Hard to believe, but there was a time when pizza was not such a mainstay of the American diet. Introduced to the culture after World War II by returning American servicemen, it took a while for word to spread. By the late 1950s, chain stores were established: Pizza Hut, Little Caesar’s, and Domino’s, testament to the fact that this “fast food” was catching on across the country.
In 1959, two brothers named O’Rourke applied for their liquor license for an establishment they planned to call “Rookies” near the entrance to the then-Camp Wellfleet, now the entrance to the Cape Cod National Seashore’s headquarters and the road to Marconi Beach. At first they leased, and then in 1965 they purchased the land from the Lane family. The name “Rookies” was chosen because the entrance to Camp Wellfleet was nearby, and the Army recruits – real rookies — practiced artillery skills there. Indeed, while the Camp was still open, evenings at Rookies meant a load of Army guys would be enjoying their beer in there. In 1973, the O’Rourke family sold to the Nelsons, who continued operating the restaurant until it closed in 2012.
One of the Lane brothers owned a boat shop there, and The Cape Codder reported that the O’Rourke brothers leased the building from Lane, installed pizza ovens, and equipped a kitchen. Their “beer and wine license” occupied the attention of the Town Fathers, who advised them quite sternly that there were to be no drunks allowed, and that teenagers were not to be served.
As I followed the deeds for the Rookies land, one of them, back in the 19th century, mentioned the “old South Wellfleet school” that had been on this site. This was the school noted on the 1858 Walling Map just north of the Fresh Brook community in South Wellfleet. In the 1850s, the South Wellfleet population was at its height, so it makes sense that a school would be located there. Another deed refers to the road on the other side of today’s Route 6 as the “road to the old South Wharf” instead of today’s designation as “Lieutenant’s Island Road.” The Barker family, whose homestead was out near the South Wharf, remembered using that road whenever they planned a trip to Orleans, and the “Old Wharf” road when their trip took them to Wellfleet.
In a further digression from pizza, the Lane family purchased their land from the Doane family in the middle of the 19th century. The first Mr. William Lane, who married a Doane daughter, was a sail maker, a useful skill to have so close to South Wellfleet’s South Wharf. His son William was a Captain, taking the Nelly Rich south to Chesapeake Bay for oysters. Both these Lanes are buried in the South Wellfleet Cemetery.
Returning to the pizza story: For my family, Rookies was our introduction to pizza. Perhaps because we were in our summer mode, a pizza from Rookies was a special treat from time to time in an era when all meals were prepared in our kitchen, not ordered in. What is now of interest to me is how the Rookies’ pizza stayed exactly the same for those fifty years. That thin crispy crust and the taste of the tomato sauce were never the same as any other pizza.
This inherent quality to remain constant and unchanged is such an important part of Cape vacations in South Wellfleet. Our family cottage has the same quality. But for the more transient visitor, Rookies’ 1950s décor (“owned by an elderly couple”) and so-so fried seafood generated poor (and mocking) online reviews. Nevertheless, others raved about their pizza. The nearly-empty parking lot never signaled many patrons in the later years, or maybe the couple just needed to retire. When we arrived for our vacation in June of 2013, sadly it was gone.
In 1967, the land just south of Rookies was purchased by the Kears family to establish a “frozen custard stand.” That’s how we got our South Wellfleet “pizza and ice cream” location, for those times when you just can’t eat anymore seafood.
The Cape Codder, online through the Snow Library.
Barnstable County Deeds available at www.barnstablecountydeeds.org
David Kew’s Cape Cod History site: www.capecodhistory.us.