selectmen’s pay was cut from $800 to $500. The harbormaster, Captain John J. Veeder of Woods Hole, who was also captain of the Marine Biological Laboratory’s collecting vessel, Sagitta, had his $50 salary reduced to $25. Apparently, salary reductions of town officers was one price this town meeting had to pay to have the petition for the new town of Nobska withdrawn and a semblance of harmony restored.

The citizens also acknowledged the power of the summer people by adopting the report of Henry H. Fay and Edward N. Fenno on the Standing Votes of the Town of Falmouth, which codified transparent procedures for town meeting and town officers.

By authoring certain Articles, Henry Fay emphatically put his stamp on the February 1907 town meeting. He requested funds for the improvement of Good Will Park; changing public roads near his Nobska home; accepting land from the Fays around Grews Pond as an addition to Good Will Park, with conditions and restrictions [$300 appropriated]; the completion of the road to and around Nobska lighthouse [$300 appropriated].

In the 100 years since the petition to the General Court for the new town of Nobska, there has been no public suggestion of secession. But do vestiges of this historic division persist in Falmouth today?

© Les Garrick 2010

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