What Was School Like on Old Cape Cod?

The Education of an Orleans Girl.

Sea Crow Press author Mary E. McDermott reminisces about student life in her beloved home town Orleans. Her new book, Old Orleans: Memories of a Cape Cod Town, preserves stories of local life in simpler times.


The lives of Orleans baby boomers were influenced by a succession of teachers, all of whom had distinct personalities and who played various roles in shaping our education.

Our first-grade teacher, Mrs Eldredge, had high standards and an often-sharp tongue, but impeccable taste in literature. She introduced the class to Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Peter Rabbit and Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories, an introduction for which I am still grateful.

Third grade’s Mrs Wilcox (later Mrs Wright), had a wonderful sense of fun and humor, as well as empathy. On one hot day, someone from another grade brought her a bottle of Pepsi, which she would not drink in our thirsty presence. A nature enthusiast who lived near the school, she once walked the entire class over to her house at lunchtime to watch the birds at her feeders. 
On winter afternoons, an upperclassman would come by with a report as to which ponds were safe to skate on. Ice House Pond off Brick Hill Road in East Orleans—better known as “the pond behind Charlie Moore’s” —was usually among them.

Orleans High School back in the day.

The town’s first Catholic priest, Father James Lynch, had long dreamed of opening a parochial school, and his dream came true. The school building, which held grades from kindergarten through eighth, is now home to the St Joan of Arc thrift shop. A group of the Sisters of Divine Providence from Pennsylvania came to teach. Some, like Sister Georgette and Sister Marianne, were gentle souls who truly loved children. Others, who shall remain nameless, ruled by the ruler across the knuckles and soul-searing insults. But they all taught us to study hard; every afternoon, our book bags were heavy with homework. 

When I entered high school in 1960, the district had regionalized to include Orleans, Eastham, and Wellfleet. Brewster students could choose to attend Nauset or Dennis-Yarmouth, and those from Truro could come to Nauset or go to Provincetown, which today is part of the Nauset region. A few of the Wellfleet boys were jokers, and their jokes were not always funny. A few years ago, I asked one of them why they had picked on people, and he replied, “Because it was our first time on someone else’s turf, and we were scared.” That was a revelation.

The faculty included some first-rate teachers with knowledge and wit. English teacher Miss Elisabeth Hooker founded the Archy Club, named for the cockroach in Archy and Mehitabel; members could come in early for help with spelling and punctuation. Dr Stewart Brooks, who taught Latin and ancient history, invented the holiday Egredior Day, which fell on March fourth, because egredior in Latin means march forth. Mrs Betty Murphy made the French language a lot of fun and also participated as a cheerleader at the annual student-faculty basketball game. Mrs Frances Mayfarth knew that her juniors would not be able to focus on English the day before Christmas vacation, so she had us put our desks in a circle and take turns relating how we learned that there was no Santa Claus.

We may have come from a small-town setting, but we were sent into the world with as fine a background as could be found anywhere!

Mary E. McDermott is a 13th-generation Cape Codder living in Orleans. She worked for 17 years in the Orleans Assessor’s Office and 23 years as a commercial insurance broker at Pike Insurance Agency. She has been a justice of the peace to solemnize marriages since 1976 and has previously published two books of poetry, Tapestry and Handle with Care. Her poems have appeared in several publications including the Christian Science Monitor.

Old Orleans: Memories of a Cape Cod Town, is available now wherever good books are sold, especially your local book store.

Author: Mary Petiet

Mary Petiet is an author, poet, and freelance writer. Always a Cape Codder at heart, she is a long time contributor to Edible Cape Cod Magazine and many other books and publications. Mary is the author of Moon Tide: Cape Cod Poems, Owl Magic: Your Guide to Challenging Times, and Minerva’s Owls (Homebound Publications). In 2020 she founded Sea Crow Press, an independent small press curating poetry and creative nonfiction.

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