A century ago Circuit avenue in Oak Bluffs was a heady combination of sights, sounds and smells in the summertime. Exotic souvenirs, local produce and colorful parades were a visual delight. The sound of clattering hoofbeats contrasted with the sputtering of early automobiles. The aroma of spices from all over the world blended with the smell of fresh fruits and recently caught fish.
Commercial establishments lined both sides of the street from Lake avenue to Narragansett avenue. The majority of the frame structures were built in the last half of the 19th century. Some had false fronts to make them appear larger; many had balconies, porches and mansard roofs. Vibrant colors, contrasting trim and jigsaw details made these buildings come alive.
Both local vendors and merchants from other parts of the country competed for the summer trade. Some lived above their shops or boarded at one of the many hotels on the avenue. Others lived on nearby Kennebec avenue or elsewhere on the Island.
Competition was also intense among the numerous souvenir shops and among the postcard publishers, whose cards the shops carried. The Rotograph Company of New York city, Thomson & Thomson, and the Metropolitan News Company, both of Boston, were examples of just some of the publishers. Local Oak Bluffs resident John N. Chamberlain, photographer and postcard publisher, was responsible for capturing some of the most memorable Circuit avenue images.
The beginning of Circuit at Lake avenue is the focus of one Thomson & Thomson card. A tannery shop on the right side of the street has an eye-catching bicycle advertisement painted on the side of its building. In a later card it was replaced with the words “automobile gasoline.” A.R. Norton’s Boarding and Livery Stable was housed in the adjacent building, later Sea View Garage.
Island House, “a favorite hotel for those who visit the Island on business,” occupies a prominent position in the scene. The hotel’s proprietor, C.P. Hayden, published postcards advertising the four-story hostelry.
The Civil War Monument, located at that time in Farland Square on Lake avenue, is pictured in several of these cards. The soldier, colored white, is seen against a background of predominantly red-roofed, ochre-colored buildings in one card. In another, the bronze-colored statue stands before a more somber background of grey-toned architecture. Since the publishers chose the colors arbitrarily, neither view may be accurate.
A sepia-toned Chamberlain postcard, published in 1908, affords a sweeping view of the streetscape between Island House and the Arcade building. Pedestrians, delivery wagons, early autos, horses and carriages share the rain-soaked avenue with an absence of curbs, sidewalks and defined parking spaces.
Just past Island House was a rival hotel, Cottage City House, with a sign advertising “shore dinners.” One of the avenue’s major attractions, Darling’s, is nearby. Clerks, positioned behind a long counter in front of the shop, are waiting to sell salt water taffy, popcorn bars, or even “potato chips fried in olive oil” to eager customers of all ages.
Between Darling’s and the Arcade building were a variety of vendors. Flags with colorful dragons flew from the Mattar’s “fancy goods” shop. Saleem and Meek Mattar, from Hot Springs, Ark., were known for their lively evening auctions. They, like Darling’s, were in business on the Island for 30 years or more.
On the opposite side of Circuit avenue, the first structure, with its Asian-inspired roof line, was built in the late 19th century, probably for Macy’s, a purveyor of Asian artifacts. The store specialized in Chinese goods, such as lanterns and screens, and also sold photographs and postcards. Arthur H. Macy lived on nearby Kennebec avenue. At other times his business enterprise appeared on Oak Bluffs avenue and in the Herald building on Circuit avenue. Dawson’s Lunch Room replaced Macy’s sometime in the early 1900s.
The Globe Fish Market next door was constructed for its owner, Ernest H. Pease. In earlier years the market was next to the Wesley Hotel and in later years near the Island House. Mr. Pease also owned a business in Edgartown.
The Vineyard Hotel, in a structure originally built in the 1880s, dominates this side of the avenue in these postcards. “Nearest hotel to steamboat landing” and “open all year” proclaimed its advertisements. At least one photographer captured the street scene from its rooftop viewing area with resulting photos and postcards.
Between the Vineyard Hotel and the Pawnee House, at the corner of Circuit and Park avenues, were express companies, the police headquarters, and Martha’s Vineyard Telegraph.
The Pawnee House marked the end of Circuit avenue’s first block. Built in the 1870s, it was one of the earliest and largest hostelries on the street and the subject of numerous postcards. Its extensive second-floor porch provided an ideal spot for visitors to observe activity on the avenue below. At one point, Pawnee was spelled out in large letters on the building’s mansard roof.
Next week in the Gazette, a companion piece will describe other postcard views taken on and near Circuit avenue in Oak Bluffs a century ago.
Pat Rodgers, of Edgartown and Cambridge, contributes occasional historical columns to the Vineyard Gazette.