Remembering the Mill Hill Pavilion

A postcard of the Mill Hill Pavilion

Mill Pond in West Yarmouth has seen its share of history. In 1710 a grist mill was built on its shores to produce flour and cornmeal. Known as the Baxter Grist Mill it was in service for nearly 200 years before ceasing operations in 1900 when electricity became readily available along with premade flour. This mill is still standing today along Route 28 heading into Hyannis.

The most well known resident of the area surrounding the pond was the Mill Hill Club. This spot was the king of all Cape Cod nightlife for decades, attracting countless people from all backgrounds and ages from the early 1950’s until ultimately closing in 2008. After being closed it was torn down in 2014 the hilltop location became the site of the Mill Hill Residence. Set to be opened this summer this is a senior assisted living complex that is part of the nearby Mayflower Place.

Sandwiched in between the colonial history and the king of the nightlife there is another lesser known, but just as important resident of the Mill Hill area. It is about to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its creation. It is the Mill Hill Pavilion and it may not be the most famous spot for Cape Cod nightlife, however it was the original.

The story of the Mill Hill Pavilion goes back to 1916 when construction began. Charles Blackwell and his wife had been visiting the Cape from Attleboro for years, summering in a cottage in South Yarmouth. In 1916 he had the idea of creating a building strictly for housing entertainment. The site chosen would be on the busy Hyannis-Bass River Road, today known as Route 28. Along this road Blackwell and his partner William Lull, also from Attleboro, would choose the plot of land today occupied by DiParma’s to break ground.

DiParma, photo courtesy of Christopher Setterlund

Construction would last throughout the winter and spring. At a total cost of $15,000, approximately $340,000 today, the 11,000 square foot entertainment center would be christened the Mill Hill Pavilion. June 30, 1917 was the red-letter day as the Pavilion would make its grand debut.

The building was decked out in red, white, and blue with America deep in the throes of World War I. More than five hundred automobiles would park outside of the pavilion with more than 1,000 people coming out from as far away as Provincetown and Buzzards Bay. They were greeted by the music of a 6-piece orchestra inviting them inside for the inaugural dance. The night was a rousing success. The largest entertainment complex on Cape Cod was thrust into legitimacy the following week when renowned Opera singer Cara Sapin appeared as part of the Boston Grand Opera Concert Company.

Despite being initially mostly known for nights of dancing the Mill Hill Pavilion did attract talent from Vaudeville and became a spot for Hyannis and Yarmouth to hold receptions after events such as Military Field Day. Once Prohibition began in 1920 the pavilion became a place of gathering without the alcohol. Dances at Mill Hill drew crowds as large as 2,000 people, packing the 80×140 foot structure to the maximum.

Mill Hill expanded its repertoire the following year when in 1921 basketball games became a routine part of the schedule. Invented only thirty-years earlier hundreds of people would come out to watch the Mill Hill Five take on teams from all over Southeastern Massachusetts. Perhaps the most legendary game to take place inside the arena took place on December 10, 1923. It was on this night that the Mill Hill Five took on the Brockton OKO’s. The game would end in a 22-14 win for Brockton. In the crowd that evening though was the iconic New York Yankee Babe Ruth. Coming off an MVP-Season and World Series championship The Great Bambino was visiting friends in Chatham when he decided to take in the game and thrill spectators at the same time.

An old advertisement for the Mill Hill Pavilion from 1928

Another highlight of the Pavilion was the Annual Barn Dance which took place in September. Promoted by George Pirrie the third annual event drew a raucous crowd of more than 1,200. It included a beauty contest won by Montreal, Quebec native Katherine Davis. Her prize? A live pig. There also was a pie eating contest with a first-prize of $3, a Tug of War, and separate milk drinking contests for gentlemen and ladies.

Another piece of Cape Cod history began in the Summer of 1924 when across the street from the Mill Hill Pavilion a new restaurant opened. Owned by Rose Klous it was called Old Mill Tavern. Specializing in chicken and waffles this spot would last until 1941 and later on be rechristened Mill Hill Club.

In May 1926 the building was purchased by Arthur Howard, a former motion picture director connected to D.W. Griffith. The establishment was renamed Sunkist Gardens with the atmosphere inside resembling an orange grove. The three-day grand reopening attracted more than 1,500 people. The lack of a cover charge helped the new businesses popularity.

Then, in an instant, Howard was gone and Sunkist Gardens was back to being called Mill Hill Pavilion under the old management. On August 5, 1926 Howard left behind his new establishment. Legend has it that a Ku Klux Klan rally held in a field near the building on June 17, 1926 might have caused Howard’s ultimate departure but that is not definitively known.

Upon returning Mill Hill would begin to hold amateur boxing matches in 1926 sponsored by the Cape Cod Athletic Association. In addition there would be wrestling matches which included Finnish middleweight world champion Waino Ketonen. The CCAA would open their own open-air arena next door to Mill Hill in 1927 to hold events during the summer.

The run of Cape Cod’s first premier entertainment complex would come to a screeching halt on November 3, 1928. On this night the building would burn to the ground. Charles Blackwell told authorities that nobody had been in the building for two or three days and had no explanation for the fire. Insurance only covered roughly half of the $25,000 value of the building, reconstruction was not a feasible option. By May 1929 the charred debris of Mill Hill Pavilion had been removed from the site putting a stamp on the originator of Cape Cod nightlife. A month later Blackwell would open a lunch room at his house along Bass River, it is not known how well this endeavor went.

In 1930 the Rainbow Room, a roller skating arena, opened across from where Mill Hill Pavilion stood. It would help carry on the entertainment flag along with the Cape Cod Athletic Association’s open-air arena until the Mill Hill Club came on to the scene two decades later.

The Mill Hill Pavilion was an important part of bringing the Roaring Twenties to Cape Cod with music, dancing, exhibitions, boxing, and basketball in a time when such entertainment was not commonplace. Its legacy should be fondly remembered now as its one hundredth anniversary approached next month. Special thanks to Duncan Oliver from the Historical Society of Old Yarmouth for help with this piece.

By Christopher Setterlund
737 West Main Street
Hyannis, MA 02601
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