A Brief History of
Onset, Massachusetts

History and Urban Renewal Efforts of Onset Village

Onset Village is often referred to as Onset the Beautiful. It is a picturesque village. Its' streets are lined with cottages of grace and elegance that overlook a sandy white beach in a tranquil bay. The essence of tranquility one gets from Onset is in touch with the spiritual aura of its' history. Onset is an Indian derived name; it "was a form of "Onkowam (for Agawam) which means "The Sandy Landing Place."

Onset is a part of the Wareham Township (est. 1739) and was originally known as Pine Point. It became known as Onset after the Onset Bay Grove Association purchased it through a "special charter . . . applied for to the Massachusetts Legislature and granted March 31, 1877. The Association was organized under that charter of April 11, 1877, at which time a code of ByLaws was adopted and officers elected. . . . The Grove was formally dedicated to the principals of Spiritualism and the interest of human progress on Thursday, June 14, 1877." The Onset Bay Association was a group of professional businessmen who were looking for a place to establish a spiritual summer camp program.

However, Onset was a difficult place to get to, it was a highly forested area, and the dirt roads were small, hard, and bumpy. In 1884, the Town meeting voted "to lay road from Agawam Depot to Onset Bay Grove . . .. The road was to be 50 feet wide and to extend to the pump in Onset." Completion of this road made traveling into Onset easier and therefore, its' tourism business grew at a rapid rate. Although, Onset was already experiencing a tremendous influx of visitors.

In its' early years, Spiritualism and beauty became synonymous with Onset. It became a well-known vacation spot, an ideal place for families. It was and is still today, a village that puts a great deal of resources into maintaining its aura of spiritualism and its desirability as a vacation place. The first urban renewal effort that was undertaken in Onset was in order to revive their Spiritualism theme and image.

This effort began because the businessmen of Onset believe its image had been tarnished by the publication of a book. According an article by Geraldine Vallier Pearle, "in 1891 a book was published by the New England News Co. of Boston: its title The Vampires of Onset was made up of a series of articles by several newspaper reporters exposing fakery in the Spiritualist world. No incident in the entire booklet took place in Onset. Nevertheless it had an effect on the religion." After the book was published this group of men formed the Onset Bay Grove Camp Meeting Co. Workers and decided to build the Wigwam. Its' purpose would be two-fold; one was to counteract the defamation the book had incited and the other was to worship the Indian Native Spiritual Guides.


The building of ON-I-SET Wigwam was completed in 1894 and was built by a group called the Onset Bay Grove Camp Meeting Co. Workers. They were Spiritualist who wanted to retain the Indian heritage Spirit guides. They built the Wigwam in honor of the Indian heritage, and to promote an image of one with the good spirits. They believed this would dispel the negative image the book The Vampires of Onset had cast on the Village. The Wigwam was dedicated to the Natives who were Wampanog Indians. The group believed using the Nature Spirits of the Natives gave the area an image of natural, holistic spirituality. It would and did help revitalize Onset's image of Spirituality.

The Onset Wigwam still stands today. Above its front door is a plaque that reads, "Erected to the Memory of the Redman - 1894 - Liberty Throughout the World And freedom To All Races". It is listed as one of The Historical Society monuments and is the first stop on their walking tour. Unfortunately, the location is not the most idealistic. It is located at 13th Street, Crescent Park, just on the outskirts of Onset Village. It is difficult to find and today the surrounding area is a clutter of small cottages, which detracts from the Wigwam.

The Wigwam still plays a role in Onset's events. It has held many candlelight processions throughout the years. In 1995, a Mic Mac holyman came and performed a ritual to resentitized the healing pole inside.


The Spiritualist's were the first to promotionalize the natural beauty of Onset, but other groups would soon follow. In 1897, a group of individuals dedicated to preserving the natural beauty of Onset and its beaches formed The Onset Protective League. Throughout the years, this organization has been responsible for protecting the land from over development and improving "street lighting on Onset Avenue . . . better police protection." They also promote the tourism industry in Onset. They work on a collaborative of objectives, they apply for grants and funds, co-ordinate efforts with the merchants, instigate renewal projects, and host various events.

In July 1997, they hosted a big Victorian gala to celebrate their 100th anniversary. Merchants and towns people came out dressed in Victorian garb and lined the streets to sell their wares. The event was considered a great success in attracting tourism.

Individuals too contributed to the revitalization of Onset. Although, no other reference can be found of him, a plaque on Onset's bluffs is dedicated to Albert Ball. It reads: Albert A. Ball, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1845-1924, Bequeathed to the Town of Wareham, A trust fund for improvements of Onset Park. It can was thanks to patrons like him, who loved Onset's parks, that the town has been able to maintain their beauty to this day. The town several years back added a new park to Onset. Coming in from the Narrows side of town is the Edward Lopes Park, a fairly new and modern playground for children.

The Town of Wareham too has usually been a good supporter of the Village as it gets the overfill of its tourism. In "1930 Onset received $500 for summer band concerts and $1,000 for repairing the sea walls and a diving float. This same year the merchants of Onset sponsored a fund for Christmas lighting." Onset became a thriving tourist haven. Its sandy beaches and shallow shore surrounded by the bluffs were the playground of the elite. Hotels and rooming houses were being built. New businesses were booming and eateries with pubs lined the boulevard.

Then tragically, In 1946, there was a murder of a Cambridge woman, Ruth McGurk; she was abducted from one of Onset's dance hall. The quiet village of Onset was rocked, and the murder did effect its' tourism industry. No one was ever convicted the murder, and people were afraid to go out. This added to the negative image Onset was starting to accumulate. Much of Onset growth had been in eating and drinking establishments. Onset had become a party town full of bars. The view of Onset changed and became one of lavish living, drinking and gambling. It was no longer renown for its famous Spirituality. It was now viewed as a village of sin and corruption; it was no longer the family vacation spot.

This negative image would stay for many years. It was further made uneasy by the shantytowns on the outskirts of Onset. Then in 1960, Interstate 195 linked Cape Cod to Provincetown. Wareham, Onset, and Buzzards Bay were now bypassed. The Route 6 businesses in all three towns felt the loss of traffic. This was further exasperated in mid-1980's when the Route 25 bypass was built.

However, Onset would soon rebound. In 1987, Bay Pointe Village and Country Club, a group of business professionals came to town and saw its' potential. Their endeavors are credited being a major stepping stone to Onset's revitalization. They purchased the small, town-owned golf course and surrounding property for $1 million. Plans were soon put in place to build up the golf course, put in a Country Club, and build 25 condominiums. Bay Pointe Village has been a great contributor to Onset's economics since its' inception.

Another great individual contributor to the revitalization of Onset is a man by the name of Len Cubellis. A native of the surrounding area, he graduated from Bourne High School, and then he went on to study architecture. In the late 1980's he bought a cottage on Onset Island and "soon recognized the opportunity in the area. Finally, in 1988 he bought and refurbished the Onset Pointe Inn and since then he has purchased and refurbished an additional 23 more buildings." The building that currently houses the Onset Bay Association in on of his renovated houses; he calls it the "Renaissance Building".

Len was also instrumental in creating The Onset Bay Association. The Association is responsible for continuing to promote the tourism growth in Onset. In December 1995, the Association was approved for a state-funded grant of $400,000 to improve Onset's downtown. This money was funded through the state Executive Office of Communities Development; it affirmed a year-and-a-half long project headed by the OBA director. These funds were used for improvements to storefront signage, refurbishing the Onset bandshell and making it handicapped accessible. These improvements have helped make Onset a thriving summer tourist place. The storefronts all have colorful new faces, and they enhance the Victorian charm. The Onset Bay Association is also responsible for hosting events. They host events such as, The Onset Bay in Bloom-A Victorian Tea, Summer Concert Series, Blues Festival, and Illumination Night-an annual celebration lighting of the beach.

The Association also publishes a newsletter called Your Onset Connection; its editions are published every other month. It gives highlights of past events and synopsis of upcoming events. Inside is a two-month calendar listing shows, concerts, festivals, and other various happenings. They recently added a web page too and can be viewed by going to www.onsetvillage.com.

Onset has always been recognized as an area rich in resources. Therefore, it has always attracted pioneering spirits who have wished to invest Onset. The few downturns in economic booms that Onset may have suffered in her past are minute compared to its overall history. Onset will always revitalize; it is a good investment.

Aside from the few negative incidences mentioned in this paper, the only other reference to a poor economy for Onset is in reference to WWII. This phenomenon affected the country as a whole and is not specific to Onset or its revitalization efforts. Although, as always the businessmen and merchants of Onset kept their focus on making it an attractive vacation spot. It is logical and good economics. Onset's businesses are built on the foundations of attracting visitors.


Rider, Raymond A., Life and Times In Wareham Over 200 Years 1739-1939 Onset Centennial Celebration, Sunday, July 10, 1977.

Florence Spinney Ottke, The History of Onset

Ottke, Florence S., The Origin of Onset The N.S.A.C. Lyceum Spotlight, May/June 1995.

Geraldine Vallier Pearle, Why the ON-I-SET WIGWAM Cup Plate?

Knowlton, Marilyn. "Village wrestles with its uncertain future", The Standard Times, 06 August 1995: http://www.s-t.com/daily/08-95/08-06-95/0806onset.html#jump. 14 July 2000.

Corey, William. "Onset wins $400,000 improvement grant", The Standard Times, 08 December 1995: http://www.s-t.com/daily/12-95/12-08-95/onset.htm. 15 July 2000.

Barcellos, Robert. "Wigwam sets schedule for 104th season", The Standard Times, 31 May 1997: http://www.s-t.com/daily/05-97/05-31-97/ao8ho052.htm. 05 August 2000.

Rising, David. "Tea will bring out Onset's Victorian flavor", The Standard Times, 13 July 1997: http://www.s-t.com/daily/07-97/07-13-97/b061o088.htm. 05 August 2000.

Rising, David. "Onset Protective League celebrates its centennial" The Standard Times, 27 July 1997: http://www.s-t.com/daily/07-97/07-27-97/b01lo044.htm#cut. 05 August 2000.

Dennehy, Kevin. "Village life guides architect's dream", The Standard Times, 06 February 2000: http://www.s-t.com/daily/02-00/02-06-00/h02bu206.htm. 05 August 2000.