Mesmerizing tales

Cape Cod enjoys a rich tradition of local lore and legends, including many that predate the arrival of the Pilgrims.

In her recently published book, Legends & Lore of Cape Cod (History Press, 2016), Robin Smith-Johnson ’76 spins tales about love, shipwrecks, murders, hauntings, witches, ancient Wampanoag legends, and much more, from this 339-square-mile peninsula in eastern Massachusetts.

Smith-Johnson, who majored in English at Wheaton, is passionate about all things literature and history.

For the past 17 years, she has served as the Cape Cod Times’ librarian, conducting research for reporters and editors, in addition to other duties. She also has served on the faculty of Cape Cod Community College since 2003, teaching various English classes, including English Composition I, Foundations in Writing and Creative Writing. (She received her master’s degree in English at Bowling Green.)

Since 2009, she has written a popular blog, “Cape Rewind,” which features fascinating vignettes on figures and events in local history.

It was her blog that captured the attention of History Press. In February last year, the publisher reached out to her about writing a book that would combine some of her “Cape Rewind” research, and require her to collect new material, by the end of October.

“I couldn’t have done it without the blogs,” she said, noting that her 350 entries were essential to her manuscript.

Smith-Johnson collected dozens of old photographs, which had to be submitted before the manuscript. She found them by digging into the archives of various libraries, Cape Cod Community College and Cape Cod Times, and also, more close to home: Her father’s old collection of postcards (he had been an antiquarian book dealer).

Her book is organized by subject, including Wampanoag stories, legendary animals (for example, sea serpents), sea voyages, pirates, rumrunners, ghosts, cold murder cases, UFOs, the Kennedys, and more.

One of her favorite findings: the discovery of a Cape Cod Times clip file about the Orleans Historical Society, which revealed the existence of an early 1900s all-women group called Orleans Hen Hawks, which lit gas lamps on nights with no moon, to ensure the town enjoyed light at a time when electricity was not yet prevalent.

When Smith-Johnson finally submitted the manuscript, the publisher asked for an additional 19,000 words, so she delved once more back into her research and writing. “Luckily, I had five weeks. I spent literally every moment in front of the computer working. I finished it a couple of days after Thanksgiving. It made the book so much better.”

Smith-Johnson fondly recalls her education at Wheaton—in particular, Kathleen Vogt, her English professor.

“She was the reason I went to Bowling Green, as she had done her graduate work there. She loved William Butler Yeats, Irish literature and poetry,” Smith-Johnson said.

Smith-Johnson recalled an incident when as a senior at Wheaton, she had been short on money to make copies at the library.

“[Professor Vogt] gave me the money and said, in exchange, to someday ‘send me your first book of poems,’” Smith-Johnson said.

Sure enough, when Smith-Johnson published a book of poems, Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter, in 2013, she sent the book to her beloved professor.

“She remembered me. She sent me a wonderful note,” she said.

As for Legends & Lore of Cape Cod, Robin-Smith is giving talks throughout the Cape, enjoying continued success in her writing career.