Sunday, November 28, 2021

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Blue Tavern of Barnstable

    Barnstable Village is one of the most beautiful areas on Cape Cod. Where Route 6A passes through it there is the atmosphere of a quaint Main Street. So much of what attracts people to the Cape is located in barely a half-mile stretch of road. There are shops, restaurants, libraries, churches with beautiful gardens, the District Court, and even a fire department.

    The fire department in Barnstable Village came into existence after a pair of devastating fires in the mid-1930’s. The first fire was the catalyst to get people talking about creating a village fire department. It was a tragic event that could have very easily been prevented. Five fire departments came in time, the only thing they lacked was the water to put the fire out. The victim of this fire was the popular and luxurious Blue Tavern. This is the story of the brief tenure of this long forgotten Cape Cod establishment.

    The idea for a luxurious hotel in Barnstable Village came from the mind of Harold Daggett and on the land owned by his father. It was late in 1925 when the reports of a new hotel possibly being constructed in the village popped up. The land was directly across Route 6A from what is today the Barnstable House.

    Construction was slow going at the beginning. An early frost and cold frozen ground on Cape Cod caused Daggett to delay the rock blasting to break ground on the hotel’s cellar. After waiting until it was more favorable weather-wise work began in late December 1925.

    Located up on a hill the progress on the Blue Tavern was rushed during the winter and spring of 1926 in the hopes of getting it opened by the summer. There was a main entrance leading into the property from Route 6A and the winding driveway led around and exited out onto Old Jail Lane. Despite rushing the construction the fabulous Blue Tavern was ready for its grand opening on June 1, 1926.

    The specs of the new hotel included three floors and twenty-eight guest rooms. A huge chimney rose from the ground on either end of the building which was naturally adorned with blue trimmings. All of the guest rooms had private baths and telephones, many of these rooms were named after Cape Cod towns. There was a basement tea room, a fully equipped pump house, and a twelve car garage. Blue Tavern sat on twenty-one acres of land surrounded by evergreens. It gave it the feeling of being secluded even though it was only a few hundred feet from the road. The total cost of the project was estimated at $125,000 ($1.93 million in 2021).

The Blue Tavern (Sturgis Library)

    The first season of the Blue Tavern was considered a success highlighted by Henry Ford staying for several nights in the ‘Chatham’ room. Being a luxury hotel attracted higher class clientele yet this was a double-edged sword. It turned out that running a hotel with opulent amenities along with running the Blue Lantern Tea Room across the street was an expensive undertaking. The Blue Tavern was said to have been one of the costliest properties on Cape Cod as far as upkeep went.

    Harold Daggett had been under the belief that a Cape Cod land boom was on the horizon as he debuted the Blue Tavern. This, however, did not end up occurring. The repercussions were immediate as Daggett was forced into bankruptcy shortly after closing the hotel for the season. The end result was the hotel being sold in January 1927 to Elmer Clapp of Boston for the sum of $94,280 ($1.48 million in 2021).

    Clapp installed Ernest Sharpe of Swampscott, Massachusetts as General Manager due to his previous successes running several hotels in Florida. The Blue Tavern opened for its second season in March 1927. The ride was smooth for the new ownership only for about a year. Sharpe resigned from his post as GM in May 1928 to go and run the Yarmouth Tavern. Elmer Clapp appointed his son Charles as the new GM shortly thereafter.

An ad for the Blue Tavern from Yarmouth Register July 2, 1927

    For the next several years the Blue Tavern earned a reputation as one of the premier hotels on Cape Cod. In addition to being frequented by travelers from all parts of the country the hotel was also a perfect location for other events. Important meetings, wedding receptions, intimate dining affairs, and more were held on the property. After some stops and starts it appeared that nothing could keep Blue Tavern from creating a lasting legacy in Cape Cod history.

    Sadly that was not to be the case. On June 25, 1934 a fire of unknown origin broke out just after dawn. Within a short period of time five different neighboring fire departments arrived at the Blue Tavern. Hyannis Fire Department Chief J. Lester Howland later admitted that the fire itself was fairly routine and could have easily been taken care of. However that did not end up happening. The reason? There was a lack of water for the firemen to use.

    Although it had been a bone of contention for many years Barnstable Village did not have its own water supply to be used to fight fires. The village depended on using water from local creeks and in a case of bad timing the tide was out that morning as the Blue Tavern burned.

    The fire was first noticed by hotel employee Eleanor Scott shortly after 8am. Luckily there were only nine guests at the hotel at the time. They were all alerted and safely got out of the hotel. In fact the fire burned so slowly that all of the guests had ample time to pack their belongings before exiting. When all was said and done the only thing left standing of the Blue Tavern was a wing on the east side.

    Though some furniture was saved management said almost immediately that the building was unlikely to be rebuilt. Cementing the likely end a note of appreciation was written by owner Elmer Clapp thanking the fire department and police for all of their attempts to save the Blue Tavern. It was a devastating loss not only for travelers to Cape Cod but for the staff as well. The Great Depression was crippling the job market in America and things did not bode well for the former employees who lost their jobs as well as surrounding businesses that benefited from the tourism.

    Despite the fire spelling the likely end of the Blue Tavern the remains of the property still stood for several years. There were rumors of the property being converted into a jail farm but those never materialized. The final curtain came in December 1940 when the last pieces of the Blue Tavern hotel were knocked down and removed. The property stayed unoccupied until 1970 when a family home was built there.

The Barnstable Village fire department. (Google Maps)

    Although the Blue Tavern is a long forgotten blip on the radar in history there was an event that resulted from its demise that is still around today. Barnstable got its own official fire department on July 14, 1935. It was approved by voters including money for a fire engine and land donated by Alfred Crocker in memory of his father. Upon this land the fire station was constructed. Located in the center of Barnstable Village it still stands to this day. It might have been too late to save the Blue Tavern but the loss of the luxury hotel led to the creation of a fire department that without question has saved lives and property in the decades since. In that vein the Blue Tavern was a rousing success.


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Tuesday, November 9, 2021

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Yarmouth's Hidden Dance Hall

    More than a half a century ago entertainment options for young people were far different than in the 21st century. Drive-in movies, hanging out at a pizza parlor or other causal restaurant, or simply meeting at friends’ houses were common tropes. However the main form of entertainment revolved around music and dancing. Night clubs and dance halls were the most popular meeting spots for the younger generation in the years after World War II.

    Cape Cod was no different. In the 1950’s Places like the Rainbow Ballroom, Mill Hill Club, Pilgrim Club, Storyville, and more attracted young people with the promise of fun nights of dancing and music. These places were good business ideas which led to people looking to establish their own dance halls to bring in the younger generation. Some of these places were successful like those previously mentioned. Some came in with a bang and quickly fizzled out with a whimper. Others tried several different options in an attempt to find success and this is the story of one such place.

    In the 1950’s Yarmouth’s Higgins Crowell Road was a fairly barren two-mile stretch of road in between Route 28 and Willow Street. These were the days before the police station and two schools were built along this road. An idea was hatched to create a safe spot to entertain teens and young adults with dancing and music in a spot surrounded by woods.

    The project was named Sherwood Forest Recreation Center and was the brainchild of young Yarmouth builder Anthony Alosi. He had already built up several residences on the south end of Higgins Crowell Road and saw potential in a 25-acre parcel of land he had recently acquired. Alosi went to the Town of Yarmouth in April 1957 with his idea of building a dance hall in the area that had only recently been zoned for business or industrial purposes. The fact that it was a newly designated area meant that Alosi had to go through a few hoops to be approved, some in town were still getting used to the industrial zoning distinction of the quiet area on Higgins Crowell Road.

    Alosi’s project was approved. The town saw his intentions as good with the dance hall being alcohol-free. After some initial delays work began on Sherwood Forest in September 1957. Alosi was joined by Joseph Massi in clearing land and prepping for the construction. Massi was to be the leader of the house band that would play at Sherwood Forest upon its opening.

    The winter was spent clearing and prepping the land so that beginning in February 1958 work could begin on the building itself. Sherwood Forest when all was said and done, was a 200x60 foot building reinforced by steel trusses. It had a flat roof and the siding was covered in stucco. The building was to have a maximum capacity of 1,500. Out back was a patio and a fountain while the interior saw a large dance floor and a pair of snack bars on either side of the main entrance. Alosi wanted Sherwood Forest to have a gothic look.

An ad for Sherwood Forest from Yarmouth Register July 11, 1958

    Alosi and his crew worked tirelessly throughout the spring. The establishment had strict guidelines. No one under 17 could attend unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. Women had to wear dresses or skirts, men had to wear button-down shirts with sports jackets and slacks, no jeans allowed. Hours placed it open from 8pm to 1am every day except Sundays.

    Opening night of Sherwood Forest came on July 3, 1958 with a special guest night. It was led by Joe Massi and his fifteen piece band. The liquor-free dance hall opened to the public on July 4th. It was a huge success attended by hundreds of local youth.

    Not willing to rest on his laurels Alosi announced four major events that summer at Sherwood Forest. They were the Tommy Dorsey Band directed by Warren Covington, the Glenn Miller Orchestra directed by Ray McKinley, the annual Yarmouth Police Ball, and a semi-formal ball for Centerville’s Our Lady of Victory church. All signs pointed to a banner summer of safe and fun entertainment.

    However that was not the case. Despite all of the hype and the roaring initial success Sherwood Forest found itself closed in early August due to a lack of customers. Alosi sold the building to the John Hinckley & Son company. The dream of Sherwood Forest was not over though.

    In February 1959 a new idea was brought forth. Staying within the restriction of any establishment being alcohol-free Hinckley & Son proposed that Sherwood Forest become a roller skating rink. The proposition was accepted and the Silver Roll-A-Way was born.

    New owner Walter Juskiewicz took the former Sherwood Forest through a litany of renovations. This included a plastic non-skid skating floor and a new snack bar. A major selling point was that in addition to nighttime skates there would be skating instruction on Saturday mornings from 10am to noon for children ages 4-10.

    Much like Sherwood Forest despite a successful beginning the project did not last. The large spacious building on Higgins Crowell Road was shuttered after one summer. It lay dormant throughout 1960 until another investor saw potential in the building. This time it was Ruth Feeley who operated a successful dance studio in South Yarmouth.

    Feeley planned to turn the property back to a dance hall. She planned on local dances combining live bands and vinyl records. There were also plans for special junior high school nights, fashion shows, and dance competitions. The Prom Ballroom Club opened for business April 9, 1961. After a few successful months the establishment quickly fizzled out. Once the summer ended Feeley’s Prom Ballroom became the third business to fail inside the expansive building. It would not be the last.

    In the summer of 1962 Donald Putignano of Brockton took a swing. He reopened the building this time under the name of the Cape Cod Tropical Ballroom. This fourth incarnation of Anthony Alosi’s structure was able to stamp its name in the annals of Cape Cod history based around one night.

    On July 3, 1963 more than 2,000 people crammed inside the building which was zoned to hold roughly 1,200. The reason? They wanted to see the iconic Ray Charles and his band play. There was little advanced notice given and despite that people came from as far as New Bedford and Provincetown to hear Charles play among the woods of West Yarmouth. It was a legendary night. That being said, it was par for the course, as banner single nights did not a successful business make.

    The Cape Cod Tropical Ballroom did not last. Ironically there was never an issue with disorderly conduct in the area throughout all of its incarnations. It was the lack of profit that caused such constant turnover. The fifth time was not the charm either.

A concert poster from A Go-Go 1966 (Record

    In June 1965 Charles MacKenney and Jimmy Troy took their shot. The dance hall was reopened as the A Go-Go. It featured more mainstream music for the time, long hair, electric guitars, and still no alcohol. Club membership passes were sold to give patrons a discount in admission from $2.50 down to $1.75. Boston-based band the Barbarians frequented the A Go-Go while outside acts such as Roger Pace and the Pacemakers as well as Joey Dee and the Starlighters graced the stage during that first season. The Animals and The Velvet Underground played there in 1966 and 1967.

    The issues with the establishment came quickly. Averaging 600-700 people during the weekend dances led to issues between rival towns. Alcohol use by minors in the parking lot and at home before coming to the club led to numerous fights inside and outside of the A Go-Go. This in turn led to an increase in the police presence in the area.

    Although relatively successful for a few years the problems at the A Go-Go proved to be too much. It became the fifth business to try and fail at the Higgins Crowell location in a decade. The building remained closed for a few years before a permanent resident came along.

The former location of Sherwood Forest/A Go-Go. (Google Maps)

    Interestingly despite five attempts at entertainment in the building it was the New Testament Baptist Church that gave the property stability. After the building and property was taken by the town by eminent domain in early 1972 a buyer was sought. The church purchased the property in October 1972. Major renovations were done to the property and the organization has called it home for nearly fifty years.

    A decade of turbulence saw five business try and fail in a location that was a blessing and a curse. Quiet and secluded to keep any noise localized, and yet so secluded that it had trouble bringing in customers. Though Sherwood Forest, the A-Go-Go and the others have been lost to history, a mere blip on the radar, the building itself designed by Anthony Alosi is still standing and still entertaining people, albeit in a far different way than he initially intended.


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Friday, November 5, 2021

In My Footsteps: Sundays at Nana's

    It’s a funny thing how you can still miss a person tremendously even if you had spent as much time as you possibly could with them. It’s incredible the mark someone can leave on you and your life that you can have thousands of unique memories and moments with them, a literal infinite field of flowers, and yet they still leave you thinking it was not enough. I still have so many vivid memories of my Nana, even twelve years after her death because I was around her so much.

    She was a saint of a woman. All 5-feet of Portuguese and English blood who had been forced to raise four kids on her own after a cruel twist took the life of her husband at the young age of forty-three. It had to have been rough being both mother and father to kids between the ages of eight and sixteen. She did it though, all while also being the bread winner of the family. There was no stay at home parenting, no day care, no babysitting. My Nana became tough and unflappable because life gave her no other option.

    Despite everyone knowing that the family’s success or failure fell squarely on her shoulders she never lost her cool or became overwhelmed by the pressure. If she did feel any of those things she kept them hidden away from prying eyes. Being raised as a child during the Great Depression must have made persevering through life’s struggles as instinctual a trait as breathing. Crying about the hand one was dealt did not change the hand.

    My Nana had to make all of the tough choices when it came to parenting. She did not have a tag team partner to bounce ideas off of. By the time she was forty-three she had lost her husband and her mother leaving very little in the way of immediate family for emotional support. She was good cop and bad cop in the name of raising well adjusted kids. She had to console grieving children who had lost their father, all the while doing her own grieving of her husband and mother in private.

    These challenges of being a child during the Great Depression, college-aged during World War II, and a widowed single-mother in her forties, all shaped my Nana into the person I got to know starting in her fifties. She was fifty-three when I was born. By that point her youngest child was now twenty. Although I’d love to say that my being born allowed her to step back and let her guard down a little the truth is that it was just a coincidence. She had done her job of raising her kids and now it was time to take a breath.

    I don’t have any concrete memories of my Nana until about the age of five. There are however countless photos of things before they left an imprint on my young mind. Some photos might have her head cut out by her own hand, but they all show that she was a constant presence in my life from Day One.

    I never knew the woman named Doris. I never knew the woman lovingly referred to as ‘Ma.’ I only knew Nana. She was the person with the roaring infectious laughter that everybody who came into contact with her tried to bring to the surface. Her laugh made us laugh until tears streamed down all of our faces. It was as much a tradition as turkey on Thanksgiving and lights on the Christmas tree. Nana was the straight man in the venerable nut house that was Boxberry Lane during family gatherings.

    Despite her home being ground zero for all types of gatherings throughout childhood it is Sunday that always stood out for me. In some ways Sunday is still Nana Day in my mind. Those days of visiting her began with being picked up at home, many times by Nana herself. In the early days it was a black Ford Escort (that I took my first driving lessons in), later on it was a red Dodge Dynasty.

    Most Sunday’s consisted of watching television, Three Stooges and WWF All-American Wrestling stand out. If it was warm there was ample time in the backyard either playing Wiffle ball before the neighbors put up a fence in their backyard, or lying in the hammock. If it was cold or rainy we’d be inside. We’d play board games like Chutes and Ladders or going through the old family albums and getting a kick out of the different hair and clothing styles. I can still hear the crinkling sounds the protective plastic made with each turn of those old albums.

    The biggest question was always what was for dinner. During the summer we’d have as many cookouts on Nana’s old red-topped charcoal grill. However Nana could make a lot of dishes. A few of her favorites to share with us were American Chop Suey, Inside-Out Ravioli, New England boiled dinner (ham or corned beef, potatoes, cabbage, carrots), and the classic franks, beans, and brown bread. If she wasn’t feeling like cooking it was pizza from Giardino’s or Taki’s, or a buffet from China Inn.

    Nana was the one who loved her birds (especially Goldfinches), loved her crossword puzzles, and loved her grandkids. That was why if of one Nana’s four kids gave some good-natured ribbing about her being some sort of strict disciplinarian when they were younger we grandkids would just shake our heads in disbelief. That was not our Nana, hell I don’t think that could have been Ma, or even Doris. She was someone who always saw the good in everyone and everything.

    Nana was always the one who seemed truly proud of you for whatever you had done. No matter how small or insignificant it might have been her pride was evident. She was always the one who was genuinely happy to see you even as her life grew painful and her light grew dimmer. As a child and a teenager these Sundays with Nana were written in ink on the schedule of my life. An obligation not a choice, though that does not mean they were any less enjoyable. It just means that as I became a young man in my twenties with my own life and own means of transportation I made it my choice to continue the visits because I wanted to.

    I can sit here now and recall literally hundreds and hundreds of Sundays with Nana. From ones that happened before my memory held on to them to the last one in November 2009 each and every one of them had special moments which, like grains of sand, fill the pristine beach that was my Nana’s life.

    I was blessed to have my Nana in my life until I was thirty-two. This allowed me the ability to see her not only as my loving grandmother but also later on to be able to speak and learn from her as an adult. It allowed me to appreciate the person behind my Nana so much more. It gave me the opportunity to do things like trace her family tree back hundreds of years, or to write a children’s book based around her and her cat Mittens.

    Part of me held on to the belief that as long as I had living grandparents I was still a child. Therefore I was a child until I turned forty-three. Still, as much as I’d love to have one more Sunday with my Nana it gives me peace to know that I had as many as I possibly could and likely more than most people have with their grandparents. I miss those days and can picture all of it so clearly. I miss the old phonograph in the den with the Edison record that we always wanted to play. I miss the cigarette smoke damaged painting above the fireplace. I miss the eclectic collection of glass bottles that lined the mantle. I miss sun tea and Horse’s Necks. I miss climbing up to the attic on a ladder that seemed to be one step from collapse. I miss the rose bush that swallowed a fence, or the giant puddle that formed in the street after it rained.

    Yes I miss all of what made Sundays at Nana’s so special and fun. However there is one thing that above all else I wish I had the opportunity to relive one more time. When we would be driven home after dinner on Sundays Nana would stand in the front door and wave to us as the car drove away. I remember watching her wave and fade from sight as we pulled away. She never closed the door until long after we had vanished, like she wanted to see us for as long as she could as much as we wanted to see her. Even near the end when it was too painful to see me off at the door I could picture her sitting in her favorite chair and waving as she heard my car leave, even if she knew I couldn't see it.

    I find that ending of a typical Sunday, the vision of Nana waving to us slowly growing smaller until she faded away, being a perfect metaphor for her final years. She never closed the door she simply faded away until we could not see her anymore. But if I close my eyes and think hard enough I can see her again, I can hear her again, and despite being gone for twelve years the fact that she remains such a powerful and important part of my life I believe is the greatest compliment I could pay her.


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