784 Commercial Street

Foss Woods

This 15-acre conservation area is, by degrees, lending its name to the small neighborhood between the East End and Mayflower Heights/Beach Point. And that seems appropriate, since the Foss family of Malden, Mass., has been an important part of life in the eastern outskirts for more than a century.


The first generation was led by Eliphalet J. and Louise (Woodworth) Foss, who seem to have started acquiring property in Provincetown in the earliest 1900s, if not before. (Digressive comment: folks just don’t name their boys Eliphalet any longer, do they?) Their son, Paul Maurice Foss (1884-1966), was the family’s big mover and shaker in Provincetown.

Foss attended Boston University as an undergraduate and as a law student. Then, in ±1908, he and Vincent P. Clarke formed the law firm of Foss & Clarke in Boston, at 27 State Street. Foss worked there more than 50 years, retiring in 1962. Meanwhile, he was buying and selling large tracts of land in Provincetown, where he and his wife, Bertha Dean Foss, had honeymooned.

By the late 1940s, town officials were looking somewhat hungrily at the 90 or so acres of wooded property owned by Foss and others as the site of possible housing, industrial or recreational development. Indeed, one of Provincetown’s earliest motels, the Breakwater at 716 Commercial was built on a chunk of the Foss property in 1953 by Richard Bishop and Carl J. Bradley. By 1961, Foss’s holdings were estimated by the assessor to encompass 18.1 acres.

The Fosses had three children: Paul B. Foss, who became an architect; Ernest D. Foss; and Elizabeth Dean Foss (1919-2002). She attended Tufts University. In 1948, she married the Rev. David Harris Cole (±1921-2011), a Tufts alumnus and a prominent Unitarian Universalist minister, with whom she had two children: Stephen J. Cole and Victoria Foss (Cole) Staples. After the marriage with Cole ended, Foss and her children lived on the Cape, leading The Advocate to note in 1961 that Stephen and Veronica were “the fourth generation to call Provincetown ‘home,’ but will be the first to live here year-round and attend Provincetown schools.” A fifth generation has now followed.

Elizabeth Foss was subsequently married again, to William Turner Mayo, and was known at the time of her death as Elizabeth Foss-Mayo. Several years before her death, she had begun taking steps with the Provincetown Conservation Trust to protect a remarkably intact and cohesive tract of oak and sassafrass woodland, 14.4 acres in extent, with an additional 0.4 acre of wetland. In the April 1995 Town Meeting, voters approved the $425,000 acquisition cost of Foss Woods, contingent on the receipt of state financial assistance, which was forthcoming later that year. (Sue Harrison, “State Awards Funding for Foss Woods,” The Banner, 28 September 1995.)

Title transferred in January 1997. Foss-Mayo lived another five years and came up with the idea of a bird-feeding sanctuary to mark the entrance to Foss Woods, which Stephen Cole constructed. (“Elizabeth Foss-Mayo, 82,” The Banner, 28 March 2002.) A plaque on the structure says: “Enjoyed and appreciated by five generations of Foss young and old, these unique and very special acres are to be preserved for all generations to come.” It is one of perhaps no more than two places on Cape Cod where the checkered rattlesnake orchid can be found. And in Birding Foss Woods, Blair Nikula has declared it “one of the best sites for spring warblers, vireos, and other songbirds on Cape Cod.”

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