ELLISVILLE NATURAL AND CULTURAL HISTORY
Reproduced from the Ellisville Harbor State Park Information Sign
Located only five miles from the Cape Cod Canal, Ellisville Harbor State Park preserves one of the few pieces of undeveloped coastline between Boston and Cape Cod. Acquired in 1991, the park’s 101 acres include forested uplands, meadows, a sphagnum bog, a salt marsh, and a barrier beach. A half-mile walk brings you to a 40 foot bluff overlooking Cape Cod Bay and a steep path down to the beach. Hiking, birdwatching, fishing, picnicking are all encouraged. Swimming is permitted, although there are no lifeguards and the beach is rocky.
Ellisville Harbor was formed in colonial times when the sea beached a strip of land that had protected a large salt pond. For 250 years, the harbor provided shelter for local fishing vessels. In the early 1990s, it became too shallow for navigation, but the 55-acre salt marsh around the harbor remains an immensely productive ecosystem. Centuries of silting and peat formation have gradually raised the marsh above the reaches of the high tide. The park provides a variety of wildlife species with food, shelter, breeding habitat, and areas suitable for migratory stopovers and overwintering.
Information Sign at Ellisville Harbor State Park
Ellisville is as rich in history as it is in natural beauty. When the Mayflower landed at nearby Plymouth Harbor in 1620, the Pakanoket Indians (also known as the Wampanoags) had long inhabited this part of Massachusetts. Most of the native people retreated inland or further south to Cape Cod leaving the wetlands, woods and fields to the English newcomers.
Beginning around 1700, members of the Ellis family made their homes here; the Harlows followed. They fished, farmed, grew cranberries, and harvested timber. The used the Great Salt Pond (now Ellisville Harbor) to load firewood onto boats bound for Boston.
“The vessels called wood-coasters… [sailed] in toward the beach and became grounded at high tide. When the tide ebbed, the vessel could be reached by wagons drawn by horses or oxen, and the wood was rushed aboard. At high tide the vessel again would float and take off for Boston. The local residents would come to help with the loading” (from Ernest Clifton Ellis, “Reminiscences of Ellisville,” Old Colony Memorial, July 13, 1972).
The wood-coasters were gone by the 1890’s, but Ellisville remained a working harbor for almost another century. Not only did the bay team with mackerel, cod, clams, eels and lobsters; it also provided abundant sea weed that could be used as fertilizer on Ellisville’s fields.
The people would watch the beach during the winter and spring after a storm for sea weed that might have come ashore. If some had landed on the beach, they hurried to the shore and with the horses and farm wagon gathered all they could, bringing it up… And spreading it on fields where it was to be plowed into the soil.” (Ellis, “Reminiscences of Ellisville.”
Old Sandwich Road, which followed one of the Indians’ major trails from Boston south to Plymouth and Cape Cod, passed right through Ellisville. In the mid 1800’s, there was enough activity in the village to support at least two taverns. In 1957, Concord writer Henry David Thoreau stayed at one of them on his journey by foot from Plymouth to Cape Cod. The other, called the Harlow Halfway House, served as a stagecoach stop until it was destroyed by fire in the 1860’s.
The railroad soon replaced stagecoaches, but train tracks were never laid through Ellisville. By 1900, the village was an isolated farming community, a two-hour ride by horse and wagon from the center of Plymouth. Even when Route 3A was improved in the 1910s and 1920s, the area remained largely rural.
Barns, sheds, silos, henhouses and a blacksmith shop clustered on the edge of the marsh. The Harlow family worked cranberry bogs to the west and north of the harbor and maintained a large stable, cattle barn and hay barn with silo. The open fields were used as pasture through the end of World War II, and hay was harvested in the salt marsh until the mid-1950’s. A farmer raised chickens, grew vegetables, and sold them from a roadside stand. When the farmstand closed in 1962, nearly three centuries of agriculture at Ellisville Harbor came to an end.
HERRING IN HERRING BROOK, THE SALT POND, SHIFTING LOTS
Reproduced from Ernest Clifton Ellis, “Reminiscences of Ellisville,” Old Colony Memorial, July 13, 1972)
There is a stream of water from Savery’s Pond which goes under the road between where the house stood and the barns and then into the Salt Pond. When I was a boy it was quite a nice herring stream and Mr. Harlow used to take quantities of alewive herrings which he salted, cured and smoked. I think he had some market for them. The herring went up the stream to Savery’s Pond to spawn. All the other families of the village used to get herrings from this stream. They caught theirs from the channel that leads from the Salt pond to the ocean. The herring could not stay in the Salt Pond at low tide, so they had to go back to the ocean at that time. We could catch them after dark as they went down the stream by holding a net across it.
The Salt Pond as I remember it in my day was an open body of water on east side of the road between Hiram Ellis’ and the Thomas Harlow’s houses. The tide ebbed and flowed in it and at high tide it looked like a pond. Sometimes during the winter, the channel from the pond to the ocean would close up after a storm. A body of water would build up with the help of the discharge down the stream from Savery’s Pond, and the salt water was locked in when the channel closed. It would be brackish water and when it froze over the ice would be just a little soft, as salt water ice is. I have skated on it in that condition. The present tall wedge grass did not exist at the time but was all grown in since I was a boy. No one owned the Salt Pond. The salt marshes from which the residents harvested hay butted up to the Salt Pond, and were owned by the residents of the village, sort of community ownership, and were called “shifting lots.” The cutting of the hay was changed each year, each owner having a different lot to cut. In four years each person would have his chance at each lot.