As history buffs explore the Provincetown History Preservation Project’s collections online, one name, Althea Boxell (1910-1988), pops up repeatedly. But were it not for Provincetown artist John Dowd, we might not know her name.
Though Boxell was never a resident of Provincetown, few knew the heart and soul of the place as she did. She was a stenographer by trade, and an accomplished bowler in her youth. For decades Boxell meticulously filled her scrapbooks with newspaper clippings, photographs, brochures, and ceremonial programs from Provincetown, to which she often attached typed notes that added color and context.
Throughout her life, Boxell made annual visits here to see family and friends and stayed in touch with day-to-day events when she couldn’t be in town, often commenting in letters to the editor on something she enjoyed reading in the Provincetown Advocate. One letter, from September 1956, alluded to her lifelong hobby. Responding to a story about Provincetown’s last sailmaker, Jimmy Maguire, Boxell heaped praise on the writer: “That column of yours for September 13 was the best you’ve had in the Advocate yet. Let’s have some more stories about those old timers before they are lost to us for good. … That article of yours goes in my Cape Cod scrapbook which is chock-a-block full of such articles and old, old pictures, etc., of Provincetown, Truro and Wellfleet.”
Where those scrapbooks traveled after Boxell’s death is uncertain, but eventually they ended up with a collector of Provincetown art and memorabilia, after whose death John Dowd, also a collector of local history, was contacted. With the prospect of the scrapbooks being sold off piecemeal, Dowd purchased the entire collection, numbering more than a thousand pages, and subsequently arranged for them to be scanned by the History Preservation Project.
Anyone who has used the Dowd Collection for research will attest to the endless nuggets of “old timer” gold that are buried in the pages, nuggets that can be a bit of a challenge to extract but are found nowhere else in Provincetown history books. For this gold mine, serendipity may be the researcher’s best friend.
Boxell is not one of those instantly recognizable Provincetown names, like Cook or Atwood or Dyer, although Mayo — a family that traces its Cape Cod beginnings to the arrival of the Rev. John Mayo (1597-1676) in Eastham in 1646 — is. And it is by way of the Mayo family that Boxell claims her Provincetown roots. She was born on Jan. 19, 1910 in Everett to Provincetown-born Annie Maynard Perkins (1888-1946) and Woburn-born Clifford Arthur Boxell (1889-1957).
Annie, born in the house later owned by native son and Arctic explorer Admiral Donald Baxter MacMillan (at 473 Commercial St.), was the daughter of Hollis Mansville Perkins, a mariner and fisherman born in Maine, and Bessie Small Mayo. When Annie was two years old, her family relocated to Everett where her father worked as a fish salesman and her mother as a dressmaker.
Married in 1907, Annie and Clifford with their three daughters — Dorothea, Evelyn, and Althea — eventually settled in Worcester where Althea, who never married, and her sisters would spend their lives. Evelyn did eventually own a seasonal cottage in North Truro.
A prominent headstone marked “Perkins” in the new section of the Alden Street cemetery is the final resting place for three generations of Boxell’s family. Steps away, in the Gifford Cemetery, one finds Althea’s great-grandparents — Joseph A. Mayo and Eliza L. Turner, as well as Joseph’s first wife, Susan, who was Eliza’s older sister — and Althea’s great-great-grandparents, Joshua Atkins Mayo Jr. and his wife, Betsy Small.
Nearby, in Cemetery #2, is the resting place of yet another generation, that of Martha “Patty” Nickerson Mayo (1759-1844), wife of Joshua Atkins Mayo Sr. (1758-1816), who is buried in Provincetown’s Winthrop Street Cemetery. After exhaustive research to document and verify the Revolutionary War participation of Provincetown residents, the graves of Mayo and seven others buried in the cemetery were marked by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 2018 and 2019.
The elder Joshua Atkins Mayo, Althea’s third great-grandfather, was born in Eastham to Thomas Mayo and Bethiah Atkins. Thomas died a year after Joshua’s birth and Bethiah was remarried to Capt. Stephen Atwood, born in Provincetown to parents originally from Eastham. Atwood, who served Provincetown as selectman during the Revolutionary War, is also recognized with a grave marker for his patriotic service. Joshua Atkins Mayo served during the war as a private with Capt. Joshua Higgins’s company in Major Zenas Winslow’s regiment on alarms at Bedford and Falmouth. He later served as selectman and town treasurer. He was a founding member of King Hiram’s Lodge, chartered by Paul Revere in 1795.
After so many of Provincetown’s founding documents were destroyed in the 1877 Town Hall fire, telling the fuller story required the reassembling of long-lost history from other sources languishing in vaults and subsequently digitized. Given the unavailability of those resources in Boxell’s time, one wonders how much this keeper of the history knew about her own history, about her ancestor’s Revolutionary War service, about the Rev. John Mayo (who, after leaving Eastham, became the first minister of Old North Church of Paul Revere fame), and the Rev. Samuel Treat of Eastham, who married Rev. Mayo’s granddaughter.
Could Althea Boxell ever have imagined that her lifelong pleasure of clipping and pasting stories about daily life and regular folks would one day be a treasured resource that also helps to tell the fuller story, a portal through which researchers can time travel to those bygone days?