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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