Just a bit north of South Wellfleet, past the Fire Tower, is a section of Wellfleet known as Dogtown — no definitive reason why — perhaps the reason is long since forgotten. I don’t think anyone uses the term today. In his Wellfleet history, Deyo notes that the older residents call this part of the town “Dogtown.” In an 1885 gazeteer, Dogtown is listed as a specific area of Wellfleet, on the same list as Fresh Brook Village, South Wellfleet and “Painsville” (Paine Hollow).
Dogtown, typically a term that refers to a town overrun by dogs, or as a section of town where the residents did not amount to much. Other writers say the term refers to the folk art of divination based on canine behavior where a dog can foretell death. Perhaps the art of cynomancy was practiced in Wellfleet’s Dogtown; or perhaps it was the same as the Dogtown at Cape Ann, where the sailors’ widows kept dogs for protection.
Dr. Stone, the town’s doctor and poet, included “Dogtown” as he wrote his poem about the railroad’s arrival in Wellfleet: “the little dogs in Dogtown will wag their little tails; they’ll think something’s coming a riding on the rails.”
Now that I’ve told you all I could find on Dogtown, today the area has a road, Big Chief Hill, near the former Oliver’s tennis courts.
Ruth Rickmers had a page on the Big Chief Dance Hall in her 1983 book. The deed to the land where it stood was transferred from E. P. Cook to Albert and George Avery in 1924. According to the 1910 census, Mr. George Avery was a musician in an orchestra which seems to be the reason he pursued building a dance hall in Wellfleet. In the 1920 census he is a house painter, in Wellfleet, a widower with two daughters, living with his father, Albert, a cobbler. The Averys appear to have only owned the dance hall for a short time; in 1925 they sold it to Lester G. Horton.
Horton was from the Horton family of North Eastham, and settled in Wellfleet to run a grocery business on Commercial Street. ‘Horton and Gill’s Grocery’ was in the building that was the Olde Helpee Selfee Laundry, then the Lobster Hutt, and now Mac’s Shack.
In the “My Pamet” column in a 1983 Cape Codder Helen Purcell, Wellfleet’s historian, supplies the writer with a faded photo of the Big Chief Dance Hall (sometimes called The Pavillion) inclusing a description — an imaginary one –of a building the size of a hanger with a polished hardwood floor and warmly lit, with an elevated stage. But no, the writer goes on, it wasn’t like that at all. The real Big Chief was “meagre in proportions” with a few tangled beachplum bushes nearby. The rough walls, the garish lights, and a rickety platform for the band are recalled, while the dance floor and the spectators’ gallery are separated by merely a rough two by four railing, somewhat dangerous when over-active dancers got into a spirited rendition of Tiger Rag.
After the summer visitors left, and the circuit bands no longer moved around the Cape’s dance halls, the Big Chief served as the location for Wellfleet High School basketball games, sometimes followed by a dance. The pot-bellied stoves were hardly able to dispel the freezing cold air. Later, in the springtime, the Junior Class would decorate the hall and hold their prom, raising money for their senior trip to Washington, DC, a Wellfleet tradition. Sometimes a graduation, held at the Congregational Church, would be followed by a reception at the Big Chief Dance Hall.
Rickers reports in her notes on the Hall that on April 13, 1933, the Big Chief Dance Pavillion burned down as a result of suspected arson. Mr. Horton sold the property in 1934 to the Connellys, and they sold it in 1947 to Charles Frazier Jr., while much later the property it belonged to the McGinns, who had an excavating company there in the early 1980s.
Big Chief Dance Hall as the site of a Klan speech
Another Barnstable Patriot article from 1927 mentioned the Big Chief Dance Hall as the site of a speech by a man named Guy Willis Holmes with a reference to his association with the Ku Klux Klan. Further research showed him to be a defrocked Methodist minister who had been kicked out of his church in New Bedford because of his strong support of the Klan and an effort to organize the women of the church into an auxiliary of the Klan organization. Later, he was brought to trial on charges that he had had an illicit affair with a young waitress, meeting her in a Boston hotel where they signed in under assumed names, one of the criminal charges. His trial ended in a hung jury, and he was free to come to Wellfleet where he apparently continued his work on behalf of the Klan.
The Klan enjoyed their hey-day in the 1920s, some say started by the film Birth of A Nation in 1915. Mr. Holmes had spoken the year before at the Wellfleet Congregational Church at a “public KKK meeting” according to the Barnstable Patriot reporter. My research shows that the Cape had three KKK chapters in Chatham, in Hyannis and in Provincetown wherein they burned a cross in front of the Catholic Church.
Deyo, Simon. History of Barnstable County, New York, 1898. Wellfleet chapter on line at www.capecodhistory.net
Barnstable Patriot (various) online archive: www.sturgislibrary.org
The Cape Codder digital files available online at www.snowlibrary.org
Barnstable County Deeds available at http://www.barnstablecountydeeds.org
The New York Times archive
R.E. Rickmers, Wellfleet Remembered Volume 2, Blue Butterfly Publications, Wellfleet, Mass.
“Federal Census Collection” database. Ancestry.com http://www.ancestry.com.
Well done research on the wild and wooly days of old Cape Cod
Thanks! Your email says you are still at CCCC — I hope to get there next June to meet you in person!
You kindly helped me with an early request for Wellfleet maps …
Hi there, I’m old enough to remember a yarn shop being located in the old dance hall before it was sold to the McGinn’s and torn down. I believe that the lady who owned the dance hall actually gave the land adjacent to what was her yarn shop to the Catholic Church which now has a new church on the site. You’ll have to check this out to be sure it is true. Peggy’s Yarn Shop comes to mind, but I’m hazy on this because I’m not a knitter.
And the construction company that Ruth Rickmers references in her comment on the dance hall is now a Wellfleet institution with an A plus rating from the Better Biz Bureau: EZ Dose It Excavating, still owned by the McGinns, I believe.
As for the name of Dogtown, my father Bob Paine, now 86 years old, has told us that it was because everyone had so many dogs and pups in that area when he was in his youth. . . pre-spaying as an expedient and ultimately economical thing to do for your dog. And of course, no leash law. So, it was a challenge to work your way through the neighborhood. Those were the days. . . My father also fondly remembers the Big Chief Dance Hall, and says that kids don’t have anyplace to go these days. . . the dance hall was full of music, and full of fun.