Sunday, September 13, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Bill Cox's Sea Grill

    Finding success in business once is difficult enough. Finding success twice? That is a rarity. William Cox found success at the turn of the 20th century in the hospitality business, retired, and came back to find more success in a different but similar way. This is the story of Mr. Cox, his inn, and his sea grill.

    William E. Cox was born in Boston in 1883 and schooled in Whitman. He made his way to Cape Cod in 1909 and made an impact very early in his tenure. Cox began by taking over the restaurant owned by Charles Baker in September 1911. It was located next door to Louis Arenovski’s popular American Clothing House at the east end of Main Street in Hyannis. Early in 1912, after several months running the restaurant, Cox bought the building owned by Able D. Makepeace located in the same general area. The building had been recently known as the Wyman House and before that the First National Bank. In June 1912 it was announced that the building at 209 Main Street would henceforth be known as the Hyannis Inn.

    Cox’s inn was a success. Its white exterior and sign adorning a majestic elm tree enticed visitors to stop in. He did not rest on his laurels though, going through a few rounds of extensive improvements. These included adding a piazza which later became a sunroom and also beginning work on a three-story addition that would add eighteen rooms to the ten that already existed.

    A terrible fire in January 1914 destroyed much of the rear of the hotel at a loss of $4,000 ($105,000 in 2020). Despite this fire the Hyannis Inn recovered and thrived. As the 1920’s began Bill Cox made two land purchases to aid in the expansion of the hotel. In March 1921 he bought the land behind the hotel that had been owned by L.P. Wilson. This was followed up by purchasing land abutting the hotel owned by Mary Cash in June 1922.

    In February 1926 Cox cashed in his chips with the Hyannis Inn. He sold the property to Paul Wadleigh and James Goss of Swampscott for 100,000 ($1.46 million in 2020) and looked forward to taking an early retirement at the young age of 43. His retirement kicked off in the spring of 1927 by entering the poultry business after moving his family to Eastham. Ironically diagonally across the street from Cox’s new venture another poultry business sprung up at the same time. Run by retired Purdue University teacher Richard Kent his business took off more than Cox’s and it is unknown if that drove the next chapter of his life.

    Perhaps due to his poultry competition, or perhaps due to a desire to get back into a familiar routine Bill Cox decided to come out of retirement in 1932. Early that year Cox purchased a piece of property a stone’s throw from the water on Bayview Street in an area known as Hyannis Park, though it was technically in West Yarmouth. Construction began on a restaurant hearkening back to his roots when he first got to Cape Cod over twenty years earlier.

    Bill Cox’s Sea Grill opened in time for the summer of 1932. With seafood as the specialty and a promise that customers could ‘Eat at the Seashore,’ Cox’s new restaurant opened a success. The prosperity of the new establishment was partly from the food served as Cox used Cape Cod scallops and his highly popular broiled lobster. However his previous successes on the Cape aided the new Sea Grill as well; locals were already quite familiar with William Cox.

Bill Cox's Sea Grill on Bayview Street

    Prohibition in the United States was repealed with the 21st Amendment to the Constitution on December 5, 1933. Bill Cox’s Sea Grill procured a valuable liquor license soon after they were made available. The seasonal establishment began staying open later into the fall and by 1940 it was widely seen as one of, if not the, most popular restaurants on all of Cape Cod. Cox, the public figure, brought in the older crowd familiar with him from his previous endeavors while Cox, the restaurant, made regulars out of the younger generation as well. William Cox, who had found success and retired young, had found success again.

    This time though Cox stayed at the helm of his popular eatery on Bayview Street. As the 1940’s passed on William Cox became something of an icon on Cape Cod, having a longer tenure in successful hospitality than nearly all others. His last season in charge of his Sea Grill was 1958. Cox died of a heart attack on October 1, 1958 at the age of 75. His restaurant was in its final weeks of the season when it lost its creator. His wife and three children finished out the season.

    Bill Cox’s Sea Grill soldiered on for a few more seasons. In 1962 the restaurant was bought by a group including Harold Hayes, Albert Webb, and Angelo Lanza. They renamed it Harborside and the new eatery featured a seafood buffet displayed on a 14-foot dory. The group’s other major cause was building a motel on land adjacent to the restaurant. That was denied by the town and by 1968 the restaurant had been sold and renamed The Captain’s Chair. It remained a popular establishment until closing in January 1996. The building was torn down after sitting vacant for several years, ultimately being replaced by a waterfront duplex.

The site of the former Sea Grill on the left today, 132 Bayview Street (Google Maps)

    William Cox found success twice in the first half of the 20th century. From hotel manager to restaurateur he amassed a loyal group of regular customers and garnered a reputation as a friendly and beloved figure on Cape Cod. His Hyannis Inn brought year-round lodging to the Mid-Cape while later on Cox’s Sea Grill gave countless customers delicious food with a waterfront view. In a business like hospitality where success can be fleeting William Cox had a staying power that few can claim. His contributions to Cape Cod speak for themselves.


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