CAPE COD – Have you ever had lobster quiche? How about lobster wieners? Then there are lobster rolls, lobsters steamed, broiled, baked and probably on your ice cream and in your coffee. This is not a complaint, it’s just what the Cape Codders eat. Actually, during the summer the locals are outnumbered by the tourists from BAW-ston and Noo YAWK. I waited till fall, just as the trees are turning and some of the outliers are leaving this lovely area. Yet there are still plenty of tourists around, which brings us to today’s subject.
This is Sandwich, the oldest town on “the Cape,” as we Natty Bumppos of the dunking stool say. It’s a cute little village with clapboard houses, strict zoning – even fast-food chains and gas stations look like they were designed by Cotton Mather. A short distance away is the beach which is nothing like our Gulf beaches. They have a better class of seaweed.
Now we come to the town of Plymouth which is not exactly on the Cape but is close enough. As every American child knows (maybe), the Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution in England and wanting freedom of worshhihp, looked all over the world and decided to come to America to get away from the English. Calling themselves “Pilgrims,” they first stepped ashore here on the Plymouth Rock, declared their adoration for all mankind, including the Indians, and set up shop. That is why millions of us come here every year to pay homage to the Rock in its original form and place.
There is just one problem. That ain’t the way it happened. They never called themselves Pilgrims and weren’t described as the “Pilgrim Fathers” until 1799 – that’s 179 years after landing. They called themselves Separatists, and were actually intolerant Protestants who broke from the Church of England to form their own denomination. (They were so uptight they considered the Puritans too liberal.) The Separatists didn’t flee to America but to the Netherlands which put up with all sorts of different cults. But after several years, the leaders of the group found their kids were becoming more Dutch than English, marrying into Dutch society and falling away from the flock.
So they looked around for some place where they could be English without belonging to the Church of England. Virginia, of course. But on their way here they got blown off course and ended up, not at Plymouth, but near the site of modern Provincetown in November, 1620. They eventually came here and waded ashore from the Mayflower, which they had leased, in late 1620. About 100 of them survived the trip and half of them died that winter. Oh, and they killed a lot of Indians.
The Plymouth Rock landing story was never mentioned in the settlers’ extensive letters and diaries, and the name itself, “Plymouth Rock,” didn’t appear until 121 years later. What’s more, this may or may not be the real rock. When plans were made to build a wharf at the landing site in 1741, a 94-year-old local records keepeer named Thomas Faunce identified the precise rock his father had told him was the first solid land the Pilgrims set foot upon. Workers split the big rock into two parts — the bottom portion left behind at the wharf and the top portion moved to the town’s meetinghouse. In 1834, it was moved again, this time to Pilgrim Hall. In 1880, the top of the rock was moved back to its original wharf location and rejoined to the lower portion. You can see a big scar across the middle of this rolling stone. But this might not be its original location.
Over the years the date “1620” was carved into the rock.Souvenir hunters chipped off parts. The original Plymouth Rock was estimated to have weighed 20,000 pounds. It now is about one-third that size, and today there are pieces in Pilgrim Hall Museum as well as in the Patent Building in the Smithsonian. In 1835, Alexis De Tocqueville, traveling the U.S., wrote, “This Rock has become an object of veneration in the United States. I have seen bits of it carefully preserved in several towns in the Union.” It looks like a huge baked potato resting on the sand beneath a Victorian canopy. You can see it but can’t touch it.
So why on this fall afternoon are the streets filled with tourists? There is not a paid parking available. Cars are backed up for blocks. Shops line the street opposite the Rock selling T-shirts, mugs, banners and more T-shirts. A doughnut shop is cooking up a batch for the visitors. This nation may be in an economic downturn, but all is well in Plymouth, Mass.
We only steal from the best. Why can’t Texas copy Plymouth? Just create a huge tourist trap out of almost nothing. OK, Chrysler did name a car after this town. Nobody drives a Nacogdoches. We don’t have a Dedham granodiorite (its official rocky name) but we do have a Rockwall, the Rockets and the Dasypus novemcinctus (our official state small mammal, the nine-banded armadillo). We can sell T-shirts: “My Folks Went to Pampa and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt.” The tour guide says, “And on this very spot, the Apollo 13 landed.” “Port Arthur – Gateway to Vidor!” “College Station – SEC’s Darling or Doormat?” “Junction — Home of the best feral hogs in Texas.” Tourist bureau pamphlet: “Why visit Palestine, Paris and Athens when you can see them all in Texas?” Plymouth has the Pilgrims. We have the Kilgore Rangerettes. Now which bunch would you rather take to dinner?
We must get started, because thus far we haven’t done too well in the tourist trap business. Houston, aka Space City, home of the astronauts, can’t even get a lousy space shuttle to exhibit. A flyover doesn’t count; that’s just rubbing our nose in it.
Would it help if we started wearing buckles on our boots and burning witches?
Ashby rocks at email@example.com