75 Years Ago

From the Vineyard Gazette editions of March, 1932:

Every person possesses memories. He can tell a story, perhaps a series of stories, all interesting and enlightening. To those who would look intelligently upon the distant past of Martha’s Vineyard an authority to be commended is Charles H. Brown, Vineyard Haven attorney at law. A lifetime of legal practice has brought him before the majority of Vineyarders, and his hobby for research into Island history and geneology has gained for him direct contact with people and places and as intimate knowledge of both.

Mr. Brown was born in Charlestown, Mass., but, coming to the Island at the age of six months, he may justly claim the Vineyard as his home. His father, Moses Brown, was a physician who practiced on the Vineyard. He possessed two famous great uncles, Judge Samuel Sewell, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in Massachusetts, and Thomas Mayhew 3d, a judge of Dukes County court. Judge Sewell mentions in his diary of April, 1714, “visiting Abel’s widow, and travelling to the top of Prospect Hill, and thence to the sound, by Mr. Thomas Mayhew’s direction” — viewing the lands held by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, for which he was agent.

Holme’s Hole, as Mr. Brown recalls it, bore but little resemblance to the present modernly appointed village. Some of the older houses still remain, but that is about all. The streets have been widened and paved, new ones have been built, and the very coastline has so altered that it is unrecognizable as the waterfront where he played and fished as a boy. His grandfather’s home, the residence of Capt. Charles Smith, stood on the site of Lane’s Block. It was a very large structure, which had once been a tavern, and was, Mr. Brown believes, the largest private dwellinghouse in the town, containing no less than seventeen room, three chimneys, thirteen fireplaces, and two brick ovens.

Between the Martha’s Vineyard National Bank and Cromwell’s store there existed an alley or lane as at present.

This was known as Scovy-duck Alley. Mr. Brown recalls the amusing rhyme composed by a lady who lived thereon, and who thus designated her home. “Jonathan Luce and his wife Sallie, Live way down on Scovy-duck Alley. A white-washed fence and no paint on the door, between William Cook Luce’s and Matthew Butler’s store.”

Much of his time as a boy was spent around the waterfront and his tales are well tinctured with references to sights and scenes in that locality. It is there that he notes the greatest changes in the landscape, due to the unceasing filling of the harbor. A blacksmith shop stood where the Seamen’s Bethel is now located, its seaward side somewhat inland from the front of the present building. On this side there was erected a platform on spiles at which boats could land ship’s hardware that needed repairing. This is all lawn now for rods beyond the limits of the platform.

There is an old building in the rear of Fischer’s store at the present time, which in those days also had a platform on spiles in front of it. “Uncle” Jerry Crowell, at the age of 91, sat on this platform one day and observed to Mr. Brown that he had caught many striped bass from that platform when he was of the age of his companion. Today there is no indication that the water was ever anywhere near the building.

The wharf now used as a steamboat landing was a favored gathering place of the boys of Mr. Brown’s age. It did not greatly resemble the present structure which has been lengthened twice since then, but the smaller building, situated but a short distance from the shore, is the original “wharf store” or warehouse. Cut in the second floor is a hatchway where wool was packed. The wool was taken to the second floor. A huge sack was hung in the hatchway and a man stood in the sack, placing the tied fleeces, and walking upon them to jam the sack as full as possible. Somewhere are some of the original locust spiles, beneath the inshore end of the wharf perhaps a century in age.

There were wrecks in plenty in those days when the shipping filled the harbor. Many of the wrecks were brought alongside the deck for repairs or to discharge cargo. Half the male population of the village were interested in wrecks and the salvaging of cargo. Whenever there was a storm, these wreckers could always be found grouped in the lee of the buildings along the shore and watching the anchored vessels in the harbor. No one wanted to see men’s lives endangered or property lost, but they were keenly alert for business, nevertheless. Mr. Brown says of the Vineyard Haven wreckers that they were a most honest group of men and that he never knew of any questionable tactics being engaged in by any of them.

Mr. Brown usually joined this group in stormy weather, being drawn to the water magnetically whenever a storm broke. On one occasion a schooner began to drag her anchors far down the harbor and the watcher realized that she was doomed to strike somewhere on the beach. “One pious Baptist wrecker was pacing nervously back and forth as he watched here,” relates Mr. Brown. “Finally his impatience burst forth in these words, ‘How damned slow she moves!’”

Compiled by Eulalie Regan