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WoHo’s Colorful History

May 14th, 2009 by Beth Colt

This little town is completely surrounded by water.

Woods Hole is one of the few good harbors on Cape Cod — it was a whaling port like Nantucket back in Melville’s time. In the 1860s, the peninsula was developed as a fertilizer factory. Shipping merchants from Boston were looking for a commodity to fill empty ships on the journey back from China. They settled on bird dung from a South Pacific island. When mixed with fish scraps, I guess the lime was an effective agricultural aid (is that organic?). This fine brew was shipped by railroad out of Woods Hole. I bet that smelled great on hot days.

Anyway, eventually the company literally emptied all the bird guano from their island, and the Woods Hole site was abandoned in 1889. So what happens to old factory land in America? Build a resort, of course! The thin strip was renamed “Penzance Point” (that sounds better than, say, Former Guano Factory:) Smack in the middle of the Gilded Age, (think “Gatsby”), up went Newport-style mansions. Most of these shingle-style cottages are still here, behemoths perched on the edge of the sea with spectacular water views with the great grandkids of their builders still racing to Hadley Harbor in 12-footers.

Around this time, a strong-minded local decided to improve the sound of things by renaming the town, “Woods Holl.” This had “a sylvan and romantic flavor…suggest(ing) moonlit glades and flowery dells” according to the New York Times in 1899 — and was better than the somewhat crass “Hole,” I guess. Perhaps the locals were hoping to disassociate themselves with the memory of a factory town that smelled like bird *@#%. But whatever the reason, the affectation did not stick for long. People couldn’t spell it or say it, letters to the post office were lost and with little fanfare, the name was changed back.

So here we are now, living in this little slice of heaven that I call WoHo. It’s like SoHo, only cooler (literally — there is always a breeze). I wonder what it would take to get that name on the post office door…

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