A Cape Cod Notebook: 6/16/08

Listen Millenium Grove Part I

BY Robert Finch

In 1849, when Thoreau first visited Cape Cod, he walked across what he called "The Plains of Nauset" in North Eastham. He described the area as "an apparently boundless plain," with few inhabitants. "The trees," he observed, "were, if possible, rare than the houses." This prairie-like landscape was, of course, a man-made one, the result of the repeated clear-cutting of the original forests by the early settlers. Today, like the rest of the Cape, this man-made prairie has largely reforested itself in pitch pine and scrub oak, but even in Thoreau's time there was one outstanding exception to this treeless prospect, and he took notice of it. On the bay side of North Eastham there stood a dense stretch of woodland, perhaps not an impressive forest by mainland standards, but still one that stood in lush contrast to the surrounding plain. It had been preserved, not by conservation, but by religion.

Millennium Grove, as it came to be known, was famous in the years before the Civil War as the site of the annual Methodist "camp meetings." These were a kind of combination revival and retreat held on a ten-acre tract of oak woods obtained in 1838 by The Camp Meeting Grove Corporation of Eastham. This was a Boston-based company that probably chose the woodland for the shade it offered the campers, but also, perhaps, for some unconscious pagan associations of trees with religious activities.

These camp meetings were the largest summer events of their day on the Cape, attracting as many as 5000 participants. They also attracted over 100 ministers, including the world-famous Father Taylor, the so-called "sailor preacher of Boston." Most people arrived by packet boat at the old wharf near the shore, a town landing still known as "Campground Landing." From the descriptions by Thoreau and other contemporary writers, the meetings tended to be quite raucous, somewhat reminiscent of contemporary rock concerts. In 1863 the new railroad spur to Hyannis caused these religious revivals to move to a new site at the Yarmouth Campgrounds off Willow Street, and Millennium Grove gradually returned to private use.

When I read about this old grove of oak trees, I became curious as to what had become of it. Had it gone the way of religious zeal on the Cape, bulldozed away for new enthusiasms? Or did it still exist somewhere on the back roads of North Eastham? It was marked, somewhat vaguely, on some 19th century maps, but was not shown on the newer government survey maps of the area.

Nonetheless, one day last summer, I set off on my own pilgrimage to find Millennium Grove. I inquired at a few stores and gas stations, but received only blank stares. One man said, "Melody Grove? Isn't that that tent in Hyannis?" Finally I inquired of an elderly resident on Campground Road. Her eyes lit up and she said, "Millennium Grove! Oh yes, you'll find that just down the street there, and to the left at the corner. They don't use it any more, though."

I thanked her and followed her directions. In a few minutes I came on this curious spot - Millennium Grove - which I'll tell you about next week, on A Cape Cod Notebook.

myWGBH