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Welcome to Cape Cod

Today life is all about speed and instant gratification. Innovations like smartphones, GPS, high-speed internet, streaming music and movies, have taken a lot of the work out of what were time consuming tasks.

Photo courtesy of Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce Collection, The William Brewster Nickerson Cape Cod History Archives.

The invention of the freeway in the 20th century made getting from Point A to Point B a breeze no matter the distance. Not very long ago, innovations like these were mostly science fiction. In the early 20th century life was slower. The new technology consisted of radio, vinyl records, motion picture theaters, and microwave ovens.

Weeks long ambles were the norm, giving time to soak in every blade of grass and grain of sand that existed. In the days before the Mid-Cape Highway connected the entirety of Cape Cod, vacations here were often spent in one location. The precursors to the modern hotel chains worked hard to make their property all-inclusive and unique, giving visitors their money’s worth even if they only saw a little of the Cape.

These are a few of those iconic Olde Cape Cod lodging choices that stood out from the rest for those looking for their own slice of paradise on the Cape.

Highland House: Truro

Highland House.
Photos courtesy of the Truro Historical Society.

One of the originals of Cape Cod hospitality, the Highland House, began as a simple farmhouse in the shadow of Highland Lighthouse. Land originally owned by Isaac Small was passed down to his sons Joshua and James upon his death in 1816. It was James who built the farmhouse in 1835. 

Author Henry David Thoreau paid four visits to Cape Cod between 1849 – 1857. Thoreau would spend the night at the lighthouse keeper’s house with James Small and his family. During one stay, James remarked to Thoreau that his farmhouse had room for several boarders. Thoreau thought this a wonderful idea. Though not specifically advertising rooms for rent at the time, Highland House rather quietly opened in 1861.

Business saw tremendous growth though with the release of Thoreau’s “Cape Cod” along with the extension of the railroad line into Provincetown in 1873. Highland House was routinely filled throughout the summer season. Morton Small took over the property upon his father’s death in 1874. In 1876, a two-story wing was built on the farmhouse, doubling its size to take advantage of the increasing tourism.

With Highland House at only forty rooms, Morton Small decided in 1906 to have a new hotel, the Highland House Annex, constructed in time for the 1907 season. The original hotel was eventually moved to Old County Road in South Truro. The new Highland House had a large piazza where the dinner bell was tolled. Beach access became easier thanks to a staircase leading down the cliffs. The property even had a bowling alley.

Between 1898-1928 several cottages were built on the Small property with names including: Millstone, Rock, Beacon, Ship, Margaret Adams, Mayflower, and Pilgrim. With the increasing popularity of automobiles, stays at the hotel began to slow in the early first half of the 20th century. It remained in the Small family until 1947 when it was purchased by Eddie Mayo, Second Baseman of the Detroit Tigers and former Minor League baseball player Hal Conklin. The creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1961 complicated the status of the Highland House. It remained a hotel and restaurant through the 1960’s. The building was saved from demolition when it was repurposed as the Truro Historical Society.

Aberdeen Hall: West Yarmouth

Aberdeen Hall
Courtesy of the Historical Society of Old Yarmouth, Yarmouth Port, MA.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the community of Great Island in West Yarmouth was open to the public. The centerpiece of the Great Island vacation experience was a high-class country club named Aberdeen Hall. Built by ornithologist Charles Cory using his inherited family fortune in 1902 the forty-five room property was frequented by fellow social elites by invite only. However, in 1905 Cory leased his country club to E.M. Guild for use as a first-class hotel. It was an immediate success.

In January 1909 Cory sold the entirety of Great Island including Aberdeen Hall to New York steel magnate Henry Phipps. Phipps immediately got to work improving Aberdeen Hall and heavily promoting it as the “only 1st class hotel on Cape.” Phipps had a large addition built in May 1909.

Tennis Court, Aberdeen Hall.
Courtesy of the Historical Society of Old Yarmouth, Yarmouth Port, MA.

Offering private baths, fine dining, fishing, walks in the pine and oak tree groves, as well as rounds on the golf links, it was no wonder Aberdeen Hall was the place to be. For those not able to make it to the hotel via automobile or on foot a ferry service was put into place shuttling people over from the Ocean Street docks in Hyannis. 

Even after Rhode Island banker Malcolm Chace purchased Great Island in 1914, he kept Aberdeen Hall running smoothly. In fact, the hotel saw its greatest heights in terms of occupancy, including its most successful season of 1919 after Chace’s purchase. Sadly, a fire on August 3, 1924 put an end to the resort hotel and by extension ended Great Island’s public access. Nearly a century later, the vast majority of the property is owned by the Chace family and is one of the most restricted locations on all of Cape Cod.

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