The Harwich Exchange -it was a community cornerstone
Browsing photos and postcards of the Harwich Exchange buildings from the late 1800s to the 1960s, one can observe the development of this community on the Lower Cape. In the earlier photos, Main Street in Harwich Center is merely a dirt road, and those visiting this commerce center are doing so by way of horse and carriage or their own two feet. As the years pass, one can see early automobiles parked in front of the Exchange. Then, the viewer makes out telephone poles, a paved road, newer model cars, and finally, a Volkswagen Beetle!
Located at the intersection of Main Street and Route 124 in Harwich Center, the two Exchange buildings oriented the town of Harwich for just over a century, from the time the first structure was built in 1855 to the demolition of the second in 1964. Many locals in their 60s or older can recall with nostalgia visits made to the Exchange Building in their younger days, whether to shop, mail a letter, see a play, or roller skate; however, it’s likely that many who pass by the building’s former footprint, today, have no idea such a place existed. In this article, we take a look back at the history of this unique building, and chat with a handful of Cape Codders who knew it well.
The first Exchange building was constructed in 1855 and served as a community gathering place for more than 20 years. At 43 by 64 feet, the building provided the town a large space to host agricultural fairs, square dances, and municipal meetings—and it housed Harwich Town Hall. On January 19, 1876, the structure was destroyed in a fire, and many of Harwich’s early town records were destroyed. Harwich lost its beloved business, recreation, and community space.
In 1884, Harwich businessman Chester Snow announced plans to finance another Exchange building. Joan Maloney’s Images of America: Harwich reveals that after being orphaned at the age of 9, Snow worked his way into enterprises involving banking, railroads, and the telegraph industry. With enthusiastic support from the community and Snow’s $40,000 investment, planners drew up blueprints for a new Exchange, which would be the tallest—and in the view of many, grandest—building on Cape Cod.
Measuring 58 by 100 feet, this mercantile exchange housed retail space, a post office, and town offices on the ground floor; an 800-seat auditorium with a full performance stage on the second floor; and an octagonal roller-skating rink on the third floor, complete with a bandbox above. The fourth floor was an attic space, with a ladder leading to a cupola tower that was used to watch for fires and to spot enemy planes during World War II. It is said that sailors traveling in Nantucket Sound could view the tower and used it as a guidepost. The massive cellar could store 5,000 barrels of cranberries for seasonal shipment, and in later years the local police used a portion of the space for a shooting range.
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