The character of the colorful town of Oak Bluffs lends itself to characters. One colorful character of note was Eben D. Bodfish, one of the more aggressive real estate brokers on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1920s. Born in Yarmouth in 1870, Eben was educated at Bridgewater State Normal School in the class of 1887 where he studied teaching, and he evidently taught for a time on the Cape. His first marriage was to Ann Webb, whose folks owned a hotel and resort in Cotuit where Eben began renting bicycles. When Eben wandered off to the Vineyard, Ann sued him for divorce. He was reported working at his brother William P. Bodfish’s grocery store, Bodfish & Call on Main street in Vineyard Haven in 1905 at what is today the location of iconic Island restaurant Le Grenier. Another person working at the store in 1906 was Sam Cronig, known as the first Jewish person on the Island and founder of Cronig’s Market, itself almost 100 years old. Bodfish & Call eventually moved, becoming Swift, Bodfish & Swift – or what we know today as S.B.S. Eben was married again to a woman named Elizabeth in Oak Bluffs when he was 52 years old and by then was a successful real estate broker whose dealings with people often enough ended with him declaring, “You didn’t listen to me; I didn’t say precisely that.” One of his ads reads: “Eben Davis Bodfish was his Pedagog name (meaning teaching), now, in Real Estate it’s ASK EBEN and found on every grain of sand his slogan LOTS FOR LITTLE.”
Indeed, homes and lots he represented had signs reading ASK EBEN instead of For Sale. His office, located in the Greene’s Block building on Circuit avenue (where Darosa’s is), was equally colorful with the front windows filled with fascinating things like “scrimshaw, ivory-headed canes, swords for dueling and swords from swordfish, old ship’s compasses, horseshoe crabs, Turk’s heads and even ship models, some of them inside bottles,” as described by Stuart MacMackin, author of I was a Circuit avenue Street Kid.
One claim to fame Eben Bodfish enjoyed was defying the customs of the time and selling one of the first homes in East Chop to black people. This evidently did not result from his sense of justice but rather, he didn’t care. Faithful to his wife, he was known as a ladies’ man and great storyteller who kept his favorites written in two leather-bound notebooks. At times, in mixed company when asked to tell a story and reaching for one of the books, his wife would say “Not that book, Eben!” and he would smoothly pick up the other one, which no doubt held a less colorful version of the story.
Eben must have been respected enough to have served on the Oak Bluffs financial committee from at least 1923 to 1932, and in view of being one of the first to own a car on the Island, surely had to have been successful in business. He particularly enjoyed driving, a skill that evidently escaped his command evidenced by his frequent trips to Gay Head being reported in, perhaps, the Vineyard Gazette’s shortest stories: “Eben was stuck again.” Driving around up in the hills of Gay Head irrespective of there being a road or not, most often he had to arrange for a team of oxen to pull him out. Enjoying rides to Gay Head probably gave him the idea of opening a restaurant there. The Vineyard News of April 8, 1920 reported that Eben had purchased the Horatio Pease property near the lighthouse to use as the Island’s first parking lot in connection with the restaurant. I’ll have to do some research on whether he in fact opened that restaurant, and in fact, whatever became of Eben D. Bodfish who I knew was a friend of Della B. Hardman and her father. I’m not sure I would have bought a house from Mr. Bodfish but I’m certain I would have liked to have heard some stories from his other notebook.
The forlorn strip of land adjacent to Ben & Bill’s and the former site of Frye’s Leather, 16 Circuit avenue, was just sold. Interested in what will go there.
Another beloved character, Oliver H. Perry, is remembered tomorrow at Our Lady of The Sea on Massasoit avenue at 10 a.m., followed by lunch, appropriately, at The Ritz. Roses will surely be the flowers of the day. The man with the big voice and bigger heart died at age 84, serendipitously on 12/12/12. Boxcars Johnny Seaview, rest in peace.
Keep your foot on a rock.