Cape Cod National Seashore | ATWOOD-HIGGINS HOUSE TOUR

Atwood-Higgins House at Cape Cod National Seashore

Atwood-Higgins House at Cape Cod National Seashore


See the Historic Sites web page for an interactive location map.


ATWOOD-HIGGINS HOUSE HISTORY

When most people think about a historical house tour, they envision a large, ornate mansion filled with expensive furnishings and paintings. This is not the case with the Atwood-Higgins House, the oldest house within the confines of Cape Cod National Seashore. The house is small and of historical note, not only for its age, but because it is a fine example of traditional Cape Cod architecture.

The current name of the house comes from the two families that owned the property. The house is thought to have been built by Thomas Higgins in 1730. It was only half the size of the current house, with the chimney that is now in the middle of the structure marking the original outer wall. The building was expanded twice, with the final addition being in 1820.

The property remained in the Higgins Family for three generations until being sold in 1805 to Thomas Atwood. As with the Higgins Family, the house remained in the Atwood Family for three generations, though by the 1870s nobody was living in it on a regular basis, and it was gradually falling apart. The property was eventually sold to Mary Ackerman in 1891, but she lost it to foreclosure a few years later. Three of the Atwood children who spent time at the property when they were very young and had fond memories of their visits purchased the house and land in 1897, bringing it once again back into the family.

The property was inherited by George Higgins, a cousin of the Atwood children, in 1919, and he set out to not only restore it, but also to build reproductions of Cape Cod Colonial-era buildings to create a living history museum of sorts. The buildings included a dozen structures such as a barn, guest house, summer house, and country store and post office. It took him until 1961 to finish the project, at which time he promptly donated it to Cape Cod National Seashore with the caveat that he could live out the rest of his summers at the house. When he died in 1978, the National Park Service began tours of the property.

George Higgins-era buildings at the Atwood-Higgins House, Cape Cod National Seashore

George Higgins-era buildings at the Atwood-Higgins House, Cape Cod National Seashore

HOUSE TOUR

Visitors are welcome to view the Atwood-Higgins House at Cape Cod National Seashore and the other buildings on the property at any time of the year, but interior access to the main house is only allowed during free Ranger-guided tours, which are typically held once a week from June through September. Exact schedules come out a month in advance and are posted on the National Park Service’s Calendar web page for the park and published in a free newspaper that is available at the Salt Pond and Province Lands visitor centers. Because of this, it is hard to plan a summer trip many months in advance.

The Atwood-Higgins House tour is limited to fifteen people and reservations are required. Reservations are required and are made by calling the Salt Pond Visitor Center at (508) 255-3421 no earlier than one week in advance. In such cases I usually try calling first thing in the morning on the first day that reservations are accepted, but in this case I was not able to do so until 4:40 PM. Fortunately, there were still tickets left at that time (the tour was for a Thursday). All spots were eventually taken, so be sure to call as early as possible.

While organized out of the Salt Pond Visitor Center, the tour actually meets at a roadside parking area near the house. The official address is 269 Bound Brook Island Road in Wellfleet. From the road it is a short walk to the house, downhill on the way there, and of course uphill on the way back. It’s not a steep hill, but just be aware that the terrain is not flat. Furthermore, I visited in late July and was harassed by biting flies that were smart enough to hang around at my ankles where I couldn’t swat them easily, so wear long pants to avoid an unpleasant visit.

Walk downhill from the road towards the Atwood-Higgins House and outbuildings at Cape Cap National Seashore

Walk downhill from the road towards the Atwood-Higgins House and outbuildings at Cape Cap National Seashore

Today the Atwood-Higgins House is unfurnished, though the interior remains exactly as it was when George Higgins inherited the property. When he restored the building he did not install any modern amenities. Though empty, the tour guide is still able to fill an hour-long stay with plenty of details about the architecture of the house, the Higgins and Atwood families, and life at Cape Cod in the early days of tourism.

Interior of the Atwood-Higgins House at Cape Cap National Seashore

Interior of the Atwood-Higgins House at Cape Cap National Seashore

Fireplace in the Atwood-Higgins House at Cape Cap National Seashore

Fireplace in the Atwood-Higgins House at Cape Cap National Seashore

Room in the Atwood-Higgins House with an information panel on display, Cape Cod National Seashore

Room in the Atwood-Higgins House with an information panel on display, Cape Cod National Seashore

GEORGE HIGGINS-ERA BUILDINGS

After the Atwood-Higgins House tour concludes, you are welcome to walk around to see the other buildings. As mentioned, only the main house is open to the public, and that is because it is the only building that has been maintained. The buildings George Higgins built between 1920 and 1960 are in pretty bad shape. Most are located in the general area of the main house.

WOOD SHED

The Wood Shed is the building closet to the Atwood-Higgins House and is the only building other than the house itself that was on the property when George Higgins took possession. He added an open-bay wood storage shed to the north end in 1923, which freed up the main building for general storage. A laundry and bath were added to the east side in 1938. The photo below is of the west face, so the laundry addition cannot be seen.

Wood shed on the grounds of the Atwood-Higgins House at Cape Cod National Seashore

Wood shed on the grounds of the Atwood-Higgins House at Cape Cod National Seashore

GARAGE

A garage was built to the northeast of the Atwood-Higgins House in 1923, but it was moved to northwest of the house in 1929. Today it is surrounded by forest, so I didn’t even see it during my visit. The garage would have been in plain sight back in the 1920s because all of this was open land at the time.

The garage is not actually on the Higgins property but on the property of a neighbor who allowed it to be built. The road curves away from the Higgins property at this point, which is why the garage is located where it is. While Higgins’ original intention was to construct a Colonial-era homestead, he had to make concessions in order to accommodate his modern automobile.

BARN

There was a barn on the property when the house was built in 1730, but it no longer survives. What stands today is a barn built by George Higgins in 1924-25. The barn housed a stall, box stall, and carriage room. An extension on the north side had two rooms, one for tools. In 1927 a small shed was added to the east side, and in 1931 the tool room was insulated and converted into a bunk room for boys.

Today the barn is in rough shape. The shed is missing a wall and there are numerous holes in the exterior walls.

Barn on the grounds of the Atwood-Higgins House at Cape Cod National Seashore

Barn on the grounds of the Atwood-Higgins House at Cape Cod National Seashore

GUEST HOUSE

If coming from the road, to the left of the barn is a Guest House that Higgins built in 1929. The original house only had a living room and a bedroom, with the living room being the larger part of the building and the bedroom an extension on the south side. A bathhouse—bath, sink, toilet—was added in 1951, making the Guest House the only residential building on the property with modern amenities. A second bedroom was added at this time as well.

West side of the Guest House (main entrance) on the grounds of the Atwood-Higgins House at Cape Cod National Seashore

West side of the Guest House (main entrance) on the grounds of the Atwood-Higgins House at Cape Cod National Seashore

SUMMER HOUSE

Higgins built a Summer House during 1935 and 1936. It is located southwest of the main house on a hill overlooking the Herring River. This would make it the farthest building from the road. I never saw it and can’t even spot it on various satellite images, so it must be surrounded by forest. The Summer House was rebuilt in 1960. Only the roof of the original house was reused.

COUNTRY STORE AND POST OFFICE

The Country Store and Post Office was never operational; it was just a building Higgins furnished with antiques to make it look like a store and post office. He used it as his office and general hangout. Located on the opposite side of the barn from the Guest House, it was inspired by a store and post office Higgins used to visit in Vermont when he was a kid. The building was ready for occupation by the end of 1947, but it wasn’t until 1949 that all work was completed. It did have electricity and running water.

Country Store on the grounds of the Atwood-Higgins House at Cape Cod National Seashore

Country Store on the grounds of the Atwood-Higgins House at Cape Cod National Seashore

SCHEDULING YOUR TIME

The tour I was on spent about fifty minutes inside the Atwood-Higgins House at Cape Cod National Seashore. Afterwards I roamed around the property to see the other buildings, spending an additional twenty minutes. Thus, plan to spend 1 to 1.5 hours for your visit to the property.

Back to the Top


With a few exceptions, use of any photograph on the National Park Planner website requires a paid Royalty Free Editorial Use License or Commercial Use License. See the Photo Usage page for details.
Last updated on February 19, 2024
Share this article