Mr. Mountford Leads Walks Through Falmouth’s Past

Historical tour guide Tom Mountford uses a small mirror to reflect sunlight onto a headstone in Falmouth’s old burial ground off Elm Road. When old gravestones are backlit, they are difficult to read. The reflected light renders the inscriptions legible.ELIZABETH W. SAITO/ENTERPRISE - Historical tour guide Tom Mountford uses a small mirror to reflect sunlight onto a headstone in Falmouth’s old burial ground off Elm Road. When old gravestones are backlit, they are difficult to read. The reflected light renders the inscriptions legible.

Thomas P. Mountford of Falmouth, a retired police officer, led a walking tour of downtown Falmouth yesterday morning, departing from Falmouth’s Museums on the Green. The walk started promptly at 10 AM, on the stroke of the First Congregational Church’s bell. “You’re listening to history,” Mr. Mountford said. The bell was made by a metalsmith named Paul Revere in 1796.

Mr. Mountford led a group of two—a reporter and Falmouth resident Margaret M. Sulanowska—around to the historic houses surrounding the Village Green. He stopped in front of a large, colonial house built by William Bodfish, the youngest master mariner in New England (the house is now the residence of the Congregational minister). At age 20, Mr. Bodfish was captain of a merchant ship that sailed regularly to Germany. That Mr. Bodfish reached this professional apex at such a young age amazed Mr. Mountford. “These guys would, at age 13, hop a ship and, literally, learn the ropes—and there were a lot of ropes,” he said, opening a binder and pointing to a photo of an old whaling ship’s rigging.

Mr. Mountford then flipped to a photograph taken looking southwest across the Village Green and the houses opposite it in 1901. The scene was strikingly similar to the view today, except the fence around the Village Green was made of iron instead of wood, the roads were dirt, and a woman in the photograph wore a voluminous full-length dress. The houses on the western end of Main Street are all listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, “So you can’t tear one down and put up a CVS,” he said.

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The house at 57 Main Street was built by Benjamin Sanford in the 1750s. Mr. Sanford was a cabinet maker, politician, hatter, and undertaker. “These aren’t famous people,” Mr. Mountford said. “You’re lucky to find one sentence about them.”

Mr. Mountford’s favorite stop on the tour is a white colonial house on Locust street built by Captain Samuel Lawrence. Mr. Lawrence’s wife, Mary, and their 5-year-old daughter, Minnie, embarked with him on a three-year whaling voyage in 1856. Mary Lawrence kept a detailed journal of their time at sea. “I’m halfway through it for the second time,” Mr. Mountford said. Ms. Lawrence wrote about near shipwrecks, the deaths of favorite crew members, the excitment of encountering a fellow ship from Falmouth, the tedium of not seeing a whale for weeks on end. “It’s much more personal” than the ship’s log, Mr. Mountford said. He particularly likes Ms. Lawrence’s narrative of Minnie losing her doll overboard. The little girl was devastated and asked her mother to make her a mourning dress. There was not enough fabric, so Ms. Lawrence made her a black armband. 

Continuing down Locust Street, Mr. Mountford turned left down Mill Road, and then walked up the oldest public way in Falmouth to the town’s first burial ground. This area was the original center of town, when Falmouth was first settled by Europeans in the 1660s. The oldest grave was for Desire Bourne, dated 1705.

Falmouth was incorporated in 1686. The Indian name for the area was Suckanesset, which means “land of the dark quahog” because Falmouth abounded in quahogs with a deep purple hue to their shells, Mr. Mountford said.

Mr. Mountford said he has always been interested in history, especially Civil War history. He and his wife, Rebecca J. Mountford, have visited all the major battlefields of the Civil War. “I like to walk the ground, and stand where people stood,” he said.

Mr. Mountford retired from the Falmouth Police Department in 2009, after 32 years of service. He works as a part-time bridgetender in Woods Hole. Mr. Mountford said he often feels more like an information booth tender than a bridgetender, because the little office where he works is adjacent to the sidewalk and tourists stop frequently to ask questions. Common questions are: “Where can I get a lobster roll?” “Do you sell tickets to the ferry?” “Do you have quarters for the meter?” and “Who has the best clam chowder?”

“I don’t mind talking to the people,” Mr. Mountford said. “I kind of like it.” His favorite is when a person stops, looks from side to side, and asks, amazed, “Is this a drawbridge?” The person then usually assembles their family—“like they’re going to see a space shuttle launch”—and they all wait to watch the bridge go up and down.

The historical walking tours take place every Tuesday and Thursday at 10 AM and cost $5. Walkers assemble at the Hallett Barn Visitors Center at 65 Palmer Avenue. 

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