“The “Old Warhorse” Nathaniel Hinckley


For most of the nineteenth century Marstons Mills was ruled by the feisty character, Nathaniel Hinckley. He dominated economic life, owning the village grocery, three grist mills, the fulling mill, and much of the farm land and lots for cutting firewood.

He even controlled politics, at one time, holding most town and county offices.

Nathaniel Hinckley’s house and store were in the heart of the village, on the pond side of the Cotuit Road that we now call Route 149. It was a few hundred feet from his grist mill, at the intersection of the roads to Newtown, West Barnstable and Osterville.

Born in Marstons Mills in 1806 to a land-rich family, at twenty years old, he opened the first store in Marstons Mills. It was a general store that sold everything that local people could not produce: tropical imports, tobacco, textiles, sewing supplies, hats, shoes, guns, and medicine.

When, in January 1828 the John Quincy Adams adminstration awarded him the first post office in Marstons Mills, Mr. Hinckley built an addition on the north side of his home. Here, every weekday, the villagers gathered to pick up their mail, and exchange news and gossip.
At age 28, in 1834, Hinckley was elected Representative to Beacon Hill, an office he held for a decade. His was “the voice of the people”, opposing the banks and corporate monopolies.
Three years later, in 1837, he was elected to the County Commission, which controls finances, the appointment of officials, maintains Cape Cod’s roads, bridges, courthouse and jail. He held this office for at least ten years, simultaneously with the office of state Representative.
He seems to have held every office in the county and town: Sheriff in 1848 to 1852, Register of Probate 1853, Selectman 1839, 1846-7, 1857-8, Moderator of town meeting 1848, Assessor 1847, Justice of Peace 1858, School Committee, Prudential Committee, and even a lowly Fenceviewer.
He orated on every occasion; at Fourth of July he invoked radical heroes like James Otis. Local newspapers were flooded with his long letters on national and local issues, and complaints that they didn’t print his views.
Hinckley’s politics were always on the populist side, from the anti-bank Democrats of the Jackson era, with the “Locofoco” Equal Rights Party, the anti-slavery Free Soil Party, the revolutionary support of John Brown in Bleeding Kansas, the creation of the radical Republican Party, to the Democrats’ free trade of the 1880’s. In his eighties he supported women’s rights.
Locally, he promoted projects like the railroad; a dike across the great marshes; the County Fair, which he headed in 1864; and the Civil War memorial, presided at its dedication in 1866.
After he sold the general store to his clerk and neighbor William Marston in 1838, he pioneered in manufacturing and farming. Having bought out the Marstons’ interest in the fulling mill by 1836, he expanded the building, adding a modern carding machine, and continued cotton production until 1855. He improved the grist mill in 1842, adding a corn and cob cracker, and planned to make paper from local beach grass. His farming won awards for recovering exhausted soil by planting pine trees, growing eleven-foot-high corn, as well as vegetables, orchards, and cranberry bogs.
But cranberries and milling don’t mix. In 1874 he began a decade-long fight to stop upstream growers from reducing flow to his grist mill or suddenly releasing a flood. His suit against Samuel Nickerson of Cotuit, the financier of the big bogs in Newtown was lost in the highest court. In 1882 asked the town for damages for A. D. Makepeace’s injury to his grist mill and ruin of manufacturing. The town awarded him $200, which he refused, and shut down the mill for while, insisting on right of further suits.
“The old war-horse”, as he was called, died in 1894, aged 87, still writing long letters about public causes.
Published in Barnstable Enterprise 2 Dec. 2011.


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