When Margo and Heidi visited me recently, I was kind of pysched that they were interesting in adding some “educational” component to our tourism, in the form of a visit to the Provincetown Museum and Pilgrim Monument, which is located on Long Pole Road looking out over Provincetown Harbor and the Outer Cape.
Pilgrim Monument is probably the icon that says “Provincetown” to me more than anything else. Depending on how clear the day is, it can be the first thing one sees as one approaches town (When I lived in PTown, I had a great view of the monument from my place and I could guess what sort of day it was going to be based on how much of the thing was visible, if at all…). On rarer occasions, one can spot it on the distant horizon from here in Orleans, 30 miles away.
Many people assume the tower is just another – albeit funkier – Cape Cod lighthouse, but its not that at all. The Pilgrim Monument stands as a reminder that the Mayflower Pilgrims made their first stop in the New World right here at Provincetown. They were at anchor in the harbor when they drafted the Mayflower Compact (and then promptly sent the womenfolk to shore to do some laundry).
Of course in 1620, there was (as now) no laundromat. Nor was there running water, Tea Dance at the Boatslip, Drag Karaoke at the Governor Bradford Inn or clam chowder at the Lobster Pot, so it’s really no surprise that – after a few days exploration – our Pilgrim pals packed up the ship and sailed across Cape Cod Bay to settle in Plymouth. And you can check out old “Brady Bunch” episodes for the rest of the Pilgrims’ story.
Pilgrim Monument stands 77 meters tall (rising 350 feet above sea level). It’s the tallest, all-granite structure in the United States and is modeled after the Torre de Mangia in Siena, Italy.
Inside, there are 116 steps and 60 ramps to guide you to the top of the monument, where you can see all of little Provincetown, the Outer Cape and the Atlantic Ocean arrayed before you. Knowing all the o’erflowing gardens there are below, I’ll admit I was a little disappointed that the town doesn’t look more like a patchwork quilt of bright colors from up there, but I still enjoyed the view (and to arrive at the top with breath to spare was a nice bit of positive reinforcement about the cigarettes, too!).
Although the Pilgrims chose to try their luck in Plymouth, Provincetown’s big harbor (90 feet deep in many places!) was too much of a draw and the town was established as a fishing village, with easy access to the seemingly-infinite resources the ocean had to offer in days gone by. Because the climate is so similar, PTown was especially popular with folks from Portugal and a thriving Portuguese community remains today.
In the photos above and below (looking south and west), you can see a tiny little strip of land in the top of the photo. This is Long Point, the very tip of Cape Cod. There is only a lighthouse now, but Provincetown was originally settled there. As the community grew, many of the homes and businesses built there were carefully moved onto barges and floated across the harbor to the town’s current location. No joke. While walking around town, you can see small plaques on many structures, indicating that they were relocated from this first spot.
It’s funny (though in the less amusing, second definition of the world) how the story of settlement is almost the same no matter where folks decide to live. They find some fantastic, naturally beautiful spot with forests and great soil and decide to live there. The trees are harvested for building homes, ships and such…and with no plant roots remaining to hold that soil in the place, all the good dirt blows or is washed away. Such, of course, was the case here, as well.
Still, when fishing and whaling were the big businesses in town, ships would leave Provincetown regularly packed with salt cod and whale oil and so on and return to port not as heavily laden. This gardener was amused to learn that ships’ captains would take on soil from their distant ports of call to use as ballast in their lighter ships for the return voyage. As a result, the yards and gardens of Provincetown were amended with good soil from all over the world.
Being surrounded on three sides by sparkling sea, there’s a quality of light in Provincetown which isn’t found in many other places and as a result, this quality drew the attention of visual artists who were escaping the heat of the summer city with visits to Cape Cod (in the good old days, the train tracks used to go all the way out onto the pier…and boats from Greenwich Village in NY made regular trips to the Cape Tip. Now there’s a bike trail where the tracks once were, and an airport…but also a ferry from Boston). The Modern Impressionist art movement was founded here in the bright sun of the Outer Cape and drew ever more folks to this lovely spot.
With the visual artists came the performance artists and about the same time, Eugene O’Neill and Susan Glaspell and a host of others formed the Provincetown Players and brought about what’s considered the birth of Modern American Theatre. And everyone knows where there are artists, you’ll find alternative lifestyles and in those pre-Stonewall days, what more lovely and perhaps safer place for gays and lesbians was there to be found than on the very edge of the continent, where one could relax and be oneself?
I’m the last person to suggest that someone is better than someone else, but there is a certain element of, shall we say, “fabulousness” that one finds in many Provincetown gardens that you just don’t see in so many other places.
Sometimes its an unusual species, something perhaps only glimpsed before in garden catalogs in the dismal days of winter, tubular coreopsis petals, maybe, or zonal geraniums that have flowers like bee balm, or delightful puffs of pink.
Other times, it’s not that the flowers are anything special, simply that they are planted so fully in tiny little patches that might go overlooked and unplanted in other parts of the world, where garden real estate is more plentiful.
And then sometimes, it’s that unexpected bit of Something you could simply never anticipate.
Whatever it is, there’ll always be something about Provincetown gardens to draw me in, to entertain and amuse and delight me. And I think you’d agree. Let me know if you’re coming for a visit – I love any excuse to ramble around town and peek over fences and down alleyways for the secret gardens which are everywhere – and it’s always more fun with company.