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

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