We fly by them in our speedboats, paddle past them in our canoes and kayaks, stop and picnic on their shores: they are, of course, the three islands in Wakeby Pond.
Having numerous names over the years, they are now officially known as Cleveland, Jefferson and Keith islands, and they sit majestically in Mashpee-Wakeby Pond, which is actually two connected natural kettle-hole ponds, generally considered to be one of the largest bodies of water on the Cape.
They cover some 729 acres, with Wakeby Pond being the northern basin and Mashpee Pond the southern basin. The ponds are fed by groundwater and drain to the Mashpee River. The average depth is 28 feet, and the maximum depth is 87 feet. The ponds were formed in the aftermath of the Ice Age. Some 12,000 years ago the glacial movement stopped at where Cape Cod now sits, and the leading edges began to melt. We have been enjoying that aftermath with fishing, boating, swimming and reveling in its recreational and natural beauty ever since.
Cleveland Island is named for the 22nd and 24th US president, Stephen “Grover” Cleveland, who came to Cape Cod on the advice of his friend, the famed actor Joseph (Joe) Jefferson, and bought a house in Bourne that he named Gray Gables.
President Cleveland was an ardent fisherman and was often seen fishing the waters of Buzzard Bay and especially in Mashpee-Wakeby Pond and the Mashpee River, usually staying overnight at the famed Hotel Attaquin here in Mashpee. At the time, there was a side-wheeler steamboat that took fishing parties out into Mashpee-Wakeby Pond. The president was a regular on the steamboat parties, often hosted by the wealthy railway car manufacturer Eben Keith. The parties commonly included Mr. Jefferson and another frequent visitor to Wakeby Pond, “Diamond” Jim Brady.
President Cleveland especially liked to fish off the three islands and the connecting channel between the two pond basins, feeling they were reliable hotspots. The steamboat, originally named Quichatasett, was renamed “Ruth,” reportedly in honor of the president’s daughter, popularly known as “Baby Ruth.” Her birth between the president’s two terms of office caused a national sensation. Interest in her continued even after her father’s second presidential term was over. A sickly child, Ruth Cleveland contracted diphtheria on January 2, 1904, and died at the age of 12. The steamer itself was known around the pond for the sound of its whistle that filled the air as it neared the shore.
Jefferson Island is named after Mr. Jefferson, one of the most famous of all 19th-century American comedians. Jefferson was particularly well-known for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle on the stage and played that role later in several silent films. He achieved his first important success in “Our American Cousin,” which was the turning point in his career and the play President Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated. Mr. Jefferson’s role as Rip Van Winkle made him one of the most popular actors well into the early 1900s. The Joseph Jefferson Awards, currently given out to theatrical productions, are named after him. He owned a house in Buttermilk Bay, property in Sandwich and was buried in Bay View Cemetery in Sandwich in 1907.
Keith Island is named for the Keith family of Keith Car Company fame that was located in Sandwich from the 1840s until it closed in 1928. Isaac Keith started the operation making tools, axles and ironware. His son, Isaac N. Keith, got into the railway car construction. Under son Eben Keith in the 1890s, a great expansion occurred, with the plant extending more than a mile along the tracks, building and repairing wooden-body rail cars. The Keith family became some of the wealthiest people on the Cape.
Recently, a trust in California has collaborated with the Native Land Conservancy, a conservation group based in Mashpee, to protect the three islands in perpetuity.
Ramona L. Peters, the conservancy’s president and founder, said at some point the nonprofit hopes to provide “respectful public access” to the islands, even canoe tours of the area, and to protect the islands into the future. The islands had been owned by the Andrew J. Lipnosky Trust. According to reports, the conservancy will partner with the Trustees of Reservation on the conservation restriction. With the islands being preserved with all their natural beauty for all time, they will continue to be a gem in Mashpee-Wakeby Pond for generations to come.