Witnessing how one man’s passion fuels others’ pleasures
When The Flats opened in the quiet Cape Cod town of Brewster, we were excited. At first glance, it seemed to offer high quality food, and had some interesting meal and drink options. It also seemed right for us, given that Brewster is nearby and doesn’t have the same summer crowds as, say, Hyannis; we’re also willing to pay a little extra for a dining experience that has quality built into every aspect of it, yet does so with a casual feel. But in all candor, we’d forgotten about them for a little while.
As The Flats started to build a fuller social media presence, we began running across them more. And they caught my eye when they had a creative donation as part of a the annual Figawi Ball charity event we’d attended, and that I unsuccessfully bid on. (In fairness, it was a rookie mistake. I should’ve waited until five minutes before the end of the silent auction and then outspent the prior bidder.) But our interactions after that event led me to take a closer look, and I learned a lot from what Mason Pryme, executive chef and owner, shared about his experience of opening this restaurant.
One of the things I really enjoy about Cape Cod is how many small businesses exist, and the closeness of the locals, who routinely give me ideas for places to check out. What I didn’t fully appreciate is what it’s like being someone on the receiving end who’s also just starting a new business. There are always going to be the random hiccups, events out of your control, and lessons learned. But that learning curve has to be quick, given that word-of-mouth will spread quickly among locals, and tourists are counting on you to help deliver a great vacation.
So, imagine running across a thread in a local Facebook group about your restaurant. I’d be instantly nervous as I pored over the feedback. Then, imagine finding so many positive comments. And with widely public forums like Open Table, Yelp, and TripAdvisor, your performance is under a microscope for all the world to see. When a new restaurant such as The Flats launches, there are people to hire and train, systems to implement and refine, menus to test and tweak, so it’s almost impossible to go off without a hitch. It seems intimidating. But as Chef Pryme noted, “cooking is a very rewarding career because food brings people together.” That perspective coupled with about three decades of experience, created a willingness to brave such challenges required to open The Flats.
With Chef Pryme’s emphasis on the excellent quality of both the ingredients and how those are put together and then delivered by staff, it’s easy to understand the excitement when customers respond. I hadn’t considered the added scrutiny that would come when another chef eats at your restaurant, but can appreciate how great to leave that person equally happy.
More poignantly, Mason discussed his and his wife’s parents coming in. It’s another example of the difference between small businesses and Corporate America: my parents never sat in one of my meetings, appreciating the flawless PowerPoint deck I’m walking a team through (which is fortunate for all of us). But to have your parents sitting in a full room buzzing with the excitement of happy customers, and seeing the very tangible culmination of your vision and dedicated execution of it, would be an emotional moment you’d carry with you, as would your parents.
As the second summer has now wound down, The Flats appears to be settling in well. Regardless of how good the food and drink is it’s still a business, with permits to obtain and maintain, HR functions that need to be smooth, and numbers to routinely crunch. But the staff has seemed genuinely happy and clearly well prepared, which is a subtle window into the business. The Flats will now stay open year round, aside of a brief timeout in January. Locals should file that nugget away! And with the shoulder season starting, they’ll rotate in some seasonal comfort food and a prix fixe weekday menu for the last three months of the year. In addition to availability for holiday parties, they’ll also build on last year’s New Year’s Eve event, with a four-course dinner, live music, and champagne toast. There aren’t many New Year’s Eve options on the Cape’s Route 6A, as we well know, so this could be a good option for anyone in the area.
I really appreciated the firsthand sharing that allowed me to see how someone can take a passion and turn it into a success. It gave me added perspective on how much goes into a flawless dining experience. Many small businesses on Cape Cod and in a lot of tourist towns hustle hard during the busy season, and then hustle in a different way when it quiets down. To get a fuller understanding of everything Chef Pryme, Co-Chef Tim Ames, and the team put into the restaurant leaves me with a fuller appreciation of the next meal I'll get there.
Interested in the origins of phrases I use today, and prepared to bore my kids as I teach them that history.
Every now and again, we might drive by an historic grist mill. Maybe we think it’s scenic, but we don’t often give it much thought. However, grist mills were critical aspects of colonial communities, as these converted grains into flour for use by the local citizens. Entire towns were often based around some key businesses, including these. Today, we pop down to the grocery store or bakery, grab some fresh bread, and we’re off and running. If we want to be fancy, we do that whole routine with the yeast and the dough rising, we cook it, and everyone ooh’s and aah’s as we react nonchalantly. But in early America, this was a tedious routine.
These grist mills were barn-like structures alongside a waterway. Less than twenty in New England have survived, with about a third in Massachusetts. Prior to the industrial revolution, New England didn’t have ready access to wheat, and corn was the easy grain people could get their hands on.
The grist mill would have created a waterway with the ability to either dam and release the water, or at least to steer it, so that when they were ready to grind, the water would flow over a paddle wheel. This then turned into a huge physics experiment that modern kids would find interesting to see in action, even if they’ll go on to get a C in physics in a few years: the water turns the wheel. That wheel then turns a ginormous mechanical wheel with a bunch of spokes coming off of it. This then turns another wheel. There were two two-thousand pound, circular grinding stones that were horizontal. The bottom one would stay put. The gears ultimately made the top one spin quickly enough. Meanwhile, the hopper was filled with the initial grains that slowly dropped into this contraption.
Ultimately, all of the rudimentary mechanics and a lot of wooden mechanical parts were still refined enough to control how precisely the top one-ton stone was suspended above the bottom one. With grooves in the stones, they could then create more or less powdery flour. This business provided mutual benefits, as the miller would provide the refined flour back to the farmer, minus a ”miller’s toll”.
Aside of the ingenuity, the grist mill was also a social hub, of such importance that it turns out our language still reflects its impact. For example, if a number of people were looking to have their grains milled, a line would form. Unlike today’s supermarkets, where you just quietly stand in line and perhaps spy on the shopping cart of the stranger in front of you, this would have been a situation in which people knew each other. Those lines would result in people “milling about” while they gossiped, which is still referred to as a “rumor mill”.
Meanwhile, inside the grist mill, the floor would have been covered with a hay like material, referred to as thresh. A piece of wood at the doorway would help keep the thresh in place, which you’d stand on when you crossed the “threshold”. You would have then seen the miller hard at work. The finer dust that can be produced from corn is vastly more flammable than coal dust, so a spark could be deadly. Since the giant stones don’t actually touch but are positioned ever so slightly apart, to grind the grains, the miller would routinely verify very carefully that everything was safe. In other words, he would have his “nose to the grindstone”. We use the phrase regarding a hard work week. For them, it was working hard to not blow up... makes me feel like I’ve got it a little easier! His milling produced varying grades of flour, obviously with varying costs to the farmer. For the more routine grade that worked adequately in everyday cooking, he would produce a “fair to middling” grade.
All of these phrases are in use today in the American lexicon; many by me, as my daughters look at me as if I’m making stuff up or talking in ye olde English. But these words and phrases started off not as expressions, but as meaningful terms. Knowing the origins can be interesting, and create connections to our nation’s past.
For the grist mills themselves, the beating they took from the rigors of the machinery and the effects of the water made it hard for them to survive. The industrial revolution and the railroad began to negate the need for these in so many villages. The ones that have survived until today are a combination of ones that were saved, restored, reproduced, or moved.
We’ve visited several. Such visits have more often involved admiring these buildings from the outside. But sometimes there are tours and demonstrations, and sometimes you can buy the processed corn flour for your own use. The tours we’ve taken have been educational, but also interesting. Seeing these mills in action can also generate interesting conversation with kids. Sure, you run the risk of boring them and having them treat you as if you’re as old as the mills themselves. However, the combination of the views, the history, the machinery, and the tour will give you decent odds of finding some aspect that resonates with them. However, since these are smaller structures and tours, it’s often best to combine them with some other activities as part of a broader itinerary for the afternoon or the day.
A quick search with the google machine will give you the options to choose from. Given the effort to preserve the few grist mills still dotting the New England landscape, and the impact these had on the growth of our country, it’s a fun activity. While it’s a little off the beaten path, it’s one definitely worth an hour of your time.
Realizing my teens like to explore abandoned places
Anyone who watches TV shows about ghostly experiences or ghost hunting knows that when they show up to the ol’ abandoned insane asylum or prison, then things will get pretty interesting. There’s so much trauma embedded in such places that it’s inevitable that a few spirits will linger.
Accordingly, anyone familiar with U.S. social history knows that historical treatment of those with behavioral health issues was too often ill-informed and ineffective, and sometimes abusive. Over a century ago, when people were sometimes locked away and forgotten by their families in asylums, the preferred design of such places was a central entrance and wings spreading out to either side. While the design was well-intended and sometimes grandiose, it was also extremely institutional, prison-like, and eventually a discredited approach.
Along came Medfield State Hospital, one of an early set of behavioral health inpatient facilities that approach everything differently. They looked at patients more as people with challenges than as prisoners. The facility used a community design, with various residential buildings and others such as for treatment, food, and church.
Medfield is a beautifully scenic, affluent, sleepy little town about 30 miles southwest of Boston. Driving around, it wouldn’t seem at first pass to be the setting for an asylum. But, founded in 1892, Medfield State Hospital closed down after more than a century later and was embraced by its community.
There used to be 58 buildings, with about 35 still standing. In the five years since ownership was transferred to the town in 2014, the buildings haven’t been easy to maintain. All are boarded up and locked, and rust continues to take over on the exposed metal. While you can’t get inside the buildings, you can still roam the grounds freely, stand on some of the front steps or porches, and try to stitch together an impression of life here in past decades.
The town is proud of this park, and security guards keep careful watch but are very friendly. If you’re interested in going, it’s probably best to first read about Medfield State Hospital and the broader history of treatment at such places. It would also be good to start on the right side of the buildings and work your way around. This is because near where new patients were processed, there’s a sign with the number of each building and what each building’s purpose was. Take a picture with your phone. Then, as you work your way around, you can use the photo to match the building number up and understand its purpose. It makes for a richer discussion for those you’re touring with.
As my girls noted, it’s too bad there’s not a single building that could be rehabbed and furnished enough to tour and better visualize what life would have been like at such a place. Even informative plaques or signs at each building could be interesting, as would plexiglass in lieu of plywood. But the cost of rehab or even signage for a small town can be a challenge. So, reading up ahead of time and taking that picture of the building map near the admissions building will be the best approach for the foreseeable future. Overall, my kids were curious but not creeped out, since it’s only open during daylight hours. They did chafe about not being able to even see inside, but liked the self-guided stroll at our own pace and with our own conversation. Ultimately, they thought it was an interesting trip, and one definitely worth taking on a beautiful day.
As a post script, there is a burial ground for those patients who died, with over 800 graves. This far surpasses the prisoner's cemetery we visited in Rutland that only had a few dozen. It’s a short drive down the street, but we were pressed for time so will have to save that for another time. That means we can’t comment on it, but it’s definitely a place we were interested in checking out.
Enjoying a mix of small batch coffee, craft beer, and local history at a couple’s new business
It’s so logical, you instantly wonder why more people aren’t doing the same thing: a brewery and taproom that also roasts and serves its own coffee. Brilliant. And perfect.
When I ran across an upcoming launch of a new brewery and coffee roaster launching in Marlborough, Massachusetts, it made so much sense from a business standpoint: the facilities are largely the same, so you’re only paying for the coffee-specific equipment and supplies, and some added staffing costs; it’s nicely efficient. Plus, the customers who appreciate you for one side of your business are probably going to check you out for the other side as well, or at least pass along word of mouth.
I’d been keeping my eye out for this place to open, and it seemed to go on forever, until I wondered if it actually would ever launch. In fact, I stumbled across it only by accident, based on other plans falling through and finding myself bored on a Saturday and fishing for something to do. It’s been a while since I’ve been as happy to have misfortune smile down on me.
As I read more about the new business, the backstory became more interesting and a genuinely nice story. The owners, JP and Melynda Gallagher, are trying to carve out lives for themselves. They’re not frat buddies who just want to drink for free, or some international brewing conglomerate bankrolling a a new subsidiary. They’re a couple who grew up in town. He home brewed but has tried to learn to do this at scale by attending the American Brewers Guild. She’s just as passionate about coffee, putting in time at the Coffee Lab International School of Coffee, passionate about her own niche rather than, for example, just doing the books for his business.
Their familiarity with their roots shows up heavily in the business. There are paintings of the town’s factories from her grandfather, Curtis Whitney, a WWII veteran and painter; Whit’s Way, one of the beers, has gotta be named after his grandfather; Downtown John Brown, another beer, is named for John Brown. His famed abolitionist raid on Harper’s Ferry in the run-up to the civil war took place in Virginia. But after an odd series of events, the town’s bell, referred to as “the second most important bell in America”, eventually ended up in downtown Marlborough. And the business itself is an ode to the town’s previously numerous shoe factories.
However, it took tremendous perseverance to ever open. The coffee roaster added more permitting, which was of particular concern to the town because of some prior challenges with a previous roaster that caused bad odors to hang over downtown. While the town was just looking out for its broader citizenry and business base, it still added more hurdles for a small business and new entrepreneurs trying to get something exciting started.
Despite being there on opening day, things were going surprisingly well. Lines weren’t bad, despite the place being largely filled late in the afternoon. With any new launch, there are stresses and unforeseen gaps to address. But we weren’t seeing any breakdown or problems. In fact, not only were the customers all smiling, but the owners were as well, as they flew around tending to everyone. So, too, were the staff, looking happy to be a part of an exciting moment.
The vibe of the place was casual and friendly, with some interesting accents. There were also parents there with kids, and adults from their 20’s to their 60’s, and some games available for patrons. The beers, too, were solid. The lineup will almost triple from the initial six offerings, but starts off with something for everyone, from a kolsch to an IPA to a brown ale to a coffee stout, and a couple more. Coffee options also start out limited, but include a refreshing cold brew and espresso, in addition to a couple of hot coffee options, and will grow in the future. My favorite was the New Pair of Brews stout with their coffee, which made it pleasantly difficult to tell whether I was having a beer or a cold brew. They don’t sell food, but you’re free to bring your own; a couple of snacks will be coming soon.
All in all, this place is great. It’s a feel-good story about a younger couple trying to make a go of things and chasing their dreams while supporting each other’s. It’s a fresh, one-of-a-kind option for morning or mid-day coffee, and a tasty after-work or weekend beer. So, if you find yourself in Massachusetts’ MetroWest region, walk in, check it out, and get off your feet for a couple of hours of casual fun.
Hoping that this is the only prison I spend time in!
Sometimes my teen-aged daughters tell me they don’t want to sweat, or something seems boring, or they don’t have ideas about what to do, or they say nothing as they stare blankly at their iPhones while I’m trying to talk to them (“Bueller… Bueller… Bueller…). I’m not the first parent to think, “geez, when I was a kid…” But on this spring day, I decided to nudge them into a minor adventure: exploring an old prison camp in the Central Massachusetts town of Rutland.
The two teens and a friend piled into the truck and got to control the radio on the drive out. I very kindly decided not to point out to them how much worse their music is than mine, or that they were a tad pitchy as they sang along, sometimes at the top of their lungs.
The prison camp is state property, but accessible. It requires walking, so hiking boots or at least sturdy shoes are good. Fashionably rugged is great, although it might create some agony if they get muddy.
This camp began in 1903. It was a working farm in the middle of the state, not near much of anything. Despite the openness, the state wasn’t too worried. These criminals were only jailed for minor offenses such as public drunkenness. So, there wasn’t much concern about a band of partiers roaming the countryside robbing people of their beer kegs. Instead, inmates passed their time working on the farm to sustain themselves, but were still required to sleep in jail cells.
The prison camp was abandoned when the property became part of the land feeding water into the Quabbin Reservoir, which in turn provided the water for much of the more urban population in eastern Massachusetts. Many of the structures were torn down, but some remains still stand.
We found a few places to explore. One was mostly underground and beginning to collapse, another was built into a hill that was completely accessible, and one set of jail cells still remains. Graffiti covers much of it all, as a contrast to the natural views that otherwise abound. There are also some more subtle remnants, such as some cement stairs in a seemingly random location, or cement slabs that might have been foundations to sheds or to help channel water. But most of these weren’t worth bushwhacking to fully explore.
A couple of other interesting spots are perhaps a minute’s drive from the small parking area. Goose Neck Cemetery is a small, old burial ground. It allowed for the group challenge of exploring every headstone to find which the oldest grave, dating back to the early 1800s. It also allowed for some insights into history, such as a woman who lived into her 70s when antibiotics weren’t available, who would have therefore had to fight off so many colds on her own to live so long, whereas we now have a quick fix that eliminates any worry about dying from a seemingly minor illness.
Behind this spot we found a path to another cemetery. This one housed the remains of prisoners who died of tuberculosis or other reason, and were buried in unmarked graves. It struck all of us as a sad ending for someone who only committed some fairly trivial crime. A Boy Scout project resulted in placing wooden crosses at all graves, most of which had depressions in the ground. This was a respectful project, but the 59 crosses in the quiet woods was creepy, and the girls were a little weirded out. It wasn’t as spooky as the abandoned railroad tunnel in Clinton, but more eerie than the grandiose remains of a mansion and its gardens.
The sites were interesting to the kids. They also enjoyed being able to explore in their own way, at their own pace. And diversions such finding a caterpillar to freak each other out was apparently fun. *Sigh* The bottom line was that instead of being bored and disengaged, or being stressed from all of the pressures on kids today, all three kids were immersed in the history, nature, people, and architecture of their community. As an added bonus, they got their exercise for the day, too. Their self-directed learning through their questions, comments, photos, and hands-on discoveries showed they were clearly enjoying the excursion while growing a little from it.
This also deserved a parenting high-five when their social media postings led to inquiries from friends about where this place is, so friends could ask their own parents to take them to check it out. As an aside, this trek is also fun for families with younger kids or couples – you don’t need to rent a teenager in order to come here!
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The Good Life...
can't exist alone. Places form the setting for your memories. People around us allow experiences to be shared, enriched, and leave us feeling connected and loved.