Taking a Shine to Bradford’s Ace Hardware

Cape Cod Life  /  September/October 2021 /

Writer: Chris White

Bradford Hardware 1957 photo credit: Barnstable Patriot Photograph Collection, William Brewster Nickerson Cape Cod History Archives, CCCC.

As Jack Torrance completes his introduction to the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s 1977 classic supernatural thriller, The Shining, the “in-season” caretaker Bill Watson gives him a tour of the premises and provides some insight into the nature of the resort (along with a hefty dose of foreshadowing for the reader). “Any big hotels have got scandals,” he said. “Just like every big hotel has got a ghost. Why? Hell, people come and go. Sometimes one of them will pop off in his room, heart attack or stroke or something like that. Hotels are superstitious places. No thirteenth floor or room thirteen, no mirrors on the back of the door you come in through, stuff like that.” The same adage holds for old houses, hospitals, prisons, and certain types of buildings. As folks “come and go,” perhaps they leave traces of themselves behind; the greater the number of people who “go” in a building, the greater the possibility that bits of their essence will remain. Now, a common hardware store would seem an unlikely location to harbor spirits, but the venerable Bradford’s on the corner of Main and Pleasant in Hyannis is housed in a building with a history that is anything but common. Haunted or not, it’s the type of place that Stephen King would likely enjoy, one easy to imagine as the setting for one of his stories, and one that some folks believe “shines.”

Long before the 1970 opening of the Cape Cod mall, the building that Bradford’s inhabits contained a complex of businesses that provided Hyannis a wide variety of services. Gary Joseph, who in his 24th year is the store’s longest-tenured employee, says, “It’s been a patchwork of stuff. The headquarters of the Cape Cod Synagogue were here, there was a barber shop, a pool hall in the basement. Also the first bowling alley on the Cape; the lanes are still downstairs.” There was a tin shop that operated in the early years of the store, through the mid 1920’s. The shop created stove pipes, but it also built and rented “parlor” stoves that the tin smiths would install in people’s homes at the beginning of winter and then collect again in the spring. The main store sold kitchen ranges, hardware, and paint. Out back was a carriage repair shop. There was a residence upstairs, and an area that was used as a grange hall. And there was a mortuary upstairs. It is this confluence of commerce, carnival, and death that would most likely pique the interest of America’s foremost writer of supernatural fiction; it’s this piece of the past that leads to speculation and wonder and the reason that workers have questioned every unexplained bump or oddity over the past century.

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In addition to his work at Bradford’s, Gary Joseph is also something of an expert about ghosts on Cape Cod. He co-wrote along with Dan Gordon of East Providence, RI a 2004 book entitled Cape Encounters: Contemporary Cape Cod Ghost Stories, for which the authors interviewed dozens of people and collected forty stories. “It started out as the idea for a newspaper article, as one story led to another, we realized we had a book,” Joseph recalls. He was “spurred to writing” about ghosts in part because of the tales his aunt told about her old house in Brewster, and his family sometimes heard “loud noises coming from unoccupied rooms upstairs that sounded like a heavy chest of drawers (or some large object) being pushed over, but we never found anything out of place.” He and Gordon were interested in finding out the experiences of other people in the area. “We tried to keep the book grounded, though,” he says, “and looked at it as a natural part of Cape history or folklore.” Many of the people they spoke with owned houses that had been in their families for generations, who felt that they had a “duty to look out for them.” Joseph also believes they encountered “more haunted people than haunted places,” so the focus of the book became more about people and less about sensational ghost stories. “It was a fun project,” says Joseph. “We saw some neat old houses, visited a lot of round stone Cape cellars.” One women related waking up to find a ghostly priest lying in bed next to her, another man had seen the ghost of a horse—he patted the horse and his hand came away covered in some kind of sticky substance. A man named Bruce MacKenzie lived in the oldest house in Orleans, and would hear crying from his attic. The story goes that the cries came from a “mooncusser,” or a land pirate. According to Joseph, mooncussers would set decoy signal fires along the shore, luring ships to wreck so they could plunder the cargo. They needed dark nights to operate, which is why they “cussed” the moon. “This mooncusser was on the run,” recalls Joseph. “Rather than allow himself to get caught, he went up to this attic and hanged himself.” Apparently, his ghost has been crying out in pain every since. 

Following the publication of their book, Gary Joseph and Dan Gordon released a map of haunted Cape places, a card game, and Josephs says, “We made the rounds and gave talks.” Gordon has continued writing in the same vein, including the books Haunted Baseball and Field of Screams. Over the years, more stories have come in, as well. “It’s possible that we’ll revisit the subject,” says Joseph. “We have enough stories to write another book but the logistics are difficult. Still, never say never.” But the bigger question is about Bradford’s—does the hardware store have ghosts of its own? Joseph won’t rule out the possibility, but he’s also cautious to avoid making up stories to fit the circumstances. He’s not even one hundred percent sure that he believes in ghosts. “I believe there could be something left behind,” he says. About Bradford’s, he speculates: “There could be something here. The building is old enough; certainly there are a lot of stories. Things have have fallen off the shelves without provocation, but it’s more rumors than anything—circumstantial  evidence; the building in the beginning was a mortuary. Does this rise to the level of ‘spirits,’ I don’t know. There’s nothing definitive compared to some of the places Dan Gordon and I were made aware of.”

Like any place with a history, mysterious and odd stories abound about Bradford’s. One that certainly could point to a possible spiritual presence involves a deviant reverend. As Gary Joseph remembers the rumor, this minister had promised to marry a local Hyannis girl, and the marriage may have had a “shotgun” quality to it since she was pregnant. Prior to the wedding, “he dropped her for some rich socialite,” says Joseph. The Hyannis girl ended up dying of some kind of poisoning, and though nothing was ever proven, the reverend was suspected of foul play. “He was up here in the old mortuary, the girl was up here, he didn’t want anyone to see her…” Joseph says, trailing off, leaving the question hanging. In another situation, Fred Jones, a handyman and tin smith, had been living in the residence on the second floor. He wore false teeth which he would keep next to his bed at night, and Joseph reports that “Sometimes, he’d wake up and find the teeth in weird places. Something or someone had moved them.” Incidentally, it was also Fred Jones who saved Bradford’s from burning down in a fire. The building had burnt down once before, back near the turn of the 20th century, but had been rebuilt. According to the store’s historical documents, Jones smelled smoke one Sunday morning. When he investigated, he looked down in the basement, where “he found a part of the old bowling alley smoldering.” The owners never learned what started the fire, but they concluded, “Had Fred Jones not been there, I doubt if the building would be here today.” 

Photo from the 1900s that hangs on the wall of Bradfords.

Despite strange stories and unexplained events, Gary Joseph remains careful in his assessment of Bradford’s as a haunted hardware store, saying, “I’ve worked here for 24 years, worked here after hours; I’ve heard sounds, but nothing really striking.” In 2019, John Wheatley of R.W. Shattuck Company Inc. of Arlington took ownership of Bradford’s. Shattuck is a family-owned hardware business that dates back to 1857, and like Bradford’s it operates in partnership with the distributing company, ACE. Says Wheatley, “I didn’t know the previous owners, but they didn’t have anyone in the family to take over. ACE suggested the idea, and the next thing you know, we made a deal.” In his nearly two years as president of Bradford’s, Wheatley says he has heard some stories about possible supernatural activity at the hardware store. “It was not uncommon for embalming to take place in old stores,” he says. “There’s still part of the building where you can see where it was done. I personally have no experience with any spirits, but it certainly is a ghostly old building.”

Chris White is a contributing writer for Cape Cod Life Publications

Chris White

Chris White is a frequent writer for Cape Cod Life Publications and has written on topics ranging from the history of Smith’s Tavern on Wellfleet Island to the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria off Nantucket. Chris also teaches English at Tabor Academy in Marion.