Wednesday, December 9, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Pop's Pie Plant, Dennis Port

    There are some people who find success early and easily in life. There are some people who find it later. There are some people who do both. There are some people that are considered 'jacks of all trades.' There are some people who simply want to experience as much of life as they can in as many ways as they can. Then there are the exceedingly few who do all of the above. Such was the case of Edmund Augustus O'Brien, lovingly known as 'Pop.' A mainstay of Dennis Port by way of Canada Pop carved out a legacy on Cape Cod through his Pop's Pie Plant eatery. However that only scratches the surface of what he was all about. This is the story of a Renaissance man.

    The man to be known as 'Pop' was born on May 20, 1861 in the little town of Stouffville, Ontario, Canada. It was a small town about thirty-miles north of Toronto. Young Edmund's life was normal and uneventful until the age of fourteen when he became a painting and paper hanging apprentice. After three years as an apprentice O'Brien left home and moved to the United States. He got a job as a carriage painter in Chicago at the age of seventeen. Only a year into his life in America painting buggies Edmund transitioned into working for a wholesale shoe store. A chance offer brought O'Brien to Massachusetts.

    Edmund was offered a job as a cutter in an overall, shirt, and pants company in Brockton. Though that endeavor ended sourly his new skills led him to a connection that brought a chance to help run an overall factory in South Dennis. His stay there was brief and in 1897 O'Brien built his own factory. The factory near Heir's Landing on Old Main Street in South Dennis gained a bit of notoriety in 1898 when it won bidding for a chance to supply clothing to soldiers going to fight in the Spanish-American War. 1,200 dozen flannel shirts were produced by O'Brien's factory for the war effort. Around this time O'Brien was married to Charlotte Ellis in 1902.

Edmund O'Brien and his Pie Plant in the 1930's. (Sturgis Library)

    A success in the clothing creation business Edmund's course was shifted by tragedy in 1904. Fire destroyed his factory leaving him broke and wondering what to do next. O'Brien chose to go back down a path he had dipped his toes in a few years earlier. In 1900 he had begun working in the poultry raising business with a man named Mr. Warren from Rhode Island. He had already proven himself handy in that area by building hen houses for some local residents in the years leading up to the turn of the 20th century. Though the first poultry experiment lasted barely a year Edmund took a chance on trying again. Now in his mid-40's it was time for a second brush with success.

    Edmund O'Brien dove headlong into the Cape Cod Poultry Association which had been formed in 1897. It led meetings in the fields of raising poultry and the superiority of the Cape's birds. His chickens and pigeons were routinely entered in local agricultural events in the years during and following his overall factory time. O'Brien also frequented poultry shows in Boston during this time garnering him respect locally in the industry.

Old Fashioned chicken pot pies (Avlxys/Wikimedia)

    The years of experience in the poultry industry crystallized in O'Brien's second brush with success. In 1931 at the age of seventy he took his love of the business along with his skill at cooking to establish his most well known creation Pop's Pie Plant. It began on Route 28 in Dennis Port but would later move to in front of his home at the corner of Upper County Road and Division Street on the Dennis-Harwich town line.

    The summer eatery took place inside a small wooden open-air building covered by a canvas tent. 'Pop' O'Brien concocted his own recipe of chicken pot pie along with chicken sandwiches and homemade gravy for hungry patrons. His enthusiasm and quick wit coupled with delicious food made Pop's Pie Plant a destination. Regular customers had standing orders with O'Brien for certain days of the week to ensure they got their fix of his cuisine.

    Pop's Pie Plant was a one-man operation. O'Brien, armed with his drive and a pair of three-burner kerosene stoves, pumped out chicken pies on a scale that no one man should have been able to. For example, Pop told a group of enthralled listeners at a poultry meeting in Hyannis that during the 1937 season he sold 5,500 chicken pot pies, and by that point had estimated he had sold 30,000 since opening in 1931. He became a sought out spokesman for the local poultry industry with his advice inspiring others to start making their own fresh chicken pot pies. O'Brien did not fear creating his own competition though, he knew his establishment was one-of-a-kind.

    Throughout the 1940's Pop continued his tireless work at his Pie Plant while also keeping his fingers on the pulse of the local poultry and agricultural communities. It was said that the aroma of his food was akin to a 'pied piper' leading locals and visitors to his canvas-covered wonderland in search of sandwiches and pies. Now in his late-80's it seemed as though it might be time for a well-deserved retirement for Edmund, however he had one last chapter to write.

    O'Brien decided in his twilight years to try his hand at oil painting and hand-painted neckties. His oil painting in particular garnered him a modicum of success. In the spring of 1952 he began showcasing his artwork, described as the 'primitive style,' at local events like the West Dennis Garden Club County Fair. The height of Pop's painting prowess came when a piece of his artwork was featured at Jordan Marsh in Boston May 1952. This piece was eventually sold.

Part of a mural along Rt. 28 in Dennis Port.

    Upon his death on April 16, 1953 a few weeks shy of his 92nd birthday Edmund O'Brien was remembered as a man who found success in nearly everything he attempted. He sold clothing to the Army, sold paintings, and he sold tens of thousands of chicken pot pies to his loyal customers. Any one of those achievements would mark the peak of a person's life, Pop had all three. More than half a century after his last pot pie was sold Dennis Port looks very different. Gone are the meandering country roads beside which Pop plied his trade. However those who do remain that remember his talents see him as a Renaissance man. They also long for one more chicken pie from Pop's Pie Plant.


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