A small town at the tip of Cape Cod, which extends into the Atlantic Ocean from the east coast of the U.S., Provincetown attracts a seasonal population of gays and artists attracted by its beautiful beaches and quaint main street. The year-round population consists mostly of Portugese fishermen. It was once the home of Norman Mailer, a great American novelist.

The furthest town on Cape Cod, Provincetown was founded in 1727. If Cape Cod is a flexing arm, then P-town is the fist. P-town has become known in recent years as a "Gay Resort" spot, or as the "San Francisco of the East" for its large homosexual population. Many of the shops on the Main street have rainbow colored flags or stickers in their shops to show their friendliness and acceptance. The Main street itself is small and one way only. It is covered with little shops and restaraunts, if you go and visit, check out Cafe Blase, good stuff.

P-town, although founded in 1727, was an area of land used much earlier than that. The European explorer Gosnold recorded stopping in P-town as early as 1602, and in one of its harbors was the landing of the fabled Mayflower. The population of Provincetown grew slowly, and mostly depended on the fish and how well the fishing was. Aside from the fishing, there was not much in P-town, except some farms, salt works and a mill. However the town would boom between 1790 and 1830 and its population would grow almost 300%! By the middle of the 19th century P-town had become the prime maritime, fishing and commercial center on the Cape. Portuguese sailors settled down in P-town after the Civil War. More Portuguese immigrants would trickle in and work on whaling and coastal fishing boats.

Near the end of the 19th century, the beaches and salty air would attract artists and writers. As the art in P-town grew, so did the town. In 1915, a collection of poets, writers, artists and radicals joined together and formed the Provincetown Players in an old fish house on the wharf. However, hard times were just around the corner.

The fishing industry in P-town began to falter as the market turned to cheaper cod from Nova Scotia. This, combined with the Portland Gale of 1898, which washed away half of the town's wharfs, hurt the all important fishing industry.

Currently, Provincetown has a little under 3,500 year round residents. Provincetown can be reached by a ferry which leaves from Boston several times a day or by driving route 6 all through the cape. Provincetown, like many small towns in New England is loaded with history and with everything quaint. While it is known as a resort for gays, their presense is not excessive (ie guys aren't making out in street corners). If my parents have no problem walking around there, I don't think many will. P-town also has an old tower, which provides a very nice view. It's located near the main strip.


Provincetown's Whaling History

Queequeg slept here

Provincetown is not among the places most closely associated with the New England whaling trade.  Melville chronicled New Bedford and Nantucket famously and with pinpoint accuracy in that book about The Whale.  Many towns on the cape, including Falmouth, are still replete with the beautifully maintained homes of former whaling captains, but Provincetown is generally more closely associated with authors and artists and gay activists.  One is more apt to picture windblown cottages in the sand, than blubber and whale oil, but Provincetown has a deep and important whaling history that began earlier than New Bedford and lasted longer than Nantucket.

Indian Summer

One weekend in the late fall we left our home in Falmouth and took a trip out to Provincetown1 at the far northeastern end of Cape Cod.  The Cape has roughly the same shape as your arm. If you hold your elbow out horizontally and point your fingers at the ceiling, Provincetown would be one of your fingertips, and Falmouth would be that little flabby wattle on the bottom of your arm, right before it becomes armpit.  Oddly enough, the Falmouth area is called the "Upper Cape," and the area around Ptown is referred to as the "Lower Cape."  This crucial knowledge along with the correct pronunciation of the word Quahog ('KO hawg', a large and yummy clam) will help you pass muster amongst the locals.

In the late fall, Provincetown, like most of the cape is pretty much played out after the long and busy and crowded summer.  We expected to find the town half empty, and didn't even bother to phone for reservations since it's fun to visit the quirky little bungalow hotels out there anyway.  The fall weather was magnificent, as it often is.  Indian summer, with its warm mellow days and cool nights that hint at winter, is the most pleasant time of the year on the Cape as far as I'm concerned.  The crowds are mostly gone, the water is still warm and the place is at it's best.

The long sandy arc of Cape Cod Bay faces north and is bounded by Provincetown to the Northeast.  Provincetown's protected harbor made it a natural for any nautical activity from the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620.  Cape Cod Bay was also a natural breeding grounds for many species of whales and the first whaling activities around Provincetown are believed to have been by the local Indians who made good use of the occasional whale that lost it way and ended up stranded2 on the beach.  The early English settlers were quick to understand the commercial value of this bounty and commercial whaling activities began before the American Revolution. Indeed, in 1690, one Ichabod Paddock of Yarmouth ventured out to Nantucket Island with the purpose of instructing the islanders there on the art of killing whales. A newspaper from the early 1700's references a dozen whaling ships with Provincetown as their home port, and by 1776, there were over 40 vessels registered as whaling ships, in Barnstable County, most of them from Provincetown.  By the time the American Civil War began, this number had grown to over 60.

The abundance of whales made for a lucrative business and the whale trade boomed, for Provincetown as well as the more famous whaling ports. The whaling grounds for the Provincetown whalers comprised the area eastward past the Azores to Africa, then south along the African coast before turning west to Cape Hatteras, off the coast of North Carolina, and northward to their home port.  This route made for convenient recruitment of sailors from the Azores and Cape Verde Islands, and substantial populations of both ancestries continue to populate Cape Cod today. 

Pesto al fredo with mesclun mix green salad and free range bee pollen dressing

Modern Ptown is a mix of narrow streets and tiny eclectic shops. It also has the reputation of being a gay mecca, and as we began our search for a place to stay we saw several natty male couples browsing the store windows with everyone else. Mostly though, the crowd on this early weekday consists of touristy looking retirees and families like us, getting in a visit after the summer rates have ratcheted back down to earth.

We scored a sweet and funky little rental for the night from two very nice, very gay boys who were grinning like they have the best job in the world.  Bungalow 9 is just up the street from the Pilgrim National Monument, a spindly stone tower rising from the town’s only hill. Pop quiz, where did the Pilgrims make their first landing? Yep, right down the street at First Landing Beach, after a frustrating wrong turn that almost blew their whole adventure in the shoal waters further to the south. The Pilgrims quickly and correctly ascertained that Ptown couldn't sustain life — this was before the days of trendy little restaurants touting pesto al fredo with mesclun mix green salad and free range bee pollen dressing — so after a little R & R, they made a dash across Cape Cod Bay and stepped ashore on a more permanent basis in Plymouth.

Last year we visited the site of their landing in Plymouth and were dismayed to find the famous Plymouth Rock is about the size of a regulation basketball. It is housed beneath a formidable stone cupola and sports a brass plaque that is larger than the rock itself. The precious national icon in question was promptly dubbed the Plymouth Pebble by my sacrilegious kids and I was forced to admit that the whole affair was a dubious success at best.

At least the Pilgrim's Landing monument is of suitable stature so as to not disappoint a small boy. My son has made up his mind that he and I will climb to the top and watch the sunrise. To be honest, neither the climb, nor the sunrise holds as much appeal to me as this sunny afternoon and this glass of splendid french wine, but if you're gonna be a Dad, ya might as well be a good Dad...

In a convention that survives to the present day, whalemen were paid in "shares" of the catch, with the Captain commonly receiving a 1/8 to 1/15 share in the total value of the catch, the first mate receiving 1/18 share all the way down to a new and inexperienced "greenback," seaman who might receive a 1/175th of the profit from their efforts.  Cruises typically lasted two years and net of expenses, a first time sailor might end up with a total of $100 in his pockets and a lifetime of good stories.  

Whaling ships from Provincetown produced their fair share of memorable stories over the years as you might expect.  In 1850, Captain E. Parker Cook recapitulated Ahab's legendary encounter when he harpooned a huge sperm whale only to have it turn and attack his ship, damaging it so seriously that he was forced to abandon his cruise and limp into the Azores port of Fayal for repairs. The resolute captain was pleased to report however that he had killed the whale before heading in for repairs and had extracted 100 barrels of oil, thus salvaging the cruise.

The archetypal Provincetown whaler is probably Captain John Atkins Cook, who began his whaling career as a harpooner aboard the William Martin in 1879, and succeeded during the course of his 40 years in the whaling trade to command his own ships and expand the boundaries of Provincetown whaling all the way north to that arctic.  In a show of almost unimaginable tenacity, Captain Cook's ships would winter over in the frozen waters of the Beaufort Sea, so as to be ideally positioned for the thaw and whale hunt in July and August.  One of his many cruises lasted over four years and resulted in a meager catch, the mutiny of his crew, and an attack of severe depression by his wife, Viola,  who, like many whaling captain's wives, accompanied him to sea. Despite these setbacks, Cook gamely put into Maine, had a new ship built and sailed out to do it all again.  Like many whalers, John Cook turned his back on the sea when he eventually retired to become an orange grower in Florida.  History doesn't record what his wife thought about this development, but one can only believe that she welcomed the change.

My posse returned from their explorations with stories and treasures to share. My son invested some of his hard-won allowance in an hourglass (the little one-minute version), and we were all impressed to learn that it was accurate down to the second. My daughter's shopping skills are developing as rapidly as a greenback harpooner's and, after careful deliberation, she opted to add two new ceramic kittens to her "Cats of the World" collection. My wife, who, for the record, wasn't depressed at all,  grilled the hapless clerk at the whale-watching boat trip counter and ascertained that it was too early in the season to waste our time with. She also reported that she’d had a hard time dissuading our children from exploring the gay-sex paraphernalia shop they’d found. Apparently the name "BoyToys" piqued their interest and she had to do some fast talking to steer clear.

We took a long walk on Town Beach, played on the remnants of McMillan Wharf and finally had dinner at a restaurant on the pier. The tourist season officially ends on Labor Day, but the summer prices were still firmly in place, $40 for a couple of drinks and burgers for the crew!

The whaling industry in Provincetown persisted long after Nantucket and New Bedford gave up the ghost.  In 1925, it is reported that the schooner John R. Manta returned to Provincetown harbor with 300 barrels of oil.  She was the last vessel in New England to complete a whaling voyage.


1 Provincetown Information: http://www.provincetown.com/
2 Whale strandings: http://www.provincetown.com/plan/about_town/history/?
3 Provincetown History: http://www.provincetowncapecod.com/history.htm
4 The New Bedford Whaling Museum: http://whalingmuseum.org/
5 Ptown Whaling Article: http://www.provincetownbanner.com/history/8/1/2002/1

Additional background,  Cape Cod Companion, by Sheedy & Coogan, Harvest Home Books, 1999 

This is dedicated to WolfDaddy cause I bet he'd like Ptown...

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