Reflecting On Sandwich

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A tourist’s itinerary published by the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce deals briskly with the Cape’s oldest town: “11:00 A.M. Arrive Sandwich, Visit Sandwich Glass Museum, Dexter Grist Mill, Shawme Pond. 1:00 P.M. Depart Sandwich.” This not-unreasonable agenda is more or less the way I first saw Sandwich, more than twenty years ago. Because it is the first major town you encounter after crossing the Sagamore Bridge, which spans the Cape Cod Canal, you tend to give it an hour or so and then head on up the Cape.

But even then I remember thinking this wasn’t enough time, and over the years, Sandwich stayed fixed in my memory. With its shady lanes, peaceful town green, mirrorlike pond, and old Dexter gristmill (in operation from 1655 until 1881, later a tearoom, and now restored), the town seemed to turn its back on the normal concerns of a resort in summer. Then too, there was the glass museum.

That was really what brought me back to spend three days in Sandwich last July. Oddly, though, I hadn’t given a minute’s thought to treasures of American glass since my first visit; it was the museum itself, not the collecting of glass, that seemed so compelling. After all, it was glass, writes a local historian, “that changed the face of Sandwich and gave it an ... enduring place in the history of the industrial revolution in the United States.”

That happened in 1825. Nearly two hundred years earlier, in 1637, the town’s founders, known as the Ten Men from Saugus (in reference to the Saugus Plantation in the Massachusetts Bay Colony), settled on the marshy northern shores of Cape Cod. They were the Cape’s first white inhabitants, and the oldest of them, Thomas Tupper, had been born in England in 1578, during the time of Elizabeth I and Shakespeare.

The Ten Men named Sandwich after an Enelish town in Kent. They chose their site for its dense pine and oak forests, its marshes that produced plenty of salt hay for feeding and bedding their cattle, and its freshwater stream that they dammed to power a gristmill. Farming and the riches of the sea brought prosperity to Sandwich and the other towns that soon took hold on the Cape. By the late 1700s Sandwich also was gaining its first tourists, among them Daniel Webster, who regularly stayed at William Fessenden’s Tavern on Main Street. The place burned to the ground in 1971 but has been very elegantly rebuilt to its old style. It has been renamed the Dan’l Webster Inn, and it is where I stayed last July.

One wealthy Bostonian drawn there for relaxation was Deming Jarves, an agent for a Boston glass manufacturer, who in 1825 decided to build a glassworks on the creek at the edge of town. He picked the place for many of the same reasons as the founders had: Boston was only about a hundred miles away, the small harbor made it easy to transport goods, the forests yielded wood for the furnaces, and there was “sand unlimited,” as one writer put it, a necessary ingredient in the production of glass. As it turned out, the sand wasn’t of the finest consistency, so Jarves was forced to import it from New Jersey and Connecticut.

Despite this setback the enterprise proved successful from the start, and Sandwich glass soon became synonymous with quality not only throughout the United States but worldwide. At first Jarves employed ancient techniques of free blown glass and of blown molded glass, but before long he developed his own method for pressing glass into metal molds. This faster, less technically demanding process brought prices down and made Jarves’s products widely affordable.

The very first pressed piece from Jarves’s Boston and Sandwich Glass Company, dating from 1827, soon passed into private hands. It was proudly exhibited at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial, where, writes Harriet B. Barbour, one of the town’s historians, “As the exhibitor was taking it from the case to pass for inspection, it slipped from his fingers and smashed to the floor. Its end was no less final than the break with bygone days.”

With the burgeoning glass industry, the whole town took on a gloss of exotica. After workers speaking a dozen tongues crowded into this small, wholly Anglo-Saxon community, one of the Cape’s first Catholic churches rose in Sandwich to serve them, and a popular new Mozart Union Society sprang from the same cultural roots. With five hundred factory hands receiving weekly paychecks, everyone prospered. But after 1888, when the factory abruptly closed its doors forever, the victim of economic competition and labor strife, the town, too, grew silent.

These days only a marker located near the remains of an old glass furnace at the corner of Jarves and Factory Streets (a three-minute walk from the center of town and across the train tracks) stands as a reminder of what went on there. Between the 1920s and 1940s the empty complex was torn down piece by piece. What remains is the neighborhood—it was called Jarvesville—that grew up around the glassworks. Here, starting in the late 1820s, Jarves built workers’ housing, and many of those modest, trim buildings still stand, now modernized, occupying tree-shaded streets not unlike those on the tourist’s side of town.

“When most people come to Sandwich, they go uptown to the other side of the tracks, where there are pretty houses and historic buildings,” one resident recently told a reporter. “But Jarvesville has a history of its own.”