Thursday, January 9, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Mill Hill Club, West Yarmouth

     Though there have been countless hundreds of nightclubs, bars, and other forms of nightlife on Cape Cod since as far back as the late 17th century, very few locations have reached the iconic heights of the Mill Hill Club. Born out of a restaurant which debuted in the mid-1920’s, and standing atop Mill Hill for more than five decades, this was more than a bar, more than a nightclub, this was a destination, a landmark, it was an institution.
    The history of the Mill Hill Club must be traced back to its predecessor. Nearly thirty years before the king of Cape Cod entertainment would open another business sat atop the hill overlooking what is today known as Route 28. In the summer of 1924 a restaurant would open its doors. It was called Old Mill Tavern and it would carve out its own niche.
     Old Mill Tavern was owned by Rose Klous, who based her restaurant on the idea of ‘traditional Southern cooking.’ This was further stressed by the fact that advertisements from the day would proudly trumpet the fact that they had a real ‘Southern Mammy’ cooking the meals such as chicken and waffles. The 1600-square-foot establishment came complete with a 12-foot piazza and enticed passers-by in a time when automobiles were very much still a luxury. Klous would eventually sell Old Mill Tavern to Henry Fern who would run the restaurant up until his death in 1941. His death, and the outbreak of World War II, effectively ended the tenure of the establishment and it would in turn lay dormant for the most of the 1940’s.
     In 1948 the most famous resident of Mill Hill would take root in the former restaurant building and Cape Cod would be forever changed.
     In the beginning the Mill Hill Club was far different from how it would be viewed during its heyday. It was originally owned by Harold Smith, whose son Jack Braginton-Smith would eventually own Mill Hill, Sandy Pond Club, and later Jacks Outback. Mill Hill was an upscale establishment hosting fancy gatherings, weddings, and other parties, while also having an orchestra which played there.  Smith sold the fledgling establishment in May 1952 to a company called Mill Hill Development headed by Joseph Sullivan for $100,000 ($970,000 in 2020).
Though it was known more for strings and suit jackets during the 1950’s the initial incarnation of Mill Hill Club did play a big part in the early days of Cape Cod jazz. It was during the early 1950’s that legendary jazz trumpeter Lou Colombo got his start on the Cape by commuting from Brockton to play as part of a Big Band ensemble at Mill Hill. In the 1970’s he would get a full-time gig there leading to him moving to Cape Cod with his family permanently.
     Though still maintaining a finger on the pulse of Cape Cod jazz throughout its early decades the Mill Hill Club began to incorporate other forms of music inside its walls. Purchased in the late 1960’s by Carmine Vara the club would usher in acts like Folk rockers Peter, Paul, and Mary while later on during the days of punk Black Flag would blister through a set during the early 1980’s. Comedian, and future Crystal Palace owner Dick Doherty would begin to perform on the Mill Hill Stage. In addition to those performances stars such as Jonathan Edwards, B.B. King, Gary Lewis and His Playboys, The Grass Roots, local legends The Incredible Casuals, and more would make appearances. So legendary were the live sets at the Mill Hill that in 1979 a live album was released.
The Mill Hill Club Live Album Cover. Courtesy of Kings of Cape Cod

Vara along with his son Henry and manager Corydon Litchard would oversee the most prosperous and yet controversial period of the Mill Hill Club. From 1969 to 1978 the same management team would be in charge. That changed when Litchard left at the beginning of 1979 to try his hand at owning the venerable Velvet Hammer in Hyannis.
     The Mill Hill Club was one of the pioneers of the Cape Cod Happy Hour and attracted countless thousands of people yearly especially in its peak period of the 1970’s and 1980’s. The club would expand from its original 1600-square-footprint of the old tavern to an enormous 8500-square-feet plus parking for 150 vehicles. It truly was the king of Cape Cod clubs.
Inside the Mill Hill Club. Courtesy of Kings of Cape Cod

However its popularity became a problem. Wrought with liquor violations, small fires, rowdy crowds, and increasingly louder entertainment Mill Hill became a target of the town. Beginning as early as the late 1970’s resident complained to the town about overflow parking with people parking vehicles wherever they could just to get into the iconic establishment. Liquor and entertainment licenses would be temporarily suspended at times like in 1983 and 2001 however the club would soldier on. Henry Vara would take full control of the club from his father in late 1985 with Jim Liadis coming on as manager. He would introduce the appropriately named Mill Tavern at the Mill Hill Club as part of the complex.
The coming attractions at Mill Hill during the late 1980's. Courtesy of Kings of Cape Cod

At the dawn of the 21st century complaint calls would continue to rise and the Mill Hill slowly slid into obscurity. Though it remained technically open until 2008 the club was virtually deserted in the years leading up to its official demise. The shell of the once mighty Mill Hill Club fell into disrepair, sitting on high overlooking Route 28 as a relic of the Golden Age of Cape Cod nightlife.
The fa├žade crumbled over the period of several years before finally being razed in 2014, making way for a senior living facility, Mill Hill Residence, owned by Maplewood. Opening in August 2017 this retirement community sits where the former king of Cape Cod nightclubs once stood for more than five decades. In a piece of irony, the disco ball which hung inside the Mill Hill Club for decades now sits in the lobby of Mill Hill Residence, enjoying its retirement.
The retired Mill Hill Club disco ball.

For More on the Golden Age of Cape Cod Nightlife check out Kings of Cape
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

Thursday, January 2, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Storyland Amusement Park, Hyannis

     Today on Cape Cod Hyannis is the hub of business. Route 132, Route 28, Main Street, these roads in Hyannis are lined virtually end to end with shops, restaurants, and other attractions. However there was a time before the endless array of businesses, it was a time before the Cape Cod Mall. In the middle of the 20th century Route 132 was a rural road, in place of stores there were thousands of trees. In the time between Hyannis being a rural village and it being the center of activity on Cape Cod there was an attraction that enthralled children and although it was short-lived it seemed to be a catalyst for the modernization of Cape Cod’s center. It was Storyland and this is its story and its impact.
     The idea for a children’s amusement park in the center of Cape Cod came from the mind of George G. Spalt, a Cape summer resident. Formerly from Loudonville, New York and working as a contractor in Albany Spalt saw several small children’s amusement parks during vacations to the Adirondack Mountains during the early 1950’s specifically Storytown USA which opened in 1954. George Spalt was inspired to create his own amusement park and found a perfect location along Route 132 in Hyannis only a half-mile from the airport.
Courtesy of The Imaginary

     Plans were put in motion in March 1955 when Spalt, only thirty-four at the time, purchased a nine-acre lot on a heavily wooded section of Route 132. The park was based around the Mother Goose nursery rhymes. There were thirty structures scattered around the property along trails leading from the parking lot which had room for up to 400 vehicles. All in all the design of Storyland took three months and cost Spalt $40,000 to build ($384,000 in 2020). The park opened in June 1955 situated between a Sunoco gas station and the Top O’ the Morn Motel.
Courtesy of Imaginary

     From the get go Storyland was a huge hit for its target audience. The trail leading to the park was like an entrance to a fairy tale world with attendants dressed as clowns. Nursery rhyme characters like the Big Bad Wolf, the Three Bears, Old Woman Who Lived In a Shoe, House That Jack Built, and many more were there to be seen. Many of them had large colorful buildings and figures. These were the work of Matthew Cobb, a talented artist whose great-great grandfather Daniel Cobb had run a general store in Barnstable at the turn of the 19th century. There were actors playing characters like Little Red Riding Hood, other figures were mechanical like the Big Bad Wolf who was voiced by an unseen actor including Cotuit Kettleer baseball player Frank Burleson in 1955. There were booths for candy and gifts and to top it all off there was a barnyard with farm animals, ponies, and even a duck pond.
     Spalt’s take on the children’s amusement park was a success. Children came for birthdays, on field trips, or just on a whim with their families. During its first few years not much changed in the surrounding area. Route 132 remained wooded and rural, so much so that when the locusts returned in 1957 you could hear their hum as you drove along the road. Hyannis though was always destined to become the hub of Cape Cod it seems.
Courtesy of The Imaginary

     In 1961 plans began for the All-Cape Shopping Center located on forty-acres of land between Route 132 and Route 28 to the west of the Airport Rotary. Centered around Picture Pond the property would be Cape Cod’s largest shopping center, the land east of Storyland was bulldozed. The first business to be erected on the property was Abercrombie & Fitch going up in April 1963. Although the plaza never fully materialized it set plans in motion for the development of the area in the future. Miniature golf courses, restaurants, and hotels began to spring up in the area around Storyland during the early 1960’s. Despite its relative success the land Spalt’s property sat on was highly coveted.
     Based on Storyland’s success Spalt developed Adventureland in Newburyport, MA as well as Cowboy Town in Plainville, MA as he expanded his amusement park collection. A big change in Hyannis was in the works though. Over a period of two years negotiations were going on for the Storyland property and surrounding area with the desire to create Cape Cod’s largest shopping center and actually have it open this time. In July 1968 the negotiations were completed and signed off on at the Neptune Room restaurant. Anchored by Sears, Filene’s, and Woolworth the Cape Cod Mall was announced with an estimated price tag of $6 million ($44 million in 2020).
     Storyland was on borrowed time during the 1968 season and George Spalt looked for alternative locations for his beloved amusement park. As luck would have it Spalt found a new home for his amusement park in Orleans. In January 1969 the process began of moving all of the structures from the Hyannis property to a filled in cranberry bog near the Orleans Rotary. It was moved and ready to reopen in time for the summer.
     As for the Cape Cod Mall the skeleton structure began to rise from the ground during the summer of 1969 with the first section of the complex opening to the public on Tuesday August 4, 1970. Twenty-eight stores would open that day bringing a culmination of the four and a half years from planning to completion. Today the mall is a Cape Cod staple, checking in at over 800,000 square feet and currently undergoing yet another expansion with Target opening this past fall and Dick’s Sporting Goods in the spring of 2020.
     Storyland’s second chapter in Orleans was not quite as successful as its tenure in Hyannis. By 1974 the park was closed and sat abandoned for several years. The property eventually became home to Stop & Shop. For those of a certain age that grew up on Cape Cod the short-lived little amusement park known as Storyland will live forever in their memories.

View my previous blog posts: In My Footsteps: My Cape Cod Roots


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

Be sure to check out my website: Christopher

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