Wednesday, July 28, 2021

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Edna Harris Cape Cod Business Pioneer

    The story of Edna Harris is one of ingenuity, success, and determination. In a time when women as business owners was rare Harris found herself in that position multiple times. She was connected to some of the most beloved establishments in Cape Cod history. It was during the first half of the 20th century that Edna Harris became a Cape Cod icon and business icon alike. This is her story.

    Edna Lincoln Sprague was born in Watertown, Massachusetts on August 4, 1877. She married William Harris in Taunton in June 1900. The couple would have four children, three of whom had been born when the couple made their way to Cape Cod in 1912.

    Edna’s first foray into business on Cape Cod came in the form of the Megansett Tea Room in North Falmouth. The opening day was June 21, 1913 and it was the subject of rave reviews from the get-go. From the beautifully decorated interior to the comfortable chairs on an attractive piazza this new establishment was primed for success. Like many Cape businesses the Megansett Tea Room was seasonal, closing in October to allow the Harris’ to head back home to Watertown for the winter.

Megansett Tea Room(Falmouth Public Library)

    Not one to rest on her laurels Edna made constant tweaks and improvements to her tea room in the hopes of increasing business. It was this desire to stay ahead of the curve that would serve her well in her Cape business career. Some new features eventually included a dance room decked out in yellow and black complete with an orchestra run by Sidney Reinherz in 1920. There was also a gift shop added. The new features worked and an addition was built on the Megansett Tea Room in 1923 out of necessity. Edna Harris was an undeniable success and soon others wanted a piece of the action.

    In 1930 the Crane family asked Edna to take over the lease of their Coonamessett Inn. At this time Coonamessett consisted of a large ranch house overlooking the pond of the same name. Under Harris it became an icon of Cape Cod. In the beginning she tried to run both Coonamessett and her beloved Megansett Tea Room. This proved to be impossible and Edna gave up Megansett in 1934, the property taken over by the Watertown Bank. After sitting vacant and deteriorating for several years the venerable establishment was eventually torn down.

The original Coonamessett Inn(Falmouth Public Library)

    At the Coonamessett Inn however Edna’s success boiled over. Being in close proximity to the Falmouth Playhouse brought internationally known performers in. This was closely followed by high ranking politicians like Massachusetts Governor James Michael Curley and people from the financial world. These people all raved about the food and accommodations at the Coonamessett, but more so than that they raved about Edna Harris. World War II saw military officials frequenting the Coonamessett as Camp Edwards was close by. This massive success achieved by Harris in the early to mid 1940’s gave her the confidence to make yet another big move in Cape Cod business.

    In March 1947 Harris took over the lease of another up and coming Cape establishment, the Popponesset Inn. Opened in 1941 Popponesset at the time had 26 small family cottages, hotel, restaurant and cocktail lounge. Being wary of what happened when she tried running both the Coonamessett and Megansett Tea Room at the same time Edna placed her eldest daughter Hilda Coppage in charge as manager.

    Great food, d├ęcor, and entertainment at Coonamessett made Edna Harris a household name on Cape Cod and far beyond. Now she was adding that touch to the Popponesset. These facts made it more surprising when in August 1953 the Crane family alerted Edna that her lease at Coonamessett was not being renewed. The property was sold to Richard Treadway, owner of a string of Treadway Inns. By this time Harris was 75 and could have easily gone sweetly into retirement. However she was determined to not be pushed out of a place she made into a giant of Cape Cod hospitality.

    In a stroke of genius Edna Harris secured financial backing and purchased the Robert Longyear house at Gifford Street and Jones Road in Falmouth in September 1953. After it was approved to be run as an inn Edna had the Coonamessett liquor license, of which she was in ownership of, transferred to the new property. In a beautiful irony since the original Coonamessett property was to be renamed Treadway Inn this meant that the Coonamessett name was available to be incorporated by Edna Harris. The final twist came when she also took much of the furniture from the old property and brought it to the new location.

    On November 24, 1953 Edna Harris’ Coonamessett Inn reopened in the new location a mere three months after she had been told her lease would not be renewed. It was a massive triumph for Harris who kept all of what made her Coonamessett special despite moving to a new location. In a bit of karma the Treadway Inn which took over the property at Coonamessett Pond failed and became Clauson’s Inn at Coonamessett in early 1958.

    Edna Harris continued successfully running her new Coonamessett Inn well into her 80’s. Her daughter Hilda Coppage carved out her own legacy at Popponesset with guests marveling at her rapid-fire wit. She was seen as Cape Cod’s answer to comedian Shelley Berman. The mother-daughter combo dominated the Upper Cape for nearly a decade.

    After a short illness Edna passed away on January 6, 1967 at the age of 89. She had been working hard at Coonamessett until her body literally could not give any more. Her daughter Hilda Coppage ran the Coonamessett for a few more years before selling it in 1969 to Josiah K. Lilly.

    Edna Harris was beloved and admired. Her legacy followed her even after she left this world. In a time where woman were seen as merely a Mrs. to their husband, rarely having their actual names mentioned in the newspaper, Edna Harris broke through and left an indelible mark on Cape Cod and beyond. She was a pioneer for women in positions of power in business and a true icon of Cape Cod hospitality.


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