Plymouth, the oldest town in Massachusetts, actually began settlement on board the Mayflower that brought 102 settlers from England in 1620. That first winter conditions were too harsh to make much headway on shore; only fifty-two of the English separatists who had broken away from the Church of England survived. The town they built served as the capital of Plymouth Colony (which consisted of modern-day Barnstable, Bristol, and Plymouth Counties) from its founding until 1691, when the colony was annexed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Plymouth grew up mostly as a fishing and whaling town. Industry was limited to a few mills and forges and small factories. In the early 1800s two of those factories were ropewalks providing rigging and rope for ships. In 1824, 34-year old Bourne Spooner, a Plymouth native who learned the ropemaking trade in New Orleans, chartered a new company on a 130-foot frontage of Plymouth Harbor. Over the next 145 years Plymouth Cordage would become the world’slargest ropemaker; in the Old West Plymouth Silk finish Lariat Rope was as famous as the Colt 45 revolver or the Stetson hat.
The first tourism trade came to Plymouth in the late 1800s but it was not until a fuss was manufactured over the 300th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims in 1620 that Plymouth and the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving really staked out a homestead in American mythology. So while it continues to be an active port and fishing vessels still work the docks it is tourism that is the major industry in Plymouth today.
So dutifully, we will begin our tour at the repository for all things Pilgrim and then make our way down to the waterfront...
75 Court Street
In 1820, two hundred years after the landing of the Pilgrims in Plymouth, the Pilgrim Society was established to create a museum for posterity. Nearly 200 more years later it still runs the oldest continuously operated public museum in America. Alexander Parris designed the museum building, which opened in 1824. Rhode Island architect Russell Warren, a leading proponent of the Greek Revival style, constructed a wooden portico in 1834. It was replaced on the occasion of the tercentenary with stone in 1920. The top part of Plymouth Rock resided here through much of the 1800s and the collection features priceless treasures of the Pilgrim experience.
FACING PILGRIM HALL, TURN LEFT.
Church of St. Peter
86 Court Street
After decades of missionary status, Plymouth’s Catholics, their ranks swelled by Irish immigration from the home country’s famine, finally got its own church when the cornerstone of this building was laid on July 4, 1873.
TURN RIGHT ON PARK STREET. TURN RIGHT ON WATER STREET.
126 Water Street
William Hammatt, an Atlantic sea captain, built one of Plymouth’s finest Federal-era houses in 1809. In 1830 the house, then located up the hill on Court Street, was purchased and enlarged by Thomas Hedge. Hedge was a successful shopkeeper who owned “hedges Wharf on the waterfront. The Hedges lived in the house until 1918 when the last family member died. Facing demolition, the Plymouth Antiquarian Society paid $1 for the house instead and moved it 300 yards to Water Street to serve as its headquarters. The unusual profile presented by the Hedge House is the result of octagonal rooms inside.
State Pier at Pilgrim Memorial State Park
After transporting the original 102 English Separatists across 66 perilous days at sea the iconic Mayflower wound up as scrap lumber back in England. The ship, with its crew of 25 to 30 men, had plied the waters around Europe as a cargo ship since 1609. Despite proving its mettle with a transatlantic crossing the Mayflower was dismantled after the death of its master Christopher Jones. In the spirit of brotherhood between England and America in the aftermath of World War IIthe concept of constructing a reproduction of the Mayflower and recreating the voyage took flower. The replica Mayflower II was designed by naval architect William A. Baker and was launched on April 20, 1957. The voyage ended 55 days later in Plymouth Harbor where the ship has been moored ever since.
Water Street at Pilgrim Memorial State Park
Tradition holds that this glacial erratic deposited by a retreating glacier some 10,000 years ago was the point of disembarkation for the Pilgrims in 1620. When the townspeople attempted to move the rock in 1774 it broke and half and the top slice was carted up the hill for display in the town’s meetinghouse and then Pilgrim Hall. In 1867 the Pilgrim Society completed a Victorian honorarium at the site of the lower half and Plymouth Rock was reunited. For the 300th anniversary of the landing the rock was relocated to its present location and enclosed in a Roman portico designed by the fabled architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White.
Carver Street at Water Street
During the first bitter winter of their settlement, the Pilgrims conducted night burials on this hill so the surrounding Indians would not suspect their shrinking numbers. Corn was planted over the unmarked graves. A statue of Massasoit, the Indian chief who ratified the 1621 peace treaty stands at the crest of the hill. His likeness was imagined by Cyrus Edwin Dallin in 1911. His model was accepted by the Improved Order of Red Men for the monument, however delays related to World War I postponed the project and a slightly different version was later installed in 1921.
AT THE END OF WATER STREET, TURN LEFT.
Jabez Howland House
33 Sandwich Street
This is the only existing house in Plymouth where an actual Mayflower Pilgrim lived. The older part of the house was built by Jacob Mitchell (not an original Pilgrim) about 1667 who sold it to Jabez Howland who lived there with his family until he moved to Bristol, Rhode Island in 1680. Jabez’s father John - that original Pilgrim - spent winters in the house. When John Howland died in 11672 he was over 80 years old and the last male Mayflower passenger living in Plymouth. Ironically, he almost did not survive the Atlantic crossing - he was swept overboard and hauled aboard with the aid of a boat hook. The house was a private residence until 1912 when it was purchased as a museum.
TURN AND WALK BACK TOWARDS WATER STREET, CONTINUING STRAIGHT AS THE ROAD BECOMES MAIN STREET.
Plymouth Post Office Building
5 Main Street
This Colonial Revival public building of brick and limestone was executed in 1913 under the auspices of Oscar Wenderoth, Supervising Architect of the Treasury. It was added to the National Historic Register in 1986.
TURN LEFT ONTO TOWN SQUARE AND WALK UP THE HILL ON THE LEFT (SOUTH) SIDE.
1749 Court House and Museum
4 Town Square
This hillside building was used by the county as a circuit court and the town when court was not in session. The court moved out in 1820 and town offices were located here until the 1950s. Now open as a museum, it stands as the oldest wooden court house in America.
First Parish Church
19 Town Square
The congregation was founded in the English community of Scrooby in 1606 by the Pilgrims, a group of Protestant Christians. After sailing to Plymouth in 1620 services were held on the Mayflower and are still held today - the oldest continuous religious services in the United States. After meeting in the fort on Burial Hill until 1648, the first of four church buildings was constructed here. The current granite Romanesque-styled sanctuary dates to 1889.
entrance at head of Town Square
The first Pilgrim burials actually took pace on nearby Cole’s Hill during the first winter of 1620-21. On this hill was constructed a blockhouse that also served as a meeting house for the colony and for First Parish Church in Plymouth until 1677. Tradition holds that the first burial on this site was that of 80-year old Pilgrim John Howland who descendants include President Franklin Roosevelt and both president Bushes. Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford is also interred here.
WALK BACK DOWN TOWN SQUARE ON THE NORTH SIDE.
The Church of the Pilgrimage
8 Town Square
In 1801 a rift in the Unitarian Church cleaved the congregation that had formed in England in 1606 when breaking from the Church of England. Fifty-two persons withdrew from the First Parish and its perceived increasingly liberal tendencies. The seceding group organized itself into what was first called The Third Church of Christ in Plymouth. When this building was constructed in 1840 the church became known as The Church of the Pilgrimage.
CROSS MAIN STREET ONTO LEYDEN STREET. THIS HILLY STREET WAS ORIGINALLY KNOWN AS FIRST STREET WHERE THE PILGRIMS BUILT THEIR FIRST HOMES. BEAR LEFT ON CARVER STREET.
Mayflower Society Museum
4 Winslow Street at North Street
Edward Winslow, Pilgrim descendant and great-grandson of Edward Winslow, third Governor of Plymouth Colony, constructed the core of this house in 1754. A staunch supporter of the Crown during the Revolution, his allegiances cost him the house when he fled to New York City. The lower front was essentially his clapboard house. In 1898 when wealthy Chicago businessman Charles L. Willoughby began investing in Plymouth real estate he hired restoration specialist Joseph Chandler to enlarge and remodel the house in Victorian style with Colonial overtones. He moved it back thirty feet to create a spacious front yard overlooking the harbor. In 1941 the Mayflower Society for descendants, formed in 1897, purchased the house for its headquarters. The price tag - $23,500.
TURN LEFT ON NORTH STREET.
27 North Street
This house, one of the town’s oldest, was built in 1749 for the widow Hannah Jackson but after local merchant Deacon Ephraim Spooner purchased the home it remained in the same family for the next 200+ years. In 1954 James Spooner bequeathed the house and generations of family possessions for a historical museum.
TURN RIGHT ON COURT STREET.
Plymouth County Courthouse
Court Street at Russell Street
The cupola-topped, highly decorative brick courthouse is the county’s second, constructed in 1820. It picked up in-the-day makeovers in the Italianate and Colonial Revival styles through the years. The architectural showpiece, with its statue in the front gable of blind justice, served its original function until 2007.
32 Court Street
The handsome Federal-style house that has anchored this corner for over 200 years was built by the Bartlett family that produced John Bartlett of Familiar Quotations fame. added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. For many years the building has done duty as a bank.
CONTINUE A FEW MORE STEPS ALONG COURT STREET TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.