My first encounter with Woods Hole was not during a summer trip to Cape Cod, but instead here at the collections facility of the Nature Museum. What I thought to be a spelling mistake turned out to be a door to a rabbit hole investigation that would take me through one village’s transformative history.
I often come across a myriad of curiosities when processing the museum’s botanical backlog collection. While much of the fun is in observing the dried, pressed plants themselves, the original labels attached to these specimens can also inspire a thirst for knowledge. A well documented label will contain information such as the identification of a plant, the location it was collected in, the date it was collected on, and whom it was collected by. While transcribing labels from the late 1800s, I found my interest piquing when I came across “Wood’s Holl”.
Original label from an herbarium specimen, Carex folliculata (Long Sedge), collected by Herman S. Pepoon from “Wood’s Holl”, Massachusetts in August 1897.
Upon entering this name in search engines, the results would return to me as “Woods Hole” instead, which made me think the original label was misspelled, something that does happen occasionally. But, I remembered that it is important to cross check against multiple resources when working with historical locality information to understand the bigger picture; place names often undergo many changes over time, especially the further back in time you go. After some more digging, it turns out the label was not misspelled, but the place name had been changed. My original quest eventually developed into a research adventure that unveiled more the further I looked. Let us take a deeper dive through the area’s history and the changes that came with it.
Woods Hole is a census-designated place in the town of Falmouth, Massachusetts in Barnstable County. Geographically, it is located in the furthest southwest corner of Cape Cod and acts as a strait between Cape Cod and the Elizabeth Islands. Due to its opportune landscape, many industries came to take advantage. The fishing and whaling industry had its share in the early-to-mid-1800s when it was seen as an incredibly profitable business. The harbors of Woods Hole served as whaling stations and ship yards due to its sought after deep-water port and strong currents that kept the local water clean.
Around 1860, there was a shift in leading industries, causing Woods Hole to then become home of the Pacific Guano Company fertilizer plant. For the later half of the 1800s, Pacific Guano Company utilized the ports of Woods Hole for importing and exporting substances such as sulfur, nitrate of soda, potash, guano, and phosphorus from the Pacific to Europe and the east coast of the United States. They worked in tandem with the nearby fish markets to gather menhaden and other fish scraps to mix in with guano to produce fertilizer that was much more efficient than manure. It is fair to imagine at this point that nearby residents might not have appreciated the smells coming from their neighborhood fertilizer plant. Fortunately for the citizens of Woods Hole (except for those that may have had shares in the company), the guano fertilizer industry saw a decline in profitability, ultimately leading to the plant’s bankruptcy in 1889. The next phase for Woods Hole, however, had a much more promising future.
Sketch depicting the Pacific Guano Company plant which manufactured guano-based fertilizer in Woods Hole, Massachusetts from 1863 to 1889. (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
In 1871, Spencer Baird, second Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and the first commissioner of the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries (the United States Fish Commission), arrived in Woods Hole and pioneered its transformation into a hub for scientific organizations. Woods Hole became home to research institutions such as the Marine Biological Laboratory in 1888 and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1930. Today, the Woodwell Climate Research Center, NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, the Woods Hole Science Aquarium, the USGS coastal and marine geology center, and more have found their grounding in this area.
An illustration showing a street map of Woods Hole from 1887 compared to an aerial view photo of Woods Hole from more recent years. (NOAA Fisheries & Marinas.com)
Now, back to the label. So why was Woods Hole spelled as “Wood’s Holl” on the original label? Unfortunately, the meaning behind the original spelling of Woods Hole is unclear, but many historians of the area believe it came from the Norse people who visited the area; “holl” is the Norse word for hill, which there are an abundance of in the region’s terrain. The possessive form of “Woods” in the original name is also not clearly attributed to a definitive person or place. Much like its economy, Woods Hole experienced a handful of changes to its name. Holl was changed to “Hole” to reflect the area’s passage between islands as many other inlets in the region are similarly named (ex. Robinson’s Hole, Quick’s Hole). Throughout the late 1800s, the name underwent further minor changes such as restoration back to its original, then back to Woods Hole again with the removal of the apostrophe in “Wood’s”.
As fascinating as the history of Woods Hole is, there is one other special component of our specimens that brings this story all the way back to the Nature Museum. Almost all of our Woods Hole specimens were collected by a well-known member of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and Illinois Natural History Survey, Herman Silas Pepoon. Pepoon was a local native of Illinois born in 1860 and expressed his interests and passions through many scientific roles, such as doctor, physician and later botanical teacher at Lakeview High School (just down the street to the Nature Museum’s collection facility!), and naturalist. Pepoon was particularly interested in the flora of the midwest and the preservation of botanical specimens in the U.S. After leaving the field of medicine in 1892, Pepoon briefly left Illinois and spent a summer at the Wood’s Hole School of Natural Sciences in Massachusetts. According to his peers, he completed his studies at “the highest rank of anyone enrolled” (Greenwood 1955). Oftentimes, the collectors written on the original labels of our specimens do not have a direct relationship to the Academy, so to stumble upon this relationship between Pepoon, the Academy, and Woods Hole was a eureka moment for me.
Photograph of a young Herman S. Pepoon and a digital scan of Hibiscus moscheutos (Swamp Rosemallow), a specimen that he collected from Woods Hole, Massachusetts in August 1897. (Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum)
Here at the collections facility for the Nature Museum, we currently house 28 specimens collected directly from Woods Hole (27 from Pepoon) and 5 specimens collected by Pepoon in the general region of Falmouth, Massachusetts. Of Pepoon’s specimens, one was exchanged from 1893 while the rest were collected in 1897, possibly during a return trip to Massachusetts. These specimens, many of which are native to the region, include Monotropa uniflora also known as Ghost Plant, Pieris Mariana (Piedmont Staggerbush), Rhododendron viscosum (Swamp Azalea), Prunus maritima (Beach Plum), Viburnum molle (Softleaf Arrowwood), and many more.
Herbarium specimens collected by Herman S. Pepoon from Woods Hole, Massachusetts in the late 1800s.
This investigative experience that has led me through countless tabs on the Internet, several boxes in our archival collections, and many books in our library, has restored my joy and satisfaction in historical research. Although some of the mystery behind the name remains, there was still much information to be gained through my reading. Woods Hole is just one of many places that our botany collection mirrors back to, keeping in mind that the collection has over thousands of plants, all with their own unique stories to fall into.
Dawicki, Shelley. “Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Birthplace of NOAA Fisheries.” NOAA Fisheries, 9 Feb. 2021, www.fisheries.noaa.gov/feature-story/woods-hole-massachusetts-birthplace-noaa-fisheries.
Gaines, Jennifer Stone. “Pacific Guano Company.” Spritsail: A Journal of the History of Falmouth and Vicinity, vol. 21, no. 2, 2007. Woods Hole Historical Collection, Woods Hole, MA.
Greenwood, Grace J. “Apple River Canyon State Park” Warren’s Woman Club, 1955.
“Herman Silas Pepoon.” Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 21 June 2021, naturemuseum.org/2021/06/herman-silas-pepoon/.
“History of Woods Hole.” Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, 23 Jan. 2019, www.whoi.edu/what-we-do/educate/student-life/student-life-cape-cod/history/.
Ritterbusch, Cory, and William C. Handel. “Biography.” H.S. Pepoon, Pioneer Conservationist of Northwest Illinois: Essays on Ecology 1904-1933, PrairieWorks, Galena, IL, 2011, p. 13.
Wikipedia contributors. “Woods Hole, Massachusetts.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 11 Mar. 2023. Web. 11 May. 2023.
“Woods Hole: The Early Years.” NOAA Fisheries, 27 Jan. 2022, www.fisheries.noaa.gov/new-england-mid-atlantic/about-us/woods-hole-early-years.