Plymouth And Provincetown, After The Pilgrims

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At Thanksgiving, most of us think of pious Pilgrims in black clothes landing at Plymouth, Mass. But they actually arrived at Provincetown, Mass., first. It's hard to imagine two places more different today. Plymouth makes money from its image as the home of righteous, hard-working, religious pilgrims. Provincetown makes money from its pounding disco beat and artist hangouts.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

On a Thanksgiving morning it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Renee is away today. This holiday is often said to commemorate the Thanksgiving feast shared between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans who helped teach them to survive the winter. Many kids learn that history of the Pilgrims in school, and it's a good story.

The Mayflower made landfall on the shore of Massachusetts. The Pilgrims first stepped off onto Plymouth Rock and started their colony. Except that's not the whole truth. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES)

CHRIS ARNOLD: So I'm standing on the beach here where the Pilgrims, it's thought, first stepped ashore and trod their boots upon the new world. But I'm not in Plymouth. This is not the famous Plymouth Rock. We're about, what, 50 miles or so...

M: Fifty miles.

ARNOLD: ...east?

M: Fifty miles east here in Provincetown, where the Pilgrims really landed first.

ARNOLD: Jim Bakker is the executive director of the Pilgrim Monument and Museum in Provincetown.

M: This is the spot where, known that the Pilgrims first stepped foot. And then they had prayers and meetings. They realized they needed to band together, and that's when they signed the Mayflower Compact, right here in the harbor. But that was not for 35 days later that they landed in Plymouth.

ARNOLD: It turns out that the Pilgrims preferred Plymouth as a place to live. And given their puritanical ways, they might well make that same decision were they to arrive in Provincetown today. Provincetown is way out at land's end at the tip of Cape Cod. And over the years it's become a mecca for all kinds of eccentric artists and poets. And there's, of course, a vibrant gay community and nightclub scene in Provincetown.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "BETTE DAVIS EYES")

ARNOLD: The Atlantic House is a long-standing gay bar in Provincetown. Bartender Kevin McCarthy and some customers worry that some of the Pilgrims might have a stroke if they arrived today.

M: They would not be hanging out in the gay bars.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

M: They would not be dancing...

M: How do you know that?

M: They would not be dancing down the street in drag.

ARNOLD: But customer Bob Tilton isn't so sure.

M: (Unintelligible) singing in front of town hall.

M: They wanted freedom. They were all...

ARNOLD: Freedom and the chance to make just and equal laws is what signing the Mayflower Compact was all about. Museum officials here say that the signing of that document actually makes Provincetown the birthplace of American democracy. So to commemorate that, the people of Provincetown about 100 years ago erected a massive stone monument. It was really a big deal back then. President Theodore Roosevelt attended the laying of the cornerstone.

M: We're looking up now at the monument, and it stands at 252 feet, seven and a half inches. It's the tallest all-granite structure in the United States.

ARNOLD: That's museum director Jim Bakker again. The monument sort of looks like a giant turret from a castle but without the castle.

M: It's one of those things that you'd never be able to get built today with zoning. People would look and say, oh my god, you can't put that up. But it's just a spectacular sight.

ARNOLD: And it's probably no accident that you can see the monument from Plymouth, where the rock of much smaller proportions has enjoyed much more fame. The problem is, a lot of people who see this monument from a distance don't really know what it represents. Museum officials here want to change that. They've launched a campaign to raise the profile of the monuments around its upcoming hundred-year anniversary.

M: Hey, darling, how you doing?

U: Good.

ARNOLD: Local restaurant owner Nappy Vanderick is helping to plan the anniversary event for next summer.

M: They did write the first compact. They sat down and put words down in this harbor.

ARNOLD: But before we get very far into talking about that, another longtime resident can't resist coming over. Richard Olson(ph), who's a local history buff, says the whole Plymouth Rock story just doesn't make any sense to him anyway.

M: It's always struck me as the crazy thing. You wade ashore on sand. You don't go up to a rock.

ARNOLD: Olson says nobody here wants to take anything away from Plymouth, but he's hoping that the museum succeeds in its efforts to raise awareness about where the Pilgrims really landed first.

M: Here is where they first fell upon their knees and thanked the lord of heaven for bringing them over the vast and furious sea and delivering them to the solid land, their proper element. I'm quoting from Governor Bradford's history of Plymouth Plantation.

ARNOLD: The anniversary of Provincetown's Pilgrim monument is next August 5th. The town has invited the governor and President Obama to attend.

Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.

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