The Origins of Cape Cod Hospital

A postcard of Cape Cod Hospital from 1929, courtesy of Sturgis Library

It is hard to image the Cape without this giant of the healthcare industry. However there was a time before Cape Cod Hospital. There was a time that necessitated the creation of a central care facility such as the one that exists today. This is the story of the origins of Cape Cod Hospital and what came before it.

At the turn of the 20th century Cape Cod was a much quieter place. According to the Census Bureau the year-round population on Cape Cod in 1900 was a scant 27,826. For comparison the 2017 estimated population of Barnstable alone was 44,325. There was less of a need for a major healthcare facility on Cape Cod in those days. There were doctor’s offices aplenty, including most who did house calls in those days. That does not mean that hospitals were not necessary though, there were some procedures doctors could not do during a house call after all. Even over a century ago Hyannis was seen as a major hub of Cape Cod, although on a smaller scale than today. Main Street, then lined up and down both sides with trees, was still humming with businesses. It was an appropriate location for a hospital to take care of things that doctors could not with house calls.

A postcard of Hyannis Hospital, courtesy of Sturgis Library

The location that would eventually become known as Hyannis Hospital sat on the corner of present-day Sea Street and Main Street. In February 1892 Lindsey Oliver purchased a plot of land from Horace Howes that he intended to use for a large home. In previous years, after moving to Boston for business, Oliver and his wife would frequently return to Hyannis at a home a short distance away on Sea Street. He was the first president of the Hyannis Yacht Club which was founded in 1895 and overall quite a popular fixture around town. Oliver also wisely purchased other land in town including the area known as Railway Bluffs on the east side of Lewis Bay along with a block of land on Main Street opposite the entrance to the State Normal School, today the village green. Oliver would sell his estate a few years later to another local business big wig Allen P. Eagleston.

The need for a hospital on Cape Cod was apparent for years however an actual plan of action was difficult to come by. When Eagleston looked to sell the estate at the West End of Main Street a plan was finally hatched. In May 1911 two experienced nurses from Boston, Mary Rimmer and Ada Berry purchased the former Oliver home for the purpose of establishing a hospital. Less than two weeks after buying the property Rimmer and Berry were hard at work to get the Hyannis Sanatorium was up and operational. It opened to the public with a showcase event in early June 1911.

Referred to soon thereafter as Hyannis Hospital Rimmer and Berry along with the help of the District Nursing Association did their best to provide impeccable care for residents in need all across Cape Cod. However the small facility suffered from a few major hurdles. One was money, the hospital would rely some on charity to keep up with the necessary equipment and proper provisions for patients such as new beds. The long and very quiet off-season on Cape Cod during the early 20th century meant it was more feasible for the hospital to close at the end of September. This meant that those in need had to travel off-Cape from October through mid-April if in need of hospital care.

From 1911-1914 Hyannis Hospital was headed by Mary Rimmer above all others and despite it being essentially a seasonal job the wear began to get to her. In April 1915 she came back to Hyannis from Boston with the intention of reopening the hospital but she was burned out. She informed the town she would not be reopening Hyannis Hospital and that she was instead taking a long needed vacation to England. The state of the Cape’s only hospital was in peril. The fears were allayed when two new nurses a Miss Mellor and Miss Kennedy took over the reigns of the Hyannis Hospital.

The new management would do their best to keep the hospital up and running, at least during the summer season. However it was becoming increasingly apparent that Cape Cod was in need of a full-time year-round hospital. The chatter became a real movement in the summer of 1916. That August benefits began to be held to raise money to build a Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis. The first such event was the ‘Two Paw Circus’ held by the social workers of the Congregational Society of Hyannis in August 1916. It would be a full three years before the dream of a Cape Cod Hospital became reality.

The present-day Cape Cod Hospital, photo by Christopher Setterlund

On August 22, 1919 Cape Cod Hospital would be officially incorporated. Donations were solicited for months afterward to help pay for the construction of the new healthcare facility. In the meantime the Hyannis Hospital continued to assist those in need as best it could. In June 1920 the two and a half story wooden structure costing $35,000 ($449,000 in 2019) and standing on the corner of Park and Bayview Streets was unveiled in the newspaper. Beginning with twenty beds and two cribs it would serve much of Cape Cod and Arthur Guyer presided as the hospital’s first president. The hospital would officially open on October 4, 1920. Its first patient was William O. Crocker from Osterville.

The Hyannis Hospital would be shuttered in 1919 after seeing its last action that fall as an ear, nose, and throat clinic thanks to help from its original boss Mary Rimmer. The building was sold to Dr. John Maloney in February 1920 with the purpose of turning it back into a private home. It would become the Colonial Chambers hotel a few years later. The property would achieve its greatest notoriety when it was redeveloped into one of Cape Cod’s most famed nightspots the Panama Club in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Cape Cod Hospital has gone on to become a highly respected facility, expanding its walls numerous times. However one cannot gaze upon today’s healthcare giant without taking a quick moment to think back to the original Hyannis Hospital on Main Street and Mary Rimmer who helped bring Cape Cod healthcare into the 20th century.

By Christopher Setterlund
737 West Main Street
Hyannis, MA 02601
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