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.

What was life like on Old Cape Cod?

Even as a child, I knew Orleans was unique.

Sea Crow Press author Mary E. McDermott reminisces about 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.

Even as a child, I knew Orleans was unique.

Almost across the street from my home was a private residence which had originally been the town almshouse; it is now the site of the police station. Back then, the fire and police departments shared quarters on Main Street. The fire whistle was tested daily at noon. When it blew for a fire, the number of short and long blasts indicated the area of town where the fire was located. Nearly every household had a card, sponsored by Ellis’ Market, which explained the different codes; when the whistle sounded, the card was eagerly consulted!

Freight trains still ran through town, and it was a treat to go to Depot Square (now part of Old Colony Way) and watch the train come in.

Summer held additional treats: each year, the American Legion sponsored a carnival for a week. The carnivals traveled from town to town and were the delight of all the kids and many adults as well. 

A glimpse inside Old Orleans

Another seasonal treat was to go to Philbrick’s Snack Shack at Nauset Beach for fried clams or scallops and their incomparable onion rings. Dessert might be an ice cream cone from Pal’s or Howard Johnson’s (nobody called it HoJo’s then).

Orleans was home to some interesting individuals. I remember Mrs Carter, who had a sort of boutique on Main Street and always went barefoot. In my mind’s eye is a picture of her crossing the street, wearing a beautiful blue dress, with nothing between her soles and the pavement. 

For some time, friends had been urging me to preserve some of my memories, especially those concerning my mother, a 12th-generation native, and thus was born Old Orleans: Memories of a Cape Cod Town. I hope readers will enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

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.