Monday, April 6, 2020

Historic Nightlife of Cape Cod: Rainbow Ballroom and Rollerdome

Taken from my 5th book Cape Cod Nights

Address: 174 Rt. 28, West Yarmouth
Years Active: 1930 – mid 1960's

In present time when one thinks of nightlife it inevitably comes down to one of two things, a nightclub or a bar. However in years past many more events were considered part of the nightlife scene. This was most certainly the case with the Rainbow Ballroom. This unique hot spot was not big on alcohol however it routinely drew many hundreds of locals and visitors inside its walls to partake in good fun after dinner and after sunset.
The story of this legendary establishment goes back to the Roaring Twenties when Ernie Baker and his Novelty Orchestra was making a name for himself all across Southeastern Massachusetts. Baker, a well known local in Yarmouth, would often set up gigs for his orchestra at the Mill Hill Pavilion, a popular live entertainment spot located in West Yarmouth. As the 1920’s went on Baker had a plan to create a more permanent home for his musical group.
In June 1930 Baker purchased six lots of land located opposite the Mill Hill Tavern. It was upon this land that he planned to build his very own dance hall to house his Novelty Orchestra. The work on the building was swift and it was ready for its debut within weeks. The dance floor was remarked as the largest east of New Bedford. The interior was decked out in pastel colors with white being the main shade, including a white stage and a pristine and unique white piano adorned with painted flowers. A contest would be held, with more than a thousand entries, to name the new dance hall. The winning name was the Rainbow Ballroom, the winning entry received $20 and two season passes to the establishment.

Opening night for the Rainbow Ballroom was Wednesday August 13, 1930. The crowd was so large that the enormous dance floor was packed cheek to cheek all night. It was a state of the art hot spot with the newest in electric lighting allowing for the lights hitting the dance floor to be changed to a variety of colors. The womens’ dressing rooms even including electric curling irons. Two orchestras would keep the music playing all night, the debut of Ernie Baker’s Rainbow Room was a rousing success.
From the start Baker maintain a high profile for himself as well as his club. There would be themed dances such as a Thanksgiving Puritan Ball and a Miss Cape Cod contest held on New Year’s Eve 1930. Miss Gilbery Kelley of Hyannis Port would be crowned the winner out of 250 entrants, receiving a silver cup. Baker would also continue to play gigs across the Cape and Southeastern Massachusetts with his orchestra, undoubtedly enticing more to come and visit the Rainbow.

Baker would up his game in 1931 by adding amateur basketball in the form of the Hyannis Wanderers. Teams from all over the state would come to play them. Typically the games were held on Wednesdays during the season, with dancing happening both before and after. Ahead of his time in marketing Baker would also give away a Sport Model Chevy automobile which he had been using for advertising the Rainbow in January 1932. His nightspot was gaining and maintaining its popularity through many different avenues. The following year even more would be added.
The Rainbow Ballroom would begin throwing midnight dances, typically running from midnight to 3am, they would be occasional occurrences which kept them as must attend events. Later in 1933 Baker would experiment with a new activity, rollerskating. This would become such a hit that it would take place three times a week, drawing many new faces. Baker would even rent out use of his building to others for charitable events and the like.

Word of mouth and positive experiences began to spread. In 1936 Chick Webb and his NBC Orchestra would make an appearance at the Rainbow being fronted by the one and only Ella Fitzgerald. It was during this year that boxing would debut to add to the already popular Hyannis All-Stars wrestling bouts which took place there. In 1938 Baker and his Rainbow Ballroom would see their greatest exposure as they would routinely be promoted on the national Old-Fashioned Cafe radio program. Show host Ken Singer had been playing at the neighboring Old Mill Tavern and began to frequent Ernie Baker’s popular establishment.
Despite housing rollerskating, basketball, boxing, and wrestling, the Rainbow would remain true to what its first event was, dancing. Throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s there would be themed dances, midnight dances, holiday party dances, charitable balls, and more. Ernie Baker knew what his customers wanted and gave it to them. Long after the Old Mill Tavern had gone out of business, replaced by the Mill Hill Club, Ernie Baker’s Rainbow Room was still going strong.
By the mid-1960’s, after around thirty-five years of ownership, Ernie Baker closed his Rainbow Room and took a well-deserved retirement. The building itself would remain dormant for several years before being sold in 1970. In the more than four decades since the familiar shell of the building has remained, housing such businesses as Quoddy Moccasins Shoe Factory Outlet, French Shriner Shoes, Clancy’s Restaurant, Reebok Outlet, and most recently a Salvation Army store.
However no matter what business resides on the property it will always be fondly remember by longtime Cape Codders as Ernie Baker’s Rainbow Room. It was a unique nightspot which relied on dancing, rollerskating, basketball, boxing, and wrestling everything but the alcohol to claim its spot as a forefather of the golden age of Cape Cod nightlife.
Despite not being known for cocktails, if one had frequented the Rainbow Ballroom during its heyday of the 1940’s for some dancing perhaps they would have made a drink afterwards at home such as the popular French 75.
French 75
- 3 oz Champagne
- 1 oz gin
- 1/2 oz fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 oz simple syrup
Preparation: Add all of the ingredients except the Champagne into a shaker with ice and shake well. Strain into a Champagne flute. Top with the Champagne and garnish with a lemon twist.
My 5th book, Cape Cod Nights, is on sale at and through Arcadia Publishing

View my previous blog postsIn Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Bartholomew Gosnold

Photo Prints available here: Smug

Be sure to check out my websiteChristopher

Thursday, April 2, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - SS James Longstreet Cape Cod's Target Ship


     For more than five decades a giant rusting hulk loomed large over Cape Cod Bay. It was battered, beaten, and bruised yet remained a stoic relic to a bygone day. It was created for World War II and named for a Confederate Civil War general. Though not visible anymore it is still there lurking just below the surface. A Liberty Ship, a ‘target ship,’ a day-trip boating adventure, this is the story of the S.S. James Longstreet.

     The man behind the ship’s name was born in South Carolina on January 8, 1821. He graduated West Point in 1842 and would be given the rank of Brigadier General when James Long street joined the Confederate Army in 1861. He gained the trust of General Robert E. Lee however grew opposed to Lee’s strategic moves beginning with the frontal assault known as Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg. In the end anywhere from 5,800-6,200 of the 12-13,000 Confederate soldiers were killed on that fateful day.

James Longstreet, the man
(Gamaliel Bradford, public domain)

     Longstreet held several federal offices after the war beginning ironically under former Union General Ulysses S. Grant. He was an ambassador to Turkey as well as a U.S. Marshal for the state of Georgia. Rumors of corruption led to his removal from the latter post in 1884.

     His post-war affiliation with the former enemy earned Longstreet some scorn from the Confederate loyalists. This was only exacerbated with his criticism of Lee and his memoir From Manassas to Appomattox in 1896. In 1897 Longstreet married Helen Dortch, a woman more than 40 years his junior. After being severely wounded in battle in 1864 Longstreet was told he would likely not live another decade. He persevered though and lived another forty years, finally succumbing to pneumonia January 2, 1904 just days shy of his 83rd birthday. His wife Helen lived until 1962, making her a living Civil War widow nearly a century after the war had ended.

     Known as the ‘Confederate War Horse’ James Longstreet’s name would not completely fade into the history books.

     After the outbreak of World War II in 1941 2,708 cargo ships, known as ‘Liberty Ships’ were built to help move supplies overseas. One such ship was a 417-foot long, 7,000 ton steel beast named after James Longstreet. It was assembled in Houston, Texas and put into wartime service in October 1942. The vessel would only make 3 journeys abroad though they did include stops in Australia, India, and England.

James Longstreet, the cargo ship, on active duty circa 1943

     The end of active service for the S.S. James Longstreet came during the fall of 1943. It was one of four ships to be forced aground at Sandy Hook, New Jersey on October 26, 1943 in gale force winds. The ship sat on the tidal flats for a month before finally being refloated on November 23rd. Upon being towed to New York for further repairs it was deemed a total structural loss and decommissioned. It was sent to a ship graveyard.

     In early 1944 the Navy acquired the Longstreet as a target ship for surface-to-air missiles. It sat in New York Harobr until another big storm ripped it from its moorings and sent it drifting away. For weeks the ship was missing but when found on December 4th it was towed to Norfolk, Virginia. It was around this time that the Navy began ‘Project Dove’ a guided missile project. They had been using areas of Monomoy Island and Camp Wellfleet, east of Lecount Hollow Road, for land tests and desired a target ship for water testing. The S.S. Longstreet provided the perfect answer.

    On April 25, 1945 just as World War II was coming to an end the former Liberty Ship was towed into Cape Cod Bay. It was anchored in shallow water off of Eastham on a spot called New Found Shoal, an oval shaped spit. The Longstreet was ballasted with more than 10,000 steel drums and scrap metal as it was partially sunk, becoming the newest Cape Cod resident.

     The bombings of the ship went on day and night during the summer. The times were never known to residents of the surrounding towns of Eastham, Wellfleet, Orleans, and Brewster, only the rumbles of approaching aircraft gave them any notice. Aircraft from as far away as Rhode Island came and lay waste to the behemoth in the shallows. July Fourth bombing raids were of particular thrill to tourists and children. Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s countless tons of ammunition was fired into and upon the vessel until it looked like steel Swiss cheese. The pilots prepared for the Korean War and later the Vietnam War by practicing on the Longstreet.

     Not everyone was enamored with the Cape’s oddest tourist attraction though. The noise and rumbling of windows of homes in the surrounding areas was bad enough. However the occasional errant bomb was a different problem. Most well known of those such incidents was when a bomb exploded near the front door of a home on Shurtleff Road in Eastham on Mother’s Day 1951. Nobody was injured but it was a jarring experience for a rural beach town such as Eastham.

     Time passed and the S.S. James Longstreet, rusted and full of holes, was retired in 1970. The reasons were both due to the proximity of the public to the bombings and the closing of the Quonset Point Naval Station in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. Despite it no longer being peppered with live rounds it remained a hugely popular attraction for photographers, painters, and even some graffiti artists who in 1966 spray painted a large Playboy bunny logo on the side of the ship. Slowly over time the Longstreet looked less and less like a proud wartime cargo ship. Some calls came to officially sink it fully underwater, however time did that on its own.

After decades of service as a target ship.
(Truro Historical Society)

     In a fitting piece of full circle irony, a large storm finally did in the Longstreet much as had ended its active duty in 1943. April 1996 saw a storm finally submerge the hull of the former Liberty Ship. Occasionally the ship comes back to the forefront, either at very low tides when it peeks its head above water, or more chilling when an unexploded ordnance is discovered either on the surrounding beaches or by divers and fishermen in the waters around the ship’s resting place.

The location of the SS James Longstreet in relation to First Encounter Beach.

     Outside of those moments the S.S. James Longstreet has been but a memory for nearly 25 years. It was once one of the most photographed locations on Cape Cod and thus has been immortalized in countless images. For those looking to perhaps catch a glimpse of this sunken legend it sits approximately two miles off the coast of Eastham, nearly due west of First Encounter Beach. Its GPS coordinates are: 41.8255416978 -70.0398798405.

My 5th book, Cape Cod Nights, is on sale at and through Arcadia Publishing

View my previous blog postsIn Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Bartholomew Gosnold

Photo Prints available here: Smug

Be sure to check out my websiteChristopher

Monday, March 30, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Bartholomew Gosnold

     Every story begins somewhere. Today in the midst of the 21st century Cape Cod is several centuries into its existence as a European-settled land. The Pilgrims first landed at Provincetown before shoving off to Plymouth in 1620. Rumors have persisted for many years that Leif Eriksson, or his brother Thorvald, was the first to step foot on Cape Cod around 1000. For all of the debate of who was first to arrive on the Cape there is no debate as to the person who gave this peninsula its name. That distinction goes to England’s own Bartholomew Gosnold. Here is his story before and after landing on these shores.

     Gosnold was born in 1571 at the family home at Otley Hall in the town of Ipswich in Suffolk, United Kingdom. Otley Hall, dating back to the 16th century, is consistently voted one of the Top 20 historic homes in the country.

     Gosnold studied law in London at Middle Temple in 1592. He was married to Mary Golding in 1597. In a surprising twist Gosnold shifted careers from law to maritime. His career shift began as he was a skipper for Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh established the Roanoke Colony in present-day North Carolina in the 1580’s.

     In 1599 Gosnold was in charge of a ship called Diamond from Southampton on a privateering voyage against Spanish ships in the area of the Azores of Portugal. A privateer being essentially a pirate with government protection. It netted Gosnold approximately 50,000 British pounds adjusted for today. Whether Gosnold wanted to continue with law is unknown as that first maritime voyage convinced him to keep on that path. It also gave him the currency to fund his next big voyage. 

Head and shoulders of a  colonial man in elegant clothes.
Captain Bartholomew Gosnold. Sculpted figure by StudioEIS based on forensic facial reconstruction by sculptor Amanda Danning.
(Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)

     On March 26, 1602 Gosnold departed Falmouth, Cornwall, England for the New World. He was joint captain of a 39-foot barque called Concord with a crew of 32 including himself. A new route led Gosnold north of the Azores and then due west from there. The Concord sailed the Atlantic Ocean for 50 days before arriving on the shores of the New World. The new faster route was followed 18 years later by the Mayflower.

     On May 14, 1602 Gosnold stepped on to the shore somewhere in mid-coast Maine, possibly around Cape Elizabeth. Those on board were shocked to be greeted by a Native American wearing European shoes and clothing. The stay was brief and Gosnold sailed south along the Maine coastline for a few days, docking briefly in York.

     The next land the Concord saw was Provincetown as they docked in the harbor. It was at this point that due to the abundance of codfish in the waters caused Gosnold to give the peninsula the name Cape Cod. It took a week but the Concord sailed around the arm of the Cape and southwest across the water until striking land again. He called the island he landed on Martha’s Vineyard for his daughter who had died in infancy in 1598 and for the abundance of wild grapes. However Gosnold actually landed on the smaller Noman’s Land 3 miles south of the actual Martha’s Vineyard, although the name was eventually transferred to the larger island.

     Gosnold and the Concord headed north, passing the cliffs at Aquinnah and naming them Dover Cliffs. He sailed into Buzzard’s Bay, calling it Gosnold’s Hope. The ship docked on another piece of land, an island he name Elizabeth Isle for Queen Elizabeth I. This island would later become known as Cuttyhunk of the Elizabeth Islands.

     The ship sailed around to the northern side of the island and docked outside present-day West End Pond. Inside the pond was a small island, less than an acre in size, where Gosnold and his crew built a makeshift stone fort. The settlement on Cuttyhunk barely lasted a month. A hostile meeting with local Native Americans combined with the realization that they lacked the provisions to last the winter meant that the crew had to head back to England. On June 18, 1602 the ship left Cuttyhunk with a cargo of furs, cedarwood, and sassafras. He was seen basically as a failure upon his return since no permanent colony had been established. 

Gosnold at Cuttyhunk. Painting by Albert Bierstadt 1858
(Public Domain)

     Gosnold returned to the New World a few years later. He left England aboard the ship Godspeed in December 1606. In April the crew arrived in Chesapeake Bay near the mouth of the James River. This journey was a success and the first permanent European settlement in the New World was established in the form of Jamestown, Virginia. 

Historic Jamestown, Virginia
(Christopher Setterlund)

     Despite the accomplishment of the settlement 50 of the 104 of the population died during the hot summer. Dysentery, malaria, swamp fever, and malnutrition were rampant. On August 22, 1607 the terrible conditions claimed the life of Bartholomew Gosnold. He was buried outside of the settlement’s fort with full military honors.

     In addition to giving Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard their names Gosnold is immortalized in another area he discovered. On Cuttyhunk, on the tiny island where he built a fort in 1602, now named Gosnold Island, stands the Bartholomew Gosnold Monument. Standing 50-feet tall the cornerstone was laid in 1902 and dedicated September 1, 1903. 

The Bartholomew Gosnold Monument at Cuttyhunk, 1903
(New Bedford Free Public Library)

     Bartholomew Gosnold as an explorer is largely a forgotten name. He does not have any cities or universities or things of the like named in his honor. Even his gravesite at Jamestown was lost. Archaeologists believe they found it in 2003, DNA testing has not been totally conclusive but is likely the final resting place of Gosnold. His contributions to the European colonization of America cannot be overlooked, they are especially felt in Jamestown and right here on Cape Cod.

My 5th book, Cape Cod Nights, is on sale at and through Arcadia Publishing

View my previous blog postsIn Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Christmas Tree Shops

Cape Cod Sunsets 2020 Calendar available at Zazzle here: Cape Cod Living Store

Be sure to check out my websiteChristopher

Friday, March 27, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Billingsgate Island

     Time gives and time takes away. Throughout history people, places, and things arrive and disappear, some lost to history. This is no different on Cape Cod. When driving along the main streets and back roads longtime residents often remark of what used to be where and who used to live there. Losing a building is common, but an entire community? That is something far more rare. It happened 150 years ago in Provincetown at Long Point when the majority of the settlement was floated across the harbor to make up some of the homes along Commercial and Bradford Streets. However Long Point itself still exists. Another community was lost to time about a century ago. This was different. This was nature reclaiming the land it stood on. Shoreline change and erosion is nothing new. This is the story of Cape Cod’s ‘Atlantis.’ This is the story of Billingsgate Island.

     Today Billingsgate is a shoal, and a footnote in Cape Cod history. For many decades though it was a bustling community. Located approximately three miles west of Eastham's Sunken Meadow Beach, just south of Jeremy Point, sat Billingsgate Island. At its peak size the island encompassed roughly 60 acres of land. For comparison the small island of Muskeget, just off of Nantucket, is roughly 292 acres in size and just over a mile across at its widest. Noted by the Pilgrims on their journey from Provincetown to Plymouth its first known European inhabitants were Mayflower passenger Constance Hopkins and her husband Nicholas Snow in the 1640’s.
     During the first quarter of the 18th century Billingsgate, along with neighboring Great Island, were made the headquarters of the fishing and whaling industry in the area. In 1721 Billingsgate was designated a parish and officially the North Precinct of Eastham. At the time there were many complaints by the people of mainland Eastham about fishermen and whalers sneaking to the town commons and cutting down trees to be used on the island. Billingsgate became part of the new town of Wellfleet when it separated itself from Eastham in May 1763.
     The peak of Billingsgate was the mid-19th century. It was a prosperous fishing village which would be inhabited during the warmer months by as many as 80 people. The population of the island began to grow in 1821 when a salt works was constructed and in 1822 when the Federal government bought four acres of land for $100 ($2,200 in 2020) upon which a lighthouse was built. The first keeper was William Moore and he would remain on the island year-round, sometimes alone for months at a time in winter. In the decades following the construction of the lighthouse the island would grow to include thirty homes, a schoolhouse, a store, oil works, and a baseball team which would row across the bay to play other teams from the Outer Cape. It was a paradise out of a storybook.
     However, not too long after the lighthouse was built it became apparent that something was happening to the island. The same erosion which batters the coastline today was slowly chipping away at Billingsgate. As early as 1850, in a report by then-lighthouse keeper Francis Krogman, it was noted that the island was ‘washing away very fast.’ An 1854 storm damaged the lighthouse so badly that $14,000 ($426,000 in 2020) was appropriated for the construction of a new one, located further to the north on higher ground, which was completed in September 1858.
1871 Map of Cape Cod with Billingsgate Island circled
(National Public Domain Archives)

     In 1863 it was noted that at high tide the island stood only 13-feet above sea level. With one eye on the booming fishing and whaling industries and the other on the creeping erosion the community would continue to thrive into the latter half of the 19th century. The eroding shores created dangerous shoals around Billingsgate, leading to several ships running aground. This included the schooner S & E Corson from Philadelphia which sunk in April 1879 with its cargo of coal. In 1888, with erosion threatening the lighthouse, a 1,000-foot sea wall and bulkhead was constructed to try to buy some time. It ended up doing the opposite and speeding up the erosion.

     Slowly but surely the fishermen and their families left Billingsgate. The homes would be taken down and floated across the bay to be resurrected in the towns along the Outer Cape. The twenty-by-twenty-foot schoolhouse would be taken down around the turn of the 20th century when only about six families remained on the island. Despite the mass exodus some still saw Billingsgate as an attractive destination. This included Dr. Maurice Richardson of Boston who paid a total of $785 ($24,400 in 2020) for two lots on the island and built a summer home there in 1897.
Billingsgate Lighthouse circa 1897

     The 20th century saw the demise of Billingsgate Island. A 600-foot breakwater built in 1905 failed to stem the tide. The homes which had dotted the land had been moved, only oyster shacks and hunting camps remained. The lighthouse would crumble in a storm on the day after Christmas in 1915 and be replaced by a skeleton light fixture on a tripod. Around this same time, after his death, the summer home of Dr. Richardson was taken down. The last keeper of the light, Henry Daniels, would spend three nearly-uninterrupted years on the disappearing land mass at the same time guarding the valuable oyster beds from 1917-1920. The island remained a haven for shellfishing, but these were mostly day-trips from the mainland as it shrunk to a mere 5 acres by the 1920’s.

     The natural process of erosion never ceases and in December 1932 the skeleton lighthouse had fallen due to the high tides. It was replaced by a lighted bell buoy. The breakwater was dismantled in 1935 to be used for repair work at Wellfleet Harbor. In 1942 the tides would submerge the entire island for the first time, officially ending Billingsgate Island and creating Billingsgate Shoal. In the years after its loss fishermen asked for a new lighthouse to be built at the tip of Jeremy Point to aide in navigation, however that never occurred.
Present-day coordinated of where Billingsgate Lighthouse stood circa 1853
(Google Maps)

     Today Cape Cod’s ‘Atlantis’ still lives on in photographs, the homes which are dotted around Wellfleet and surrounding areas, artifacts, and writings about the island including from Henry David Thoreau in his Cape Cod book. The shoal is frequently visible at low tide making it a popular picnicking spot. If one is lucky they may even stumble upon a brick from the old lighthouse’s foundation. It is impossible to step foot on the sandy shoal of what was once a thriving community and not take a moment to think about the power of the sea. It is impossible not to think of all that once stood there and remember to enjoy each and every day because at some point it could all be but a memory, much like Billingsgate Island.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Christmas Tree Shop

     Several generations of Cape Codders and those who flock there to visit know of the unique holiday-themed series of local stores known as the Christmas Tree Shop. The stores that became a beloved staple of many a weekend morning of running errands. Its roots are all Cape Cod yet over time it expanded and grew so large that it could no longer be considered a ‘mom and pop’ operation. From humble beginnings to a branch on a larger corporation’s tree, this is the story of a Cape Cod treasure.

     What became known as Christmas Tree Shop began as an idea of Charles and Alyce Matthews of Yarmouth Port. In July 1946 33-year-old Charles and 37-year-old Alyce came to the Cape from New York. They purchased a home and a small store at the corner of Willow Street and Route 6A in Yarmouth Port that had previously been a grocery store owned by Harry Davidson. Charles was a 12th generation Cape Codder. His father Albert Matthews, though born in Buffalo, New York, was a direct descendant of the Matthews family that had first come to Cape Cod in 1638. He had kept a summer home in Barnstable.

A postcard of The Christmas Shop
(Sturgis Library)

     After some minor improvements to the shop, including painting both the interior and exterior and adding dark green blinds, it was opened in time for the 1947 summer season and known as the Old Corner Shop. The building was made up originally of two smaller shops, Wayside Shop run by Katherine Gourley of Melrose, and Lavinia’s Window run by Gladys Beasley of Falmouth, both were considered antique shops. The property was more of a compound known collectively as ‘Old Corner.’ There was also the Old Corner Guest House and another small building formerly used for laundry service. The laundry service building was purchased in the summer of 1947 and removed from the property.

     In November 1949 Charles and Alyce Matthews took over the Wayside Shop side of the Old Corner Shop and renamed the store the Christmas Shop. Charles used woodworking talents to repair antiques while Alyce’s training in the arts allowed her to create greeting cards, silver jewelry, and ceramics. Their contributions were soon joined by other local artists works making the store a hit right off the bat.

     In February 1952 another land purchase would change the store’s trajectory. Charles and Alyce bought a neighboring parcel of land containing a barn that they wished to use as part of an expansion of the Christmas Shop. The following month the Christmas Shop officially became known as Christmas Tree Shop running out of the barn with the additional land being used for a parking lot.

After becoming Christmas Tree Shop
(Sturgis Library)

     The larger store allowed the Matthews to expand their inventory to more than 200,000 items. Visitors came from all over the country, Europe and Australia to browse and buy to the tune of more than 75,000 per year by 1955. Alyce Matthews became a leading business woman on Cape Cod, becoming president of the Cape Cod Business and Professional Women’s Club. In 1956 the Christmas Tree Shop’s success allowed the business to remain open year-round, they had been closing for three months after Christmas until then. Its unique appearance inside the barn also made it one of the most photographed businesses on Cape Cod as well.

     Though the Christmas Tree Shop was a success there were troubles ahead. 14-hour days began to weigh on Charles and Alyce. This, coupled with strict Sunday business laws, began to eat away at profits. Business slowed in 1959 and 1960 to the point where involuntary bankruptcy was filed against the couple in June 1961. The property was taken and purchased by Donald Winner of Lawrence in September 1961. Charles and Alyce Matthews were no longer involved in their beloved creation.

     The 1960’s were a time of varying success yet were relatively uneventful for the Christmas Tree Shop. It was only opened during the summer and continued to not be open on Sundays. It was not seen as a hugely promising venture when it was bought by Charles Bilezikian of Newton in 1970. The 33-year old Bilezikian along with his wife Doreen bought the Christmas Tree Shop and began by adding an ‘s’ to Shop. It was hardly the only change. 

     Bilezikian worked endlessly to take the business beyond its original location. Within a few years new locations had opened in West Yarmouth and West Dennis. In November 1975 Bilezikian bought four railroad cars formerly owned by the bankrupt New Haven line and placed them on property he owned along the tracks near downtown Hyannis. This became the backbone of the new Christmas Tree Shops location, part of Christmas Crossing, which opened in mid-1977.

The Sagamore Bridge location.
(Weight Loss
     Bilezikian’s hard work resulted in the purchase of another Cape Cod icon, the Cape Cod Coliseum in May 1984. It would be used to house the Christmas Tree Shops executive offices and warehouse space. This was followed shortly thereafter by a new store at the foot of the Sagamore Bridge complete with the world’s largest thatched roof. More stores followed throughout the 1980’s
including the Christmas Tree Plaza on Rt. 132 as Christmas Tree Shops became a New England and northeast staple for home decor, gift-ware, housewares, food, paper goods, and seasonal products.

Charles and Doreen had overseen the enormous growth of the former seasonal gift shop into a regional powerhouse. It outgrew its original location, and outgrew its warehouse in the former Cape Cod Coliseum. Despite the success they wanted to ensure its existence was safe for years to come. At the turn of the 21st century they made a tough decision to sell.

     In June 2003 the entirety of Christmas Tree Shops, including all 23 stores in 6 states at the time, was purchased by Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. for $200 million. It was a lucrative purchase for the company as in 2002 Christmas Tree Shop’s net sales were in excess of $370 million. Charles and Doreen did stay on with the company keeping some sense of symmetry.

     Today the Christmas Tree Shops business has expanded far beyond the New England borders. In 2013 the franchise created the 'andThat!' branch of the stores for use in non-regional markets. For places unfamiliar with the legacy of Christmas Tree Shops over the previous four decades like Wisconsin, Delaware, Virginia, Michigan, Georgia, and Florida it was a new take on an old staple.

Christmas Tree Shops logo

     From a small corner lot on Willow Street and Route 6A (today the Fresh Picked gift shop) to more than 70 stores in 21 states the original vision of Charles and Alyce Matthews grew to the most well known gift shop on the Cape and then New England thanks to Charles and Doreen Bilezikian. For Cape Codders though the Christmas Tree Shops legacy is far simpler as a place that has always been a go-to for what you needed at the price you wanted.

My 5th book, Cape Cod Nights, is on sale at and through Arcadia Publishing

View my previous blog postsIn Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Cape Cod Bank and Trust

Cape Cod Sunsets 2020 Calendar available at Zazzle here: Cape Cod Living Store

Be sure to check out my websiteChristopher

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Travel Tuesday #4 - Chatham Lighthouse Beach Sunrise

     The fourth installment of Travel Tuesday gets up early in the morning to capture the sunrise in Chatham. The spot chosen here is Lighthouse Beach due to Chatham Lighthouse standing stoically across the parking lot.

     This photo was taken in September 2014 at that time of year the sunrise in Chatham ranges between 6:06am at the beginning of the month to 6:36am at the end of the month. Though this was from September the sunrise is exquisite from Lighthouse Beach all year round. The best part of this photo is that you can stay in your car and wait in the warmth for nature to do its job. If it is warmer you can walk out on to the beach and get similar spectacular shots. Lighthouse Beach itself was partially a creation of the break in North Beach in 1987. A powerful Nor’easter broke through the barrier beach in January 1987 and by 1994 South Beach had curled in and attached to the mainland leading to a new stretch of beach lying in front of the lighthouse and parking lot.

     The one caveat to this photo is the fishing boat passing underneath the rising sun. Just over a mile north of Lighthouse Beach is the Chatham Fish Pier where the countless boats depart and return almost daily. It is mainly just a matter of timing to capture a departing boat passing under the rising sun. You could have several chances to replicate this photo as boats during the morning stream past the beach. As of 2017 it was noted that 87 fishing boats used the Chatham Fish Pier so there is ample opportunity.

Where to go to take this photo: Lighthouse Beach is located on Main Street in Chatham. There is a small parking area directly in front of Chatham Light.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - J.L. Panesis & Co.

     A brick from the West Barnstable Brick Factory is a highly sought after collector’s item when it comes to those who live or have lived on Cape Cod. Another piece of Cape Cod’s past that people have seen popping up across the internet on sites like eBay is in the form of a glass bottle. These heavy glass bottles are engraved with the name J.L. Panesis & Co. Who was J.L. Panesis? What was the company all about? This is the fascinating story of the man and the company behind the glass bottles.

     James L. Panesis, the man behind the name of the company, was born in Agios Petros, Greece. Orphaned as a child Panesis took a huge risk and left for America with no more than five cents to his name. After passing through Ellis Island Panesis met up with a cousin who lived near Middleboro. He helped sell produce at Fanueil Hall before trying his hand selling the produce on Cape Cod. Selling out his wares completely on his first try Panesis decided the Cape was a perfect place to open his own shop.

     In March 1912 James Panesis, along with his brother Spero, opened a retail and wholesale business selling fruit, confectionery (candy/sweets), cigars and more in the Keveney & Bearse Building on Main Street Hyannis, opposite the Iyanough House hotel which had itself been built in 1910. The business was known as J.L. Panesis & Co. Panesis was one of the founding members of the Greek settlement on Cape Cod.

A 1922 Ad from Cape Cod Magazine

     The business was an immediate success. Within a year James needed a new truck for bringing their deliveries to Hyannis from Boston and within two years had taken over the entirety of the Keveney & Bearse Building. This occurred when the Hyannis Lighting Co. moved a few doors down in April 1914. James married Dina Navroyanis from Lynn in February 1915 and their home on North Ocean Street (today Barnstable Road) in Hyannis was totally remodeled and renovated for the new couple.

     Things changed in February 1916 when Spero sold his share of the company leaving James to run the successful company on his own. The company continued to thrive in the aftermath of Spero leaving. In 1919 a garage was built on the premises to begin Panesis’ newest venture. It was called Hyannis Well Spring Beverages based off of the biblical picture ‘Rebecca at the Well.’ Advertised as ‘delicious, refreshing, and invigorating’ this pure fruit juice came in flavors such as orangeade, champagne cider, and ‘Paneco’ ginger ale.
Inside the factory
(Courtesy Nicole Sulea)

     Tragedy nearly derailed the company though when on February 13, 1920 James’ wife Dina died suddenly at the young age of 27 from a combination of premature childbirth and the Spanish flu outbreak. Somehow James Panesis carried on and oversaw his company's next big move.

     In October 1921 a larger factory was built behind Panesis’ North Ocean Street home (present-day 65 Barnstable Road) as creating Hyannis Well Spring tonic had proved fruitful.  The factory cost $10,000 ($144,000 in 2020). Every precaution was taken to provide customers with the highest quality product, this included sterilizing every glass bottle before filling it with a beverage. New flavors arrived routinely such as lemon-lime, cream soda, root beer, loganberry, and Eskimo soda. By 1926 J.L. Panesis & Co. had become so big it was a Coca-Cola bottler and distributor.

Outside of the factory on Barnstable Road
(Courtesy of Nicole Sulea)

     James Panesis was a huge part of the increasingly successful Greek population of Hyannis. He would routinely gather with others like George Garoufes owner of the Mayflower Cafe, and his nephew Peter Panesis owner of New York Sandwich Shop. This included trips back to Greece during the 1920’s. The Greek church arranged a second marriage between James and Roubiny Stavrianolpoulos although it was not a classic love connection it did last until James’ death.

     Another tragedy struck James Panesis in May 1939. His brother Spero, who had begun the company with him, took his own life. Spero had been in ill health and had only recently been released from the hospital. Sadly he left behind his wife and four children.

     After serving in World War II James’ sons Angelo and Louis joined the business. Angelo was the manager and Louis was production manager. The Hyannis Well Spring department of J.L. Panesis & Co. became distributor of Mission and White Rock brands of carbonated drinks and continued its success throughout the 1950's.

One of the glass bottles.
(Courtesy of Nicole Sulea)

     In 1960 J.L. Panesis & Co and Hyannis Well Spring Beverages closed with the retirement of James Panesis at the age of 74. Angelo and Louis went to work for Coca-Cola’s bottling plant in Sandwich after the closing of the company. James and Roubiny lived at their home on Barnstable Road until James passed in April 1970 at the age of 84. Roubiny passed in 1979. Today the property that once held the J.L. Panesis & Co. and Hyannis Well Spring factory is part of one of the busiest sections of Cape Cod.

     James Panesis came from nothing, orphaned and nearly penniless, and took a huge risk leaving his native Greece to find a better life in America just after the turn of the 20th century. Though there were tragedies and hardships the tale of Panesis in America and specifically on Cape Cod can only be seen as a success. A kind, fair, and honest business man along with the patriarch of a successful Greek family on the Cape James Panesis is one shining example of the American dream and why that idea is still so important here in the 21st century.

     A huge thank you for the facts and photos of this article goes out to Nicole Sulea. She is the great-granddaughter of James Panesis and a native Cape Codder living in Maine. Please check out her vintage fashion shop Heirloom Antiques and Vintage Boutique at 19 Temple Street, Waterville, ME. 

On Facebook here: Heirloom Vintage Boutique 

And on Instagram here: Heirloom Vintage Boutique

My 5th book, Cape Cod Nights, is on sale at and through Arcadia Publishing

Cape Cod Sunsets 2020 Calendar available at Zazzle here: Cape Cod Living Store

Be sure to check out my websiteChristopher