A look at the rich history of Baxter’s

Cape Cod Life  /  August 2019 / , ,

Writer: James P. Freeman

A look at the rich history of Baxter’s


Cape Cod Life  /  August 2019 / , ,

Writer: James P. Freeman

Legendary Lineage

The Baxter name holds a storied, and lasting, legacy 

With thick fog lifting off a placid morning harbor over a pleasant Memorial Day weekend, Sam Baxter laughed as he recalled a vivid memory he would just as soon forget. 

Armed with a window squeegee on a pole, he was clearing off 18 moisture-laden picnic tables on the deck of Baxter’s Fish N’ Chips when, pausing for a moment, the thought struck him. “I used to do this on my great uncle’s boat,” he says, wincing. The vessel—a black and white photo confirms—was a ferry boat named Gov. Brann that used to make excursions between Hyannis and the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. In the 1970s it was converted into a floating ramshackle seafood courtyard with tables and benches and docked against the restaurant. Grueling drudgery for a youngster, it was Sisyphean work. But now, smiling, with the Brann long gone, Baxter admits, “I like this better.”

Life has never been better at Baxter’s.

For 100 years there has a been a business bearing the Baxter name at the end of Pleasant Street, just off Main Street in Hyannis. Today’s iteration of commerce sits on pilings—Baxter’s Wharf—nestled within the innermost part of the harbor that feeds into Lewis Bay. The harbor is the largest recreational boating and second largest commercial fishing port on Cape Cod, behind only Provincetown. 

Today the Baxter’s building, presented in the classic seaside gray shingles with white trim, discreetly houses the Boathouse—a 21-plus bar—and their popular seafood restaurant. The outside looks like the kind of place Guy Fieri might discover on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” But that wouldn’t do it justice. 

At Baxter’s, genetics carry more ballast than aesthetics. Once inside you will understand. Five generations of history sway fore and aft before your eyes. The ghosts in these walls call you back in time. They almost dare you to immerse yourself in a time that was impossibly simpler, but, for seafaring people like the Baxters, unbearably difficult. And dangerous. The long lineage of Baxters on Cape Cod began well before 1919. Really, these family ties can be traced back to the early nineteenth century.

It all began with Benjamin D. Baxter. 

Born on Camp Street in West Yarmouth in January 1833, he was one of a family of 15 children. Like many boys at the time he went to sea at 12 years old. His life is captured in an extraordinary 1939 compendium entitled “Hyannis Sea Captains,”  which author C.E. Harris said was written as the last of the “deep water men of Hyannis” were leaving the good earth. And with them, he warned, “was going the record of adventure and achievement of … sturdy characters who were pioneers in the world of commerce through the medium of transportation by sail.” Baxter fit that description and, by all accounts, was a remarkable mariner.

Captain Baxter commanded the transport Promethus as well as two gunboats, the Vedette and the Chasseun during the Civil War. Later, in the merchant service, he commanded the ships Nearchus and John N. Cushing, trading on the East India coast. At one point, writes Harris, the Cushing was dismasted in a typhoon. Determined, Baxter “managed to sail it into a river, rigged a jury mast, with his crew, and sailed it to its destination, after it had been given up for lost.” 

But it was his command of the Gerard C. Tobey for which he gained further esteem and “perpetuated the fame” of the bark with his speed records. Barks (derived from the French barques) are sailing vessels with distinctive rigging (three or more masts, having the fore and main masts rigged square and only the mizzen rigged fore and aft). During the golden age of sail in the mid-19th century, barks were the workhorses of the sea. These boats were smaller than ships, thus they could sail with fewer crew and were cheaper to operate. On the first leg of one of its last voyages, Baxter sailed the Tobey from Wiscasset, Maine to Cardiff, Wales in only 18 days.

Captain Baxter had four daughters and one son. Benjamin D. Baxter Jr. became a stevedore and U.S. Shipping Master. Notably, on November 4, 1904, he was appointed by the U.S. Director of Customs as Deputy Collector and Inspector for the District of Barnstable. In these roles Baxter oversaw much of the maritime commerce in the port. Given the circumstances, he must have seen the potential at the end of Pleasant Street, where the family had been operating the dock since the early 1900s. He bought the property in 1919.  

Benjamin D. Baxter Jr. and his son Warren Baxter were fixtures on the Hyannis waterfront. By the 1940s their fish market was thriving. Then Baxter’s Fish N’ Chips opened in 1957, after Warren’s wife started frying local fish. The fish market closed in 1966 as supermarkets became the primary retail distribution channel, and the next year Baxter’s Boathouse opened as a more formal dining and drinking option to the casual fried fish counter. The only alcohol served was Budweiser on tap. And vodka with cranberries. Nothing else.

Ben Baxter Jr. was a scrappy character: a tinkerer, a collector and restorer, a fisherman and captain, and among his special talents was sailing. He befriended and raced many Kennedys, including the future president, who he had the audacity to beat in a sailboat race, according to local lore. 

The Baxter-Kennedy relationship is as long as a generational yardarm, as evidenced throughout the restaurant. An envelope, postmarked August 3, 1961, contained a thank-you note from the White House and is addressed to Warren Baxter. Next to it, encased in glass, is a short companion article, dated August 16, 1961, from Time magazine. It reads: “Baxter’s Fish Market was standing anxiously by, awaiting the order for lobsters and fish for chowder.” President Kennedy was entertaining Lester B. Pearson, the Canadian Prime Minister, at the compound.

Warren Baxter Jr. (known as “Barney”) befriended Senator Ted Kennedy, who would patronize the restaurant to say hello and enjoy fried clams. The late senator’s water skis can be seen hanging from the ceiling inside. Another memorable patron: the Terminator himself. Sam recalls—casually and hilariously—one day seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger adorned with an apron cooking his own swordfish in the kitchen. Just another day at the office.

Photo by Teagan Anne

Today, Baxter’s is run by Barney’s sons: Sam, now 47, and his brother Ben, 54. The fifth-generation Ben Baxter recently retired from the Barnstable Police Department after 34 years of service. He bears an uncanny resemblance to his captain namesake, sans beard. You can picture them at a table in the Boathouse trading salty stories over rum and ribaldry. “Aye, Aye!”

Their season begins on the second Friday in April and continues through Columbus Day. While fish and chips is still the most popular dish with customers, today’s menu features new takes and tastes, like gluten-free selections and salads. An all-natural, proprietary Binnacle Bloody Cocktail Mix (don’t bother asking for the secret recipe) has recently been packaged so fans can recreate their popular cocktail at home.

“I’m just a son of a son…
Son of a son of a sailor
The sea’s in my veins, my tradition remains”

–Jimmy Buffet, “Son of a Son of a Sailor” (1977)

The harbor side of the building offers a dock, allowing boaters to dock for a while or get take-out. As Ben says, “Docking and dining is first come, first serve; on Saturday and Sunday there is usually a wait time.”

The brothers hope to be serving new generations for the rest of their lives. Just as previous Baxter generations have done. “Having a family-run business for over 50 years is almost unheard of nowadays,” says Ben. “Having a business located on the property our great grandfather started a hundred years ago is even more rare. It means a lot to me.”  

For Sam and Ben, the familiar refrain is short a few generations: They are literally sons of a son of a son of a son of a sailor.