Sunday, March 01, 2009

Elder Ladies of Wellfleet

Helen Purcell lives beside Duck Creek, in a lovely old Cape Cod home. I was fortunate to get a private tour. “This was called the Minister’s Room,” Helen said, leading me into a square pink parlor, next to the keeping room. Sunshine was streaming through the mullioned windows. “They held wakes in here. It was hard to get the corpses through the door.” She undid the metal latch to show me a steep staircase and narrow entryway. Former owners kept dandelion wine to serve the minister, I would learn later. The original chimney boasts four fireplaces. Then it was on to the dining room with its low ceiling, where she paused to adjust the hands on a clock. Helen has lots of old clocks – somewhat of a preoccupation at almost 90 – and a marvelous highboy, purchased in 1973, with husband Bill, as a gift to each other upon retirement. The couple did a lot of traveling but always returned to Wellfleet for six months of summer. They lived in several different houses before moving into Bill’s mother’s former home on Higgins Lane. My hostess wasn’t sure of the year. Feeling some distress at the tricks memory can play, Helen was quick to point out, “No one can contradict me. Because they all are dead.”

A former teacher who retired at 53, Helen recognized the need for stimulation and decided to educate herself on the history of Wellfleet. She approached this pastime with energy and dedication. Her review went beyond documents at our town hall and library to the Library of Congress where she spent a full week. Helen then joined the “Wellfleet Associates,” a group similar in purpose to the current Non-Residents Association. One of the spin-offs was the Wellfleet Historical Society, which gave her life new purpose. Helen remembers saying to herself, “That’s what I’m going to do.” And, for the next forty years, that’s exactly what she did do, becoming the well-respected go-to person on the town’s past.

Her favorite building is the former general store, which has housed the Historical Society since 1951. “A gem!” She remarked that the museum keeps exquisite records due to Lydia Newcomb who managed to obtain a private lesson from the director of the Metropolitan himself. Helen followed Lydia as curator and only retired from the job ten years ago. One pet project was the Wellfleet House Tour, which Helen led for many years. She enjoyed researching each house. Sharing its history was a joy not only for the guide but also for the lucky few who held precious tour tickets. Clearly, Helen loves Wellfleet. I took the opportunity to thank her for helping Wellfleetians appreciate their history. That happens to be what she likes to consider as her personal contribution. With a gracious gesture, she dismissed my praise: “How not to get interested in a little town that has its roots back in the Pilgrim period?”