TRURO — Next year, when America celebrates the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims, many local sites will become the scenes of historical reenactments, including Corn Hill.
On a recent walking tour, Truro Historical Society volunteer Jay Vivian pointed out several places on Corn Hill that have played important roles in history and debunked a few of the accepted myths.
The walk, which had about 25 participants, began at the foot of the hill, where a plaque is mounted on a rock indicating that this was the spot where a group of Pilgrim explorers, including such well-known figures as Myles Standish and William Bradford, found a cache of Indian corn on Nov. 16, 1620. After some digging, they removed (or more to the point, stole) the corn, which they then brought back to the Mayflower to feed the starving passengers. One of the problems with this story, which is a key part of the Pilgrim survival tale, is that this is not where the corn was found. Vivian read excerpts from the two main accounts of the Pilgrim story, “Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth,” and Bradford’s history, “Of Plymouth Plantation.” According to both, the spot where the Indian corn was taken was actually further up on Corn Hill. A small, rather indistinguishable marker at the real site simply reads “Corn Hill 1620.”
Both “Mourt’s Relation” and Bradford’s history indicate that buried along with the corn was a large kettle, which, judging by its design, was probably from a European ship. The Pilgrims were then able to fill it with three to four bushels of ripe and near-ripe corn. In Bradford’s telling, beneath the corn, they also discovered two corpses, one of a “European man with yellow hair” and the other of a young Indian boy.
Further undermining the notion that the Pilgrims were the first English explorers on this part of Cape Cod, it is now an accepted fact that a group led by a Capt. Martin Pring, under the auspices of Sir Walter Raleigh, explored the area and set up camp for seven weeks along the Pamet River in 1603. According to Vivian, it was long thought that the area Pring described in his own narrative was Kennebunk, Maine. However, after a closer reading, historians have come to believe that Pring and his men, along with two large mastiff dogs, explored and briefly settled in Truro.
Pring does mention how the large dogs caused “great fright” among the natives. However, unlike the Pilgrims, who were able to establish somewhat peaceful relations with the local Indians, Pring’s group encountered nothing but hostility. When they finally lifted anchor and sailed away, the Indians burned all of the riverbank where the Europeans had camped. When the Pilgrims explored the area around Truro 17 years later, they found remnants of an old fort, not consistent with any common native design. They wrote that it could only have been built by “Christian hands.”
Jumping ahead three centuries, Corn Hill was also the site where, on Aug. 18, 1929, the American glider pilot Ralph S. Barnaby flew his motorless plane for 15 minutes and six seconds, eclipsing the nine minute and 45 second mark set by Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Oct. 24, 1911. A plaque next to the Pilgrim plaque at Corn Hill was dedicated by the National Soaring Museum to commemorate Barnaby’s feat. Yet, like the Pilgrim marker, it, too, is not entirely accurate.
To explain, Vivian took the touring party up to a platform on the dune’s edge at the top of Corn Hill just behind the historic Corn Hill cottages. Here, in 1928, a group of German glider pilots launched nonmotorized flyers over Cape Cod Bay. According to a New York Times article dated July 30, 1928, one of those pilots, Peter Hesselbach, flew his glider off the cliff and stayed airborne for 55 minutes. He later exceeded that mark by keeping his glider with a 30-foot wingspan aloft for an astonishing four-plus hours. Vivian explained that the Germans had been prevented by the Treaty of Versailles after World War I from developing any new motorized aircraft. As a result, they experimented widely with nonmotorized gliders. The entire glider project was funded by J.C. Penney III, heir to the Penney family fortune, and president of the American Non-Motorized Aircraft Society, which he founded in 1927.
Corn Hill played other roles in the history of Truro. One of the three railroad stations located in Truro once stood at the far side of the beach parking lot, where the Rose Cottages are now located. As a young boy, Vivian distinctly remembered waving at the trains as they passed by Corn Hill en route to Provincetown or on their way to Boston. “Like a lot of kids in those days, we placed nickels on the tracks to have them flattened by the passing trains,” he recalled. He showed the group photographs of derailments that occurred in the area as a result of the soft land on which the tracks were built. Another picture was of the large wooden train trestle that once spanned Pamet harbor.
Although the passenger line between Boston and Provincetown stopped running in 1938, and the freight line in 1956, walking along the old trail bed from Corn Hill Beach to the Pamet, one can still see a large amount of coal cinders scattered underfoot from the fuel that was used to power the trains. “All the sparks from that burning coal caused quite a few fires in their time,” Vivian said. Another point of interest on the walk was a spot at the foot of the Pamet where the famous birth control advocate Margaret Sanger built a summer house after deciding that the Provincetown of the 1910s was too rowdy for her. She even named her pet dog and constant companion Truro.
At walk’s end, it was clear that Corn Hill has an impressive history. But it was also a bit unsettling to realize all the falsehoods that have been perpetuated by plaques and anecdotes. The reason is best expressed by the reporter in John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” who said, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”