The golden age of guano

Friday 16 September 2016 — Port-O-Call: Penzance Point — International Preservation of the Ozone Layer Day

I’ve lately been considering the nicknames of various cities in the Diocese of Fall River. The City of Fall River is “Spindle City” — a reference to the importance of textile manufacturing. New Bedford is the “Whaling City,” Taunton is “Silver City,” Attleboro is called “The Jewelry Capitol of the World.” These nicknames involve notable industries of the past.

I’ve never heard a nickname for Falmouth. Falmouth, as we all know, was called “Suckanesset” by the original inhabitants, the Wampanoag. “Suckanesset” translates as “place-by-the-sea-where-black-seashell-currency-is-found.” 

“Falmouth by the Sea and Money for Free” has a certain ring to it. 

Falmouth does have the longest coastline of any in Massachusetts. Still, the Wampanoag name for Falmouth lacks a certain je ne se quoi. Besides, it’s much too long. 

Falmouth deserves a pithy nickname. I set out to correct this oversight. 

I didn’t have far to go. On Main Street I find the principal industries of Falmouth commemorated in a series of 11 lovely bronze plaques: “Looking Back: Falmouth at Work” by local artist Sarah Peters. Each bas-relief represents a different industry in Falmouth’s convoluted history: ship building, ice cutting, woolen manufacturing, cranberry growing, whaling, marine sciences, eel fishing, salt gathering, strawberry farming, tourism, and guano works. Wait. What? Guano?

Yes, dear readers, Falmouth is famous for guano — which was once really, really big business. “Guano” is the highfaluting term for bat manure. People use the word to also describe seabird droppings. I’ve been unable to find a word specifically for seabird droppings as distinct from bat droppings. “Guano” will have to do.

I learned all about guano in a tattered old book entitled “Suckanesset” (1930) by Theodate Geoffrey. This particular copy was discarded in 1984 by Bishop Feehan High School. Do they no longer teach all about guano in schools? I have no idea how Father Francis X. Wallace ended up with it (neither does he), but he gave the book to me. 

At any rate, beginning on page 149, I found more than I needed to know about the guano industry in Falmouth. It seems back in 1859 shipping merchants from Boston and New York incorporated as the Pacific Guano Company. They soon opened a giant guano processing headquarters right here in Falmouth. Guano, by the way, was favored by horticulturists as an effective all-natural fertilizer.

Ships sailed the Caribbean and the Pacific searching for uninhabited islands on which wild bird colonies, over the centuries, had deposited tons of guano (this was before ecological awareness). The raw guano was shoveled off the rocks into wooden barrels and brought triumphantly back to Falmouth. Town residents stood on the dock and cheered as each barrel of guano was off-loaded. (Sorry. I got carried away.)

The guano was then mixed at the Falmouth processing plant with squished fish and pulverized animal bones to become the gold standard of fertilizer. 

For decades, guano processing was the major industry in Falmouth. In its prime, the company employed 200 workers. Its stock was worth millions. Even New Bedford’s miserly millionaire Hetty Green, the “Witch of Wall Street,” came sniffing around. 

It was the guano industry that put Falmouth on the map. It was the guano industry that brought the railroad to town. (The railroad also brought tourists.) Falmouth is the town that guano built.

Similar to many start-ups before and since, the guano market crashed. The plant closed, the building was razed, the land was divided and sold off.

Today, the New York Stock Exchange has absolutely no interest in guano. Sad, but true.

Take heart, dear readers, for the peninsula formerly occupied by the malodorous processing plant has been repurposed. It’s now called “Penzance Point” after a seaside town in Cornwall, England. Looking at a map, one can see geographical similarities. I understand the other name proposed, “Guano Estates,” received no votes at all. 

Penzance Point is one of the most exclusive Cape Cod neighborhoods, a gated community by the sea, and the location of 29 magnificent estates owned by the rich and famous. The mansions on Penzance Point have fabulously verdant lawns. I’m not at all surprised. 

I did investigate a house for sale on Penzance Point — only out of curiosity, you understand. The house was built in 1900, soon after the collapse of the guano industry. The asking price is $14 million. This includes seven bedrooms, eight bathrooms, and extraordinarily green grass. Unlike Gilbert and Sullivan, I saw no pirates of Penzance. The coast was clear.

There are no longer whalers in New Bedford or silver manufacturing plants in Taunton. Long passed is Falmouth’s Golden Age of Guano. I suspect, however, a nickname like “Falmouth: Guano Capitol of the World” would be bad for tourism.

Having completed this unsuccessful search for a town nickname, I have concluded that plain old “Falmouth” will have to suffice.

Sometimes history is best forgotten, especially by high-end real estate agents. That $14 million house has been on the market for more than a year now. Prospective buyers, I suspect, smell something fishy. 

Did she say, “Next, please?”

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.


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