The old wooden sailboat up on blocks inside the shed at the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society in Edgartown doesn't look like much.

The white lapstrake boat, less than 20 feet in length, has not been in the water since it was brought to the society in December 1936 from Menemsha Creek. The paint has come off in many places. There is little chance she will ever float again.

Her bow has the letters C7077. Records at the society show she was once owned by Albert Reed.

When she first sailed, she had two sprit sails and a centerboard. At some point in her career, an engine was added. Both masts now are missing.

Only three such boats survive; Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Conn., has the other two.

But this craft, known as a Noman's Land boat, once was as popular in Vineyard waters as catboats.


The Noman's boat is the Island's surviving link to the once-plentiful cod fishery south of Martha's Vineyard.

In those days, fishermen had little trouble hand-lining for cod. The fish were brought to Noman's Land, or were landed at Squibnocket or Lobsterville Beach.

But plentiful cod landings from near-shore Vineyard waters are found these days only in historic records, in news stories and in the memories of older fishermen.

The virtual disappearance of cod from nearby waters and its rapid decline in the waters off Massachusetts signal the diminution of a resource that helped drive the Vineyard and Massachusetts economies for centuries. In 1602, the explorer Bartholomew Gosnold gave Cape Cod its name in tribute to the fish that swarmed near the waters around the long peninsula of land.

Commercial fishing once was a top profession on the Island. Vineyard fishermen had high social standing, and owners of fishing boats commanded respect.

Even in more recent times, cod was more highly valued than the land on which fishermen dwelled. Fish were not just exported to the mainland; they were a staple for Islanders.

The importance that cod once held for Chilmark, now known for some of the most expensive residential real estate in Massachusetts, is revealed by its town seal, which features a Noman's Land boat.

In the 19th century, Noman's Land, a small island south of Martha's Vineyard, was a critically important place for fishermen to set up shop and pursue schools of cod.

To catch the fish, they built a type of sailboat - about 20 feet long with two sprit sails - which would later be called the Noman's Land boat.

The boats were easy to maneuver and could be rowed or sailed. And best of all, at the end of the day, they could be hauled up on the beach if needed.

"The chief interest of the colonists on Noman's Land was cod," wrote John M. Leavens in a Mystic Seaport publication in October 1976 that chronicled the history of the cod. The author also wrote:

"From earliest known times these valuable food fish have swarmed there in great shoals, arriving in early fall and leaving in the spring. The Indians fished for them at Noman's Land before Gosnold, or whoever else it was, first discovered the island.

"From 1666 on, efforts were made to establish a cod fishery there. The results must have shown promise by the early 1700s, for in 1714 the town of Chilmark succeeded in annexing the island.

"The first permanent American settler arrived that same year, and by 1745 the permanent colony on the island was reported to number some 20 settlers engaged in farming and fishing . . . By the late 1800s, they were coming over from Martha's Vineyard in the fall and spring to catch cod, and living in shacks on the beach at West Bend."


In the days before refrigeration, fishermen salted and dried their cod. Noman's Land fishermen dried their catch on the rocks near the shoreline. The fishermen did not have to worry about protecting their catch, for the one-square-mile island had no rodents. The fish then were shipped by the barrel to the mainland.

Gale Huntington wrote about the Noman's Land boat in the November 1975 edition of The Dukes County Intelligencer:

"Albert O. Fischer and his brother Walter, in the early years of this century, owned and operated a marine hardware store, it was almost a ship chandlery near the steamboat wharf in Vineyard Haven. They also prepared and marketed a product called Fischer Brothers Boneless Codfish. Their source of supply was salt codfish from Noman's Land tied up in 50-pound bundles."

Mr. Huntington recalled that in the earliest days cod fishing was done entirely with hand lines. "Later some of the fishermen began to use line trawls which lengthened the season for them into early winter. But most of the Vineyard fishermen were home [from Noman's Land] before Thanksgiving and their salt cod taken to market," he wrote.

Fishermen still can be found who remember extensive cod stocks swimming in Vineyard waters.

Louis S. Larsen, 79, of Chilmark, remembers fishing for cod in Vineyard Sound in a 40-foot lobster boat, the Mary Elizabeth. He recalled a fishing trip he took one winter during the 1970s.

"My brother Dagbard, Joseph Benefit of Edgartown and I left Menemsha in the morning," Mr. Larsen said. "In one day, we caught 4,000 pounds of cod. We caught them north of Menemsha Bight."

Mr. Larsen also remembers fishing in the 1970s in his 81-foot schooner Mary Elizabeth. The crewmen were Wayne Iacono and his son Louis. His son now owns the Net Result Fish Market in Vineyard Haven. Mr. Iacono is today a Menemsha lobsterman.


"We were tub trawling," Mr. Larsen said. "We set off south of Noman's Land, in 21 fathoms of water. We caught 12,000 pounds of cod that morning and we were home by noon. The deck was loaded."

Gregory Mayhew, 60, of Chilmark recalls going tub trawling for cod half a mile off Squibnocket in January 1973 and catching 4,000 pounds of cod.

Newspaper articles in both the 19th and 20th centuries attest to the prevalence of cod in Vineyard waters.

On April 8, 1847, the Vineyard Gazette reported: "Great fishing. Nine hundred and nine codfish of large size and one halibut were taken by five boats off the South side."

Almost a century later, on April 26, 1941, a headline in the Gazette declared: "Codfish School Strikes Again on Inshore Ledges. First Such Occurrence in Years - Fish are of Finest Quality."

On June 9, 1967, the Gazette carried the following account: "The Ethel A., Capt. Albion Alley Jr. of West Tisbury with the skipper, his wife and daughter, Miss Sharon Alley and Manuel Estrella aboard, made a drift of one hour off Gay Head on Sunday and landed more than 40 cod . . . All were taken with jigs with rod and reel. Mrs. Alley caught the largest fish, a 32-pound cod. Her daughter landed one that weighed 18 [pounds]."

But the decline of the cod fishery already was under way.

By the start of this year, only two of the 15,000 year-round Vineyard residents - Mr. Mayhew and his brother, Jonathan, of Chilmark - were engaged in deep-sea dragging.

The disappearance of cod from Vineyard waters also reflects a decline throughout Massachusetts coastal waters. State fisheries officials say relatively few cod are caught these days within the three-mile state limit. Even Massachusetts draggers that head to Georges Bank, a once-plentiful source of cod, find few of the fish there.

A symbol of the cod hangs in the visitors gallery of the House of Representatives in the State House in Boston.

The Sacred Cod is a solid piece of pine four feet, 11 inches in length and carved in the shape of the fish.

State Rep. Eric T. Turkington, who represents the Vineyard, Nantucket and part of Cape Cod, said he sees the carving every day when he goes to work.

"It was put up in 1798 as a symbol of two major economic resources in Massachusetts, our wood products and our fisheries," Mr. Turkington said. "At the time it was put up there as a sign of our state's great natural resource. That was the economic driver of the commonwealth and it symbolized prosperity." He concluded:

"Today, it is now a symbol of what appears to be disappearing. And that is a shame."