EASTHAM — If you live here, you’re tired of hearing it: “This town has no center.”
Except, of course, it does. Its formal name is the Eastham Center Historic District, about 31 acres anchored by the Windmill Green, and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.
“It’s been a gathering place for us,” Jim Russo, executive director of the Eastham Chamber of Commerce, said of the 1.6-acre Windmill Green off Route 6 across from town hall. “Those commons were the first areas of commerce besides the boat ramps. You either went down to the pier to get your fish from the fisherman or bought your wares [on the green]. Up until a few years ago, we were still milling corn.”
Even though it’s been a Cape Codder for centuries, the windmill is a washashore. It’s believed to have been built in Plymouth in 1680 and moved to Truro in the 1770s. By 1793, it was turning its blades above Salt Pond, a former Eastham town center near today’s National Seashore visitor facility. It fetched up at its current location in 1808.
With the 1870s arrival of the Old Colony Railroad and its Eastham station farther west on Samoset Road, the area around the green became even more active. But, according to researchers who prepared the historic district nomination form, by 1895 the mill was used infrequently. That’s when “the women of the Village Improvement Society began to raise money to save the mill,” they wrote. “They purchased it and two adjoining lots of land in 1904 for $113.50 from James E. Steele. The mill became a visitor’s attraction beginning at the turn of the century when post cards of the mill became available.”
In 1958, town meeting voted to spend $35,000 to buy and clear three houses on the Route 6 end of the green, opening up a dramatic view to the windmill. That perspective will be enjoyed by those who attend this summer’s Concerts on Windmill Green series, sponsored and produced by the Eastham Visitors Tourism and Promotion Services Board. Rather than performing from the gazebo to the west, musicians will set up in front of the windmill facing Route 6 to take advantage of the larger seating area there.
Leading off the season on July 6 at 7 p.m. will be mainstay Chandler Travis and his eponymous Philharmonic. “It’s a nice crowd, very polite,” he wrote in an email. “Not once have we gotten boo’d off the gazebo!” Travis, who’s played the green for most of two decades, said, “It’s nice … you see your neighbors — you almost feel like you’re in The Music Man.”
What’s special about the venue for Travis is that Eastham was his hometown for 35 years. “I always want to do my best there,” he wrote, adding that he has many good friends here. “I love that it’s right across the street from the Eastham Superette, the convenience store of champions.”
The Philharmonic’s sets at the green always include “a short list that we’re more or less required to play” for a former neighbor, Anne McKenna, Chandler said. “And Bonnie Nuendel, who books the Eastham green series and is a total sweetheart, we might have to play a couple for her,” he added.
Other July concerts at 7 p.m. will feature Fred Fried and Core on July 13, Dawn Derow and Friend on July 20, and the Rip It Ups on July 27. The August shows, which will start at 6 p.m., showcase Toast & Jam on Aug. 3, the Cape Cod Jazz Quintet on Aug. 10, the Sarah Burrill Band on Aug. 17, the Bert Jackson Quartet on Aug. 24, and the Grab Brothers Band, Aug. 31.
In response to the need for social distancing, more than the location of the band on the green will be changed for this season. Russo has been working out a seating arrangement with chalk lines to create grids where small groups can sit together, and everyone three years old and up will be required to wear a mask and stay within their grid, even when dancing.
“My biggest concern is the children,” Russo said. “They’re so young it doesn’t matter what the music is, they just want to get up and dance. That’s wonderful, but at the same time you can’t do that now” — at least not outside each seating grid.
“Each week, we’ll have to evaluate if people are capable of maintaining social distancing,” he said. “I don’t know what will happen with that. The first might be the last one.”
When he presented the idea to the select board recently, Town Administrator Jacqui Beebe agreed. “You have to dance in your square,” she said. “It definitely can work. It’s a matter of everyone respecting everyone’s space. We just have to try it and see if we can get people used to it.”
“Everyone’s space” is a good way to describe the Windmill Green and its uses year-round. There are tours of the windmill (virtual-only this summer, via a video to be posted on Channel 18), art exhibitions, crafts fairs, and Eastham Windmill Weekend, the 42-year-old community event held the weekend after Labor Day. The committee chair, Sarah Smith, said no decision has been made yet regarding this year’s celebration, but raffle tickets will be mailed to residents soon.
Russo misses the presence of a friend who welcomed so many to the green, the windmill’s longtime miller, Jim Owens, who died in 2018. “He was so wonderful,” Russo said. “Even after he retired, if somebody came to the information booth, he said, ‘You let me know. I’m five minutes away. I’ll drive over and open it up.’ I’m happy I had the opportunity to know him and share a cup of tea over at his house every now and then.”
About Owens and the heart of Eastham, Russo said, “He made it better.”