Memories Of The Popponesset Spit, Hopes For Its Future

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By: Elsa H. Partan
Published: 02/26/10

As wind and waves swept the sand from the Popponesset spit in the 1960s, it also swept away a favorite vacation spot for the fledgling New Seabury community. People who remember the spit as a broad beach with a 20-car parking lot and a clubhouse say it only took a decade for nature to do away with the place to which they once trundled children and coolers.

The destruction of the popular beach club is a prime example of the drastic changes the spit has undergone in the past few decades. The fact that the spit continues to change weighs on the minds of people who delight in bringing their children there today.

Interviews in recent weeks with Popponesset area residents revealed their emotional connections to the sandy strip. For some, the ties trace back to vacations nearly 50 years ago, while members of the next generation talk of family outings made last summer. In every case, residents worry that the ocean will take back the narrowing spit, erasing one of Mashpee’s defining landscapes.

Patricia A. Welch and her husband, retired dentist Robert J. Welch, bought land in New Seabury in the early 1960s, some of the first to buy homes there. Spreading out photos on her kitchen table, Ms. Welch pointed to a 1963 snapshot. Children ride a small ferry boat from New Seabury to a wooden pier that juts out from the spit. In the background, two party-sized tents on the beach flap in the breeze. None of it exists anymore, devoured by a 300-foot westward shift in the sand. “It’s hard to visualize this now because there’s nothing left,” she said.

On a typical summer day in the ’60s, Ms. Welch would drive to the spit’s parking lot, an action that is inconceivable today, given the diminutive beach. Her children took sailing lessons and raced sailboats, an activity that made a deep impression on her son John, who later raced on the US Sailing Team.

“There are these nice things that you think are going to go on forever,” she said. Pulling out a 1966 snapshot of sailboats at the edge of a wide section of the spit Ms. Welch said, “It was a big, huge, beautiful beach.” Later photos show a beach club structure built of concrete and wood.

Over the course of a decade, it all disappeared. The parking lot fell apart as the sand gave way underneath. The club building became unstable and the wooden boat piers lost their footing. The spit was on the move, and it was leaving the club behind. Part of the old concrete foundation of the beach club peeks through the sand now and then, Ms. Welch said. Gazing at a picture of the old beach club, Mr. Welch wondered aloud if a jetty could have prevented the erosion, if it had been built in the ’60s. When asked if he thought a jetty would work today, he responded, “It’s too late for that now. There’s so little you can do.”

By 1973, New Seabury had given up on its beach club on the spit and built a new club near the Popponesset Inn, up the beach from the disappearing spit. The Welch family followed, holding cookouts and parties at the new club. “I thought we spent so much time out on the spit, but, looking back, it was only 10 years until we moved to the new one,” she said.

Three decades later, a new generation of families with young children still finds the spit irresistible. “In the summer, it’s all about the spit,” said Christine A. Mone. “That’s where we spend our summers and our fall.” Ms. Mone has lived in New Seabury since the late 1990s, and her husband, Patrick S. Mone, grew up there. They take their children, now ages 6 and 9, to the tip of the spit by motoring out in their 20-foot Mako center console. “You pull your boat right up to the sand and put an anchor off the back,” she said.

Ms. Mone, who works in the town Recreation Department, said the tip of the spit has a different feel than a beach with a parking lot, calling it “a natural, beautiful place.” Out on the spit, she and children play horseshoes, snorkel, fish, and look at the fluke and horseshoe crabs in the water, she said. Ms. Mone is a member of a community of light-hearted boaters who call themselves the Mashpee Yacht Club, despite having few yachts in evidence and lacking a physical clubhouse. Sometimes club members will meet on the spit for a lobster boil, she said.

A shellfish seeding program that began around 2000 has inspired renewed enthusiasm for quahog fishing on the spit, according to Shellfish Constable Richard H. York Jr. “It’s a really great area for recreation,” he said. “It’s a great place for families and kids because it’s protected, shallow and sandy, and really clean water.” A near 100 percent daily exchange of fresh ocean water in that part of Popponesset Bay means that the nutrient-loading problem apparent in other places is not an issue, Mr. York said.

Ms. Mone said that she is a devoted quahog fisherman and gets a significant number of meals from the spit.

For people who live on Popponesset Island, which sits along the southwestern edge of the bay, the spit is more than a place to spend a summer day. Most of the island’s houses are assessed at between $1 and $5 million, and the spit protects them from the ravages of storms. Joel E. Zeger is one of the island home owners who contribute to the organization Save Popponesset Bay, which pays for the yearly project of dredging and replacing sand on the spit. “If the money didn’t get raised privately, we’d have a real mess on our hands,” he said. “Even so, I believe that fewer than half of the 73 households on the island contribute to the save the bay fund.”

In addition to the property value concerns, legal wrangling has been part of the spit’s story for years, including one lawsuit that pits two former Mashpee selectmen against each other for control of a path to the spit. Reached on the phone in recent weeks, one of the parties to the lawsuit, Frederick W. Blythe, said the case is ongoing with no end date in sight.

By the time the lawsuit is settled, the spit may have changed again. Experts explain that it continues to erode, a fact that is evident to people who live here.

“My children notice it,” said Ms. Mone. “They say, ‘Where’s the beach gone?’ ”

Ms. Mone said she dreams that her children will decide to spend time in Mashpee when they are adults. After all, both she and her husband were raised on Cape Cod. Mashpee without the spit saddens her. “My children may have to tell their children that there used to be a beach here.”

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