Cape Cod’s first settled town offers loads to explore within walking distance.

By Karen Rubin

The historic village of Sandwich, the first settled town on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, is a lesson in how changing economics also affects society. Indeed, many of the famous structures in this fascinating yet unpretentious village, are seeing new uses consistent with the demands of today’s changing times. Just strolling about puts more than 350 years of history and social change at your feet. It calls itself a “museum” village but this is very much a vibrant community where you instantly feel quite at home.

Literally, down the block from the Belfry Inne-itself a new use for a former church and rectory–at the crossroads of Main Street, Tupper Road (named for one of Sandwich’s founding families), Grove Street and Water Street, is the Dexter Grist Mill. Thomas Dexter was a very enterprising man, as the present day “town millers” explain to visitors: to get him to come to Sandwich, the town fathers gave Dexter 25 acres of land, plus another 25 acres if he would also live in the town. His mill, which opened in 1654 and operated until 1881, had a monopoly, and the miller’s payment was typically in barter–a portion of the kernels that the men brought (after the women husked and shucked). He could resell the kernels as seed for the next planting season, or mill to a crackle for animal feed.

The barter system, indeed the agricultural base of Sandwich and with it the Grist Mill, were displaced with the success of the state-of-the-art glass factory that by 1850 employed 500 workers earning wages.

The town took the Dexter Grist Mill over in the 1950s and reopened the reconstructed site in 1961, coinciding with a rise in tourism development. Leo Manning, one of the town millers shows off the 54-inch French Burl millstone and explains the logwheel and pinion gear-called a “lantern” gear, which dates back to ancient Rome–and how it operates at a 41:10 ratio so the same pin did not hit the same cog and wear it down (Open daily 10-4 in summer, with limited hours in Sept-Oct 508-888-4910).

The Dexter Grist Mill commands an exquisite site on the Shawme Pond, where there is an artesian well that perennially spouts pure, cool water, providing for the public supply for miles around. Stay long enough, and you are apt to meet just about everybody who lives here (it is absolutely the best water you ever tasted).


Definitely buy the combination ticket ($4) that gives you access to the Dexter Grist Mill and Hoxie House, a short walk up Water Street. What appears to be a small structure, a Cape saltbox, reveals inside an extraordinary look into Colonial life of these pioneering families, who eked out their living and dodged the King’s taxes. Indeed, this is the oldest house on Cape Cod, built in 1675 for Reverend John Smith, his wife Susanna and their 13 children and later occupied by Captain Hoxie, a whaler, and his family. Though the house was lived in until the 1970s, it was never modernized with electricity or plumbing. It was purchased by the town in 1950 and restored to its 1675 interior (the only changes were additional windows and a ladder to comply with fire laws).

Though you only visit two rooms on the lower floor and a room on the upper floor, you can easily spend an hour in the company of the docent, who explains the various items and traditions that provide the source for such common expressions such as “pop goes the weasel,” (the device used to make a skein of spun wool thread which would “pop” after 32 turns, but also that the weasel would be pawned, or “popped” for cash), “piece porridge…nine days old” (colonials would keep putting the food back in the pot for nine days until it became rancid), “spinster,” (spinning wool was a task for an unencumbered woman), “tie the knot” (having to do with tightening the ropes of a bed); and calling young boys “little shaver” and “little nipper” (referring to when young boys had to “nip” and “shave” precious blocks of sugar, imported from the West Indies, all the while whistling to make sure they would not eat any).

As the docent shows, dodging taxes, as much as necessity, proved the mother of invention in Colonial times: men wore beards because razors were taxed (until the King taxed beards); a window would be painted over to avoid tax (few of the Elizabethan-style leaded glass windows have survived because American and British soldiers would melt them down for the lead for bullets); when people began to have more possessions, they would store them in chests because a closet was taxed as a room; a tabletop is cleverly opened and moved back to become an armchair, to avoid being taxed as an extra piece of furniture. It is fascinating to see some of the changes in the lifestyle from when the house was occupied first by Reverend Smith’s family, and later by Captain Hoxie’s (Open June-mid October, 508-888-4910).

Literally across the street from the Dexter Grist Mill-a hallmark of this area’s agricultural past-is the Sandwich Glass Museum, the symbol of the Industrial Revolution which changed the economy and social order. Indeed, the “Ten Men from Saugus” may have founded Sandwich, but Deming Jarves, who founded the Boston & Sandwich Glass Factory in 1825, put it on the map.

The story of how Jarves, a businessman from Boston who came to Sandwich for the hunting and fishing, built his glass factory here unfolds at the Sandwich Glass Museum. It provides interesting insight into the Industrial Revolution from a very personal perspective, through the people associated with the business, the technological innovations, and the artistic design. You come to appreciate how such technology brought down the price of objects so even the common person could possess them. At the same time, the factory system changed the local economy and society, until the factory, too, succumbed to changing forces in 1888.

The Boston & Sandwich Glass Factory-the first of its kind in the country–made its mark by its innovative method of pressing glass in a mold, instead of blowing the molten glass, which significantly brought down the cost. This was glasses for the masses (not Tiffany or Steuben), and the display of patent drawings, early wooden molds, chemistry of colors, and how the glassworks industry even came to be centered in Sandwich (not the proximity of sand, interestingly, it was the anticipation of the construction of the Cape Cod Canal, and what that would do to land prices and transportation costs) are fascinating. There are also excellent photos and descriptions of some of the people involved.

The Sandwich Glass Museum displays more than 5,000 glass pieces created by the different glass companies in Sandwich during the 19th and 20th centuries. In the future, it will offer a new furnace for glassblowing demonstrations, a multi-media theater, a contemporary glass gallery and new Museum Gift Shop (109 Main St., 508-888-0251,

The Sandwich Historical Society, which also operates out of the Sandwich Glass Museum, offers 1 1/2-hour walking tours at 9:30 a.m. daily (donation requested), June through August, as well as a free Lantern Tour, conducted every two weeks during the summer.

A half a block from the Dexter Grist Mill is the Thornton W. Burgess Museum (it was actually his Aunt Arabella’s house), offering enchanting insight into the author of the “Peter Rabbit”. In his 170 books and 15,000 stories, Burgess (1874-1965) taught a reverence for the environment, a love of wildlife and lessons of conservation. Children will especially enjoy the “classroom” with the Briar Patch chums. In tribute to the life, works and spirit of the renowned children’s author, naturalist and Sandwich native, the exhibit also discusses natural history of Cape Cod. (4 Water Street; open daily 10-4, Sundays 1 – 4, April-December. Live animal storytime is presented in July and August;


From here, you will likely drive a short distance to the Green Briar Nature Center and Jam Kitchen at 6 Discovery Hill Road (off Rte. 6A) in East Sandwich. Located on the shores of Smiling Pool and adjacent to the famous Briar Patch of Thornton Burgess’s stories, Green Briar offers interpreted nature trails and a spectacular wild flower garden. Natural history programs for children and adults are offered year-round. Adjacent to Green Briar is the 57-acre Briar Patch Conservation Area, home of Peter Rabbit and many of the other Thornton Burgess animal characters, where you can enjoy walking trails. The 85-year old operating Jam Kitchen is a living museum where jams and jellies are still made using turn-of-the-century methods. Products are for sale in the gift shop or by mail order. (Open 10-4 Monday to Saturday, Sunday 1-4, 508-888-6870).

Another outstanding attraction in Sandwich is the Heritage Museums & Gardens–a vast Gilded Age estate that has been turned into a showplace for Josiah Kirby Lilly III’s various collections. Adults will be fascinated by the quality of the collections and also the fascinating explanatory notes, but children will be thoroughly engaged because of various interactive stations, “find it” games, and a chance to take a whirl on a 1912 carousel. The antique car collection (and the chance to sit in a Model T) will enthrall anyone, particularly pre-teen boys.

Lilly, of the Indianapolis pharmaceutical company (he originally came to Cape Cod for the sailing), was a phenomenal collector. The Military Museum, contained in a replica of a Revolutionary war structure, houses his collection of 2,000 hand-painted military miniatures plus an unbelievable array of antique firearms, military art, uniforms, and an extraordinary collection of Native American artifacts. The building which offers the antique carousel also houses a Folk Art Gallery, with antique toys, Currier & Ives lithographs, gravestone rubbings, and bird carvings.

You can stroll paths through 100 acres of gardens (including the famous Dexter rhododendrons). It is most pleasant to walk, but there is a free jitney that picks up at various stops, which we rode back from the furthest point, the Art Museum, to the parking lot. There is also a very lovely gift shop and marvelous cafe. Allocate three hours to visit. (Open year round. Grove & Pine Streets, Sandwich, 508-888-3300,


A bit further away is the Benjamin Nye Homestead (85 Old Country Road, East Sandwich), which dates back to 1685. It has been operated by the Nye Family Association as a museum since 1972, occasionally offering special demonstrations of hearthside cooking, spinning and candle making. (Open mid-June through mid-October, admission is $3.50 for adults, $1 for children, 508-888-4213,

The appeal of Sandwich is not just in its rich history, but the riches of its natural surroundings, which brought the first and successive ways of inhabitants.

One of the best biking paths anywhere is mere biking distance from the Belfry Inne, the Cape Cod Canal, 6.5 miles in each direction, a pleasant mile ride from the inn.

The scenery is what makes this bikeway so special. You are constantly cooled by the sea breezes and have a steady parade of boats to watch, fishermen along the banks, and seagulls and other birds. The furthest point is the Buzzards Bay Railroad Bridge, built in 1935 by the Army Corps of Engineers, which is designed to raise and lower on towers 260 feet high, above the canal, and span the 544 feet distance frm shore to shore. The Cape Cod Canal is a national historic civil engineering landmark-conceived 300 years before by Captain Miles Standish. The Canal saves ships 162 miles of treacherous sailing. Ambitious bikers, walkers and rollerbladers can even make a circuit, by walking or riding over the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges. There are excellent facilities as well as campgrounds on both sides.

On the Sandwich side of the Canal, just under the Bourne Bridge, is the Aptucxet Trading Post, a replica of the structure built by the Pilgrims in 1627 to facilitate trade with the Dutch at New Amsterdam and the Narrangansett Indians, which you can visit. The first currency system in America was developed here-wampum, made of the purple parts of quahog shells.


It is also easy to stroll about and come upon some of the other distinctive attractions: you can easily get to the Town Beach, reached by walking over the 1,000-foot long Sandwich Boardwalk, over the Mill Creek. The original wooden walkway was virtually destroyed by Hurricane Bob in 1991 and residents and supporters sold over 1,700 personalized planks to rebuild it. Just walking along, you get a very strong sense of the community. It is raised above the marshlands and looks out on absolutely gorgeous scenery, unusually diverse in texture and contour with the grasses, the sand, the dunes, meandering stream and of course, the ocean. This is where it seems everybody in the community comes, and before long, you learn that it is a local “rite of passage” when a child turns 10, to take his first leap from the bridge at high tide, and that a popular thing to do is to watch children “fishing” for crabs using raw chicken legs.

Sandwich also provides entr�e to some fabulous nature preserves. Talbolt’s Point, on 112 acres, extends 1/3 mile into Scorton Marsh, offering several trails that meander through stands of oak, white and red pine, along with tupelo, large pitch pines, beech and spruce trees (Old County Road, Sandwich, .

Visit the Fish Hatchery, where 500,000 fish, mostly trout, are raised for the propose of stocking the state’s many ponds.( Admission is free. Open year-round, 9-3 daily. Route 6A, 508-888-0008

Nearby public tennis courts are available at the Henry T. Wing School (four lighted courts and a playground), and at Oak Ridge School (three courts and playground).

Other pursuits include the Kenneth Benjamin Fleet Skatepark, a new recreation facility, managed by the Sandwich Recreation Department. The skate park, located on Cotuit Road behind the A&P/CVS plaza, is open from dawn to dusk. Bikes are not allowed, and safety equipment (helmets and pads) are required.

Sandwich Hollows Golf Club, owned and operated by the Town of Sandwich, is an 18 hole, par 71, championship course carved from 120 wooded acres of rolling terrain and featuring some of the most scenic elevations on Cape Cod (508-888-3384,

Sandwich is at the beginning of Route 6A, the Old King’s Highway, considered one of the most historic and scenic roadways anywhere; the narrow, winding road, which began as a Native American trail, extends 34 miles from Bourne to Orleans, and provides a marvelous view of restored homes, historic sites, antique shops and galleries, inns, and salt marshes. From Sandwich, you can also visit the many splendors of the rest of Cape Cod.

Though summer is the most popular time to visit, Cape Cod is very much a year-round destination; indeed, September and October are actually ideal, weatherwise with the ocean temperatures still warm and the fall foliage colors setting in; the scenery is magical in winter, especially with holiday celebrations, and spring is gorgeous and perfect for biking Cape Cod’s fabulous bikeways and touring.

For further information about Sandwich, 508-833-1632, or the Cape Cod Canal Region Chamber of Commerce, 508-759-6000,

Photo captions:
Viewing a sunset from the Cape Cod Canal bikeway, 6.5 miles paved on both sides of the famous canal (© 2006 Karen Rubin).

Examples of the glass made using new mass-production techniques at the Sandwich Glass Factory, on display at the museum (© 2006 Karen Rubin).

The Sandwich Town Beach is a delightful place to idle away (© 2006 Karen Rubin).

A volunteer demonstrates how the Dexter Grist Mill ground corn as far back as 1654 (© 2006 Karen Rubin).

© 2005 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to

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Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including, Huffington Post and and blogs at "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at 'Like' us at

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