“As the son of a son of a sailor
I went out on the sea for adventure
Expanding the view of the captain and crew
Like a man just released from indenture”
-- Jimmy Buffet, “Son of a Son of a Sailor” (1977)
With thick fog lifting off a placid morning harbor over a pleasant Memorial Day weekend, Sam Baxter laughed at recalling a vivid memory he would just as soon forget.
Dressed for the sun and armed with a window-cleaner squeegee on a poll, he was clearing off 18 moisture-laden picnic tables on the patio at Baxter’s Fish N’ Chips, when, pausing for a moment, the thought struck him. “I used to do this on my great uncle’s boat,” he said, wincing. The vessel was, in actuality -- a black and white photo confirms -- a ferry boat named Gov. Brann that used to make excursions to and from Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. In the 1970s it was converted into a floating ramshackle seafood courtyard with tables and benches and docked against the restaurant. Grueling drudgery for a youngster, it was Sisyphean work. But now, smiling, with the Gov. Brann long gone, Baxter admitted, “I like this better.”
Life has never been better at Baxter’s.
For one hundred years there has a been a business bearing the Baxter name at the end of Pleasant Street, just off Main Street in Hyannis, the largest of seven villages comprising the Town of Barnstable. Today’s iteration of commerce sits on pilings -- Baxter’s Wharf -- nestled within the innermost part of the harbor that connects with Lewis Bay, which connects with Nantucket Sound. The harbor is the largest recreational-boating port and second-largest commercial fishing port on Cape Cod, behind only Provincetown.
In fact, Hyannis Harbor has played a pivotal role in regional maritime lore: In 1602, Captain Bartholomew Gosnold was the first to survey the area; in 1639, settlers from England incorporated the Town of Barnstable; in 1666, Nicolas Davis, among the first settlers, built a warehouse for oysters on Lewis Bay; and, in 1840, over 200 shipmasters established dwellings in Hyannis and salt works became an important industry.
Furthermore: In 1849, Hyannis Harbor Light was built, marking the channel in Lewis Bay; in 1854, the first railroad cars reached Hyannis, signaling increased commercial development (by century’s end the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad had rails extending to Hyannisport Wharf, which hauled many tons of coal, fish and agricultural products); and, in 1928, Joseph P. Kennedy and his wife, Rose, purchased the Malcom Cottage in Hyannisport; an adjacent residence would later become the “Summer White House” under his son John F. Kennedy.
Today, the cedar-shingled Baxter’s building, painted in the classic seaside colors of gray with white trim, is nondescript and houses the Boathouse (a private club) and Fish N’ Chips (the public restaurant). The outside looks like the kind of place that Guy Fieri might discover on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
But that wouldn’t do it justice.
At Baxter’s, genetics carry more ballast than aesthetics. Once inside you will understand. Five generations of history sway fore and aft before your eyes. The ghosts in these walls call you back in time. They almost dare you to immerse yourself in a time that was simpler but, for seafaring people like the Baxters, very difficult indeed. And dangerous.
The long lineage of Baxters on Cape Cod extends way, way back.
It begins with Benjamin D. Baxter.
Born on Camp Street in West Yarmouth, in January 1833, he was one of a family of 15 children. Like many boys at the time, he went to sea when he was 12. His life is captured in an extraordinary compendium entitled Hyannis Sea Captains. In 1939, author C.R. Harris wrote that the book was written as the last of the “deep water men of Hyannis” were leaving the good earth. And with them, he warned, “was going the record of adventure and achievement of … sturdy characters who were pioneers in the world of commerce through the medium of transportation by sail.” Baxter fit that description and was, by all accounts, a remarkable mariner.
Captain Baxter commanded the transport Promethus as well as two gunboats, the Vedette and the Chasseun, during the Civil War. Later, in the merchant service, he commanded the ships Nearchus and John N. Cushing. For years he traded in the East Indies. At one point, writes Harris, the Cushing was dismasted in a typhoon. Baxter “managed to sail it into a river, rigged a jurymast, with his crew, and sailed it to its destination, after it had been given up for lost.”
But it was his command of the Gerard C. Tobey for which he gained further esteem and “perpetuated the fame” of the bark for his speed records. Barks (derived from the French barques) are sailing vessels with distinctive rigging (three or more masts, having the fore and main masts rigged square and only the mizzen rigged fore and aft). During the golden age of sail, in the mid-19th Century, barks were the workhouses of the sea (analogous today to Boeing 737 jets, workhorses of the air). In 1878, Baxter retrofitted the Tobey with double topgallant and main skysails, both unusual with a bark. On the first leg of one of its last voyages, it sailed from Wiscasset, Maine, to Cardiff, Wales, in 18 days. (Today’s transatlantic crossing, with engines, is about seven days.) These boats were smaller than most other ocean-going ships and could sail with fewer crew members and so were cheaper to operate. \
After 30 years at sea, Baxter retired in Antwerp, Belgium, and engaged in the ship chandlery and outfitting business. Then, in ill health, he returned to Hyannis to spend his remaining days. (At one time he had a shoe store in what is now the Hyannis Inn, 209 Main St.) He died in April 1897 and is buried in Hyannis.
Captain Baxter had four daughters and one son. Benjamin D. Baxter Jr. was born on Park Square, in the Marcus Crocker House. Junior became a stevedore and U.S. shipping master. Notably, on Nov. 4, 1904, he was appointed by the U.S. director of customs as deputy collector and inspector for the District of Barnstable. In these roles Baxter oversaw much of the maritime commerce in Hyannis. Given the circumstances, he must have seen the potential at the end of Pleasant Street. The family had been operating the dock since the early 1900s.
So he bought the property in 1919.
The next generation of Baxters -- Benjamin D. Baxter and Warren Baxter Sr. (Sam’s grandfather) -- were fixtures on the Hyannis waterfront. At first, they had a fuel depot next to the Steamship Authority that served the local fleet and by the 1940s and 1950s a thriving fish market. Then Baxter’s Fish ‘n’ Chips opened in 1957, after Sam’s grandmother had started frying local fish. The fish market closed in 1966 as supermarkets became the primary retail distribution channel. But the next year, Baxter’s Boathouse opened as a “companion bar and restaurant to the more family-friendly fish and chips half,” reported The Cape Cod Times. The only alcohol served was Budweiser on tap and vodka with cranberries. Nothing else.
Ben Baxter was a scrappy character: a tinkerer, collector and restorer. He was also a fisherman and captain. He lived in a house on the water’s edge that was built in 1898 and flooded severely by three hurricanes in 1954. Among his special talents was sailing. He befriended and raced many Kennedys, including the future president. He actually had the audacity to beat John F. Kennedy and claimed, in 1993, that he had effectively retired the Scudder Cup.
The Baxter-Kennedy relationship is as long as a generational yardarm.
Evidence abounds in the restaurant. An envelope postmarked Aug. 3, 1961, contained a thank you note from the White House and addressed to Warren Baxter. Next to it, encased in glass, is a short companion article dated Aug. 16, 1961, from Time Magazine. It reads: “Baxter’s Fish Market was standing anxiously by, awaiting the order for lobsters and fish for chowder.” President Kennedy was entertaining Lester B. Pearson, then the Canadian prime minister, at the compound.
Warren Baxter Jr. (known as “Barney,” after Barnabas was rejected), a Marine Corps veteran, and Sen. Edward Kennedy were friends and the senator would patronize the restaurant to say hello and enjoy fried clams. Sam recalls -- casually and hilariously -- one day seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger, adorned with an apron, cooking his own swordfish in the kitchen. Just another day in the office…
Both the Boathouse and Fish N’ Chips are peppered with nautical artifacts and memorabilia. The late senator’s water skis hang from the ceiling. A buoy from the movie Jaws is tucked over a gable. And a ghost in living color eerily jolts your attention: a photo of the fishing boat Andrea Gail. Several times she was docked at Baxter’s before “The Perfect Storm,” of Oct. 29-Nov. 2, 1991, in which she went down.
Today, Baxter’s is run by Sam, now 47, and his brother named, appropriately, Ben, 54.
The fifth-generation Ben Baxter just retired from the Barnstable Police Department after 34 years of service. He bears an uncanny resemblance to his captain namesake, sans beard. They share something else, too. At their core they were journeymen. One cruised the high seas while the other patrolled the highs on the streets. You can picture them at a table in the Boathouse trading salty stories over rum and ribaldry. “Aye, Aye!”
Sitting with the brothers in their second-story office overlooking the harbor, the mood and the water glisten with nostalgia as friendly currents and conversations lead to the present. The crammed space is a tangle of wires and memories. Computers, not sextants, guide navigation and operation. The family institution reflects 2019.
While fish and chips are still the most popular items with customers, today’s menu features new takes and tastes, such as gluten-free selections and salads. Years ago the old chalk board menu was replaced with an electronic one. Today’s offerings include an all-natural proprietary Bloody Cocktail Mix (don’t ask for the secret recipe, you’ll have better odds of discovering a buried treasure off Nantucket) and, of course, colorful merch.
Some things change very little.
Business opens on the second Friday in April and continues through Columbus Day. Words like “consistency” and “quality” are imperatives. The Boathouse is a private club that requires membership. (Two years ago, celebrating its golden anniversary, $50,000 in membership proceeds were donated to charity.) Maintenance and insurance can be crushing. (Hurricane Bob, on Aug. 8 1991, flooded the entire space.) Many of the 75 seasonal staff return each summer (Adriano, manager and chef, has been a mainstay for 22 years; he is considered like family.) And already the next-gen of Baxters is onboard.
Incredibly, not one dime is spent on marketing or advertising. The brothers say word of mouth suffices – along with word of boat. The harbor side of the building comes with a dock letting boaters park and get food delivered to them. As Ben says, “Docking and dining is first come first serve, on Saturday and Sunday there is usually a wait time.”
“I’ve been here full time my whole life,” Sam quips, still cheerful after all these years. The brothers hope to be serving new generations for the rest of their lives, just as previous Baxter generations have done.
“Having a family-run business for over 50 years,” Ben ruminates, “is almost unheard of nowadays. Having a business located on the property our great grandfather started a hundred years ago is even more rare. It means a lot to me.” He adds, “I want my children to be proud of their name and heritage.”
For Sam and Ben the familiar refrain needs extension. They are literally sons of a son of a son of a son of a sailor.
A shorter version of this article appears in Cape Cod LIFE, where the article first appeared.
James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer. He is a former columnist with The Cape Cod Times and New Boston Post. His work has also appeared, besides in New England Diary, in The Providence Journal, The Cape Codder, golocalprov.com, nationalreview.com and insidesources.com.