If you had walked the shoreline of the Vineyard between roughly 1870 and the middle 1930s — especially the muscular, rocky north shore from Lambert’s Cove west to Gay Head — you would have seen something there’s absolutely no sign of today: row after row of wooden stakes stretching up to 100 feet outward from the beach into Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds.
And every day but Sunday, the Sabbath, you’d have also seen men in dories hauling heavy lines and nets to the tops of those stakes and scooping thousands of fish into their boats.
It was called trap fishing, and it vanished from the Island as a business more than 70 years ago. But now there is a movie, just over six minutes long, showing men departing the fishing village of Menemsha and hauling trap just off the Aquinnah shoreline back in 1930 or perhaps 1931.
The film, belonging to Edith Potter of Chappaquiddick and edited for viewing on the Gazette website by filmmaker John Wilson, adds to a slender photographic record of a type of fishing that only a few on Martha’s Vineyard remember today, and fewer still ever practiced with their fishermen parents when they were still youngsters seven decades ago.
The film gives us waterborne motion pictures of Menemsha before it was swept away by the flooding hurricane of 1938, as well as sequences showing William S. Tilton, a famed Menemsha whaler, merchant sailor, chantey man and yarn-spinner, working a trap in vigorous old age. Gay Headers — vaguely remembered by those viewing the film 83 years later, their names unhappily forgotten — transit the screen, and one obstinate fisherman, also uncertainly recalled, repeatedly thumbs his nose at the cameraman.
We also see the co-owner of the trap, Robert N. Flanders Sr., who was admired in Menemsha for his skills on the water and friendliness ashore, and possibly Frank Smalley, a Wampanoag from Gay Head (now Aquinnah), who came close to being one of the few Native Americans anywhere to command a whaling vessel.
The Gazette presents the movie, and what’s known about it in modern times, as part of an open-ended initiative to find, transfer, preserve, archive and introduce old films of the Vineyard to a modern-day audience — home movies, documentaries, travelogues and commercial films that might otherwise be lost to Island history.
This trap-fishing footage — silent, shot in 16-millimeter and professionally digitized by Art Donahue of Franklin — is the second excerpt to come from a rack of family films belonging to Mrs. Potter, the oldest of them shot by her father, Charles A. Welch, a Chappy summer resident, or one of his associates.
The film shows four men sailing from Menemsha and at least four more men and women working or visiting a Vineyard Sound trap belonging to Mr. Flanders and Donald R. Campbell, probably in the summer of 1930.
The number of people on scene as well as the fact that a young girl and two women watch — one of them is Mr. Flanders’s wife, Gladys — suggests to veteran Menemsha fishermen Everett Poole, Jimmy Morgan and Louis S. Larsen, all of whom watched the movie, that this particular expedition was set up rather ceremoniously for the camera.
“Definitely this thing was staged,” said Mr. Poole. “They wouldn’t have this many guys working. Three men at the most.”
Even so, the movie offers a technical record of how Island men hauled trap more than 80 years ago and leaves the Vineyard a mesmerizing set of moving images of a place (antediluvian Menemsha), a calling (trap fishing) and fishermen (still personally remembered by some today) who until now were only known through postcards and photographs kept mostly in Island archives.
The untitled film shows the four men motoring out of Menemsha Basin in a skiff, the old, lost waterfront slipping by to the right. Mr. Poole recognized the flat-roofed boathouse of his father Donald LeMar Poole, a swordfisherman and draggerman. One building beyond, he also identified the two-story, peak-roofed boathouse and catboat Anna W. that belonged to his lobsterman grandfather Everett Anderson Poole.
Three of the men dress in coveralls, sweaters, coats and caps. But one bespectacled fellow, prominently featured but as yet unknown, wears a suit and fedora but no tie. Among the crew is trap co-owner Bob Flanders Sr., his cap pulled low, his chin dimpled, his smile quick but sometimes a bit self-conscious on camera.
“He never had a bad day in his life, I don’t think,” recalled Louis Larsen, watching the movie in his Chilmark kitchen. “Always cheered you up.” Among other virtues, Mr. Flanders could repair anything with anything. “Oh, God, it was never a problem to him. If he blew a connecting rod or a bearing or something, he’d take a tin can, hammer it out, and put it back in there. ‘That’ll be all right,’ he’d say. ‘It’ll be all right.’”
The intrepid Vineyard trap fisherman set his gear on the water before the wild pear bloomed, in time to catch the first run of scup. But before he could trap and market his daily catch, he faced tasks most of us would find defeating, but which old accounts declare he bore with a sense of mission and cheer.
In spring the trap fisherman cut down 30 or 40 trees measuring at least 10 inches at the base, logged them into stakes measuring up to 55 feet long, barked and sharpened the ends of each and pile-drove and anchored them into the bottom using a scow (one of which is seen in the film). From these he hung his blocks, lines and nets. He contended every day with strong tides sweeping over shoals, as well as the threat of damage to stakes and nets from gales, passing schooners, fishing boats and even cruising whales and marauding sharks.
Through the season he repaired and changed his nets often, tending them all by hand. “That’s where Campbell and Flanders kept a lot of their twine [netting],” said Jimmy Morgan, who saw the film in his Menemsha home. He nodded down the hill toward the village. “They worked on the field right where the Coast Guard station is. In them days, they had cotton twine and they had to be [mended and] tarred.”
It’s unclear when trap fishing as practiced in the film took hold on the Vineyard. A Gazette account from 1871 implies that even then the enterprise was an old and effective one: “Since [the introduction of traps] along this coast,” the story says, “the sight of scup, tautaug and blackfish in our harbor is as rare as silver and gold money.”
Gazette histories recount how buyers from the Fulton Fish Market traveled to the Island to buy from trap fishermen, taking “the mail-stage to Chilmark every summer night and frequently through the day. From Eliot Mayhew’s general store, they would telephone New York and secure quotations, and would notify the fishermen when to ship and how much tonnage could be handled. Catboats carried the bulk of these fish to the shipping points, the principal one of which was New Bedford.”
Mr. Campbell and Mr. Flanders owned several traps individually and together. The rig seen in the film was likely the westernmost of all the traps set on Vineyard Sound, which would put it near Pilot’s Landing. We see the distant Gay Head light and keeper’s house to one side of the barren headland and the former Gay Head Life-Saving Station to the other. For a tantalizing moment, we glimpse the hint of a featureless bluff that, around a corner and beyond sight, soon rises and evolves into the Gay Head Cliffs.
Here we also get our first sense of the complexity of the trap, at once baffling and yet also somehow orderly to the novice eye.
From its shape, the Campbell and Flanders setup looks like what was known as a round trap. Off-camera, a huge net called a leader ran along a row of stakes from the beach out to where the fishermen bob in dories on the trap.
Fish schooling along the shoreline, usually at night, ran into the leader and invariably turned seaward, finning along the net until they reached a 60-foot-wide gateway called the heart of the trap. The heart funneled the fish through a “door” into the body of the trap. Corralled there and generally baffled by the design, the fish circled existentially until the fishermen arrived in the morning, raised the netted floor of the trap and ladled the catch into a dory or workboat.
In this film, the principle workboat looks almost comically beamy. Menemsha fishermen called it the Bathtub and thought it the ugliest vessel in the village. Jim Look built it for his brother Daniel, and it was the first boat in Menemsha with a motor to help haul traps. At several points, the fishermen can be seen scooping nets full of live whiting — a tasty fish still found around the Island today — into the wells of the Bathtub.
No one who has seen the movie could identify Mr. Flanders’s partner, Donald Campbell, a West Tisbury native who moved each summer with his wife Elizabeth to Creek Hill in Menemsha. Most recall Mr. Campbell as a diligent trap fisherman, but what everyone mentions more than 80 years later is how he and Elizabeth were seared by the death of their son Paul, lost when his eastern-rigged fishing boat, the Little David, burned and sank off Block Island in June of 1945. The couple had no other children.
And all give lively accounts of William Tilton, seen momentarily working on the trap and then in conversation while sailing home with a man June Manning of Aquinnah thinks might be her great-great uncle, Samuel Frank Smalley.
Mr. Tilton — tall, rangy and apple-cheeked — was the oldest in a roistering clan of mostly seafaring brothers, all born on Tea Lane in Chilmark. He sailed on one whaling voyage, became a merchant sailor, and when the rest of his crew on a brig died of yellow fever off the mouth of the Niger River, he and the captain sailed her home to Liverpool entirely on their own.
“Forty-five days from Lagos to the English Channel, cracking on all sail when the winds were light, and dragging them when it breezed for lack of crew to take them in,” reported the Gazette in 1925. “‘I saw the lee rail level with the water many times on that passage,’ says Mr. Tilton, ‘and I was soaking for three weeks.’”
Ashore and living at the foot of Creek Hill, Mr. Tilton was regarded as the last seagoing chantey man on Martha’s Vineyard. He was also Jimmy Morgan’s step-grandfather.
“He’d sit on the porch there, and some of the summer people would go by and ask him if he’d sing them a song,” Mr. Morgan said. “Some of them songs weren’t fit for other than sailors to hear. My grandmother would come out and give him hell: ‘Bill, stop singing them awful songs!’” Everett Poole remembers that he and his young friends would stop by and implore Mr. Tilton to move his kitchen table around like a ouija board, a captivating talent. The children would flee when Mr. Tilton finished, barking at them, “Now git!”
If the balding, heavyset man with whom Mr. Tilton chats on the cruise back to Menemsha really is Frank Smalley of Gay Head, then we’re seeing yet another whaleman, a Wampanoag whose first voyage began when he was 16 and lasted four years. He became a boatsteerer (harpooner) in the Bering Sea, rose to the position of first mate and then was offered a ship of his own — “a distinction that very few Indians have ever gained,” a Gazette profile in 1932 said.
But Mr. Smalley declined the offer and instead went to Nantucket where he joined the U.S. Life-Saving Service, a forerunner of the Coast Guard. While he and his fellow crewmen were launching a surfboat from the beach to go to a wreck during a storm, sand and pebbles blasted his face so severely that he lost an eye.
Why did Charlie Welch and perhaps others decide to travel across the Vineyard, from Chappaquiddick over rough roads to Menemsha, to shoot this film? By 1930 it had been clear for at least 10 years that trap fishing was on the way out. And Mr. Welch, an adventurer who loved fishing and hunting and the outdoors generally, probably realized he was running out of chances to capture it on film.
Mr. Poole, Mr. Morgan and Mr. Larsen all deny that the ranks of traps contributed significantly to any collapse in the near-shore fishing stocks then or now. But by the end of the 1930s too few scup, squeteague and other prized fish remained to make the difficult business of trap fishing pay.
Norman Benson of Lambert’s Cove and his son Franklin hauled the last Vineyard trap in 1941 and the last trap anywhere in commonwealth waters — a rig at Quissett, partially subsidized by the Marine Biological Laboratory of Woods Hole, which regularly bought some of his live catch to study — in 1964.
“Wherever trap fishermen have made their bases in years gone by, traces may still be found,” wrote Joseph Chase Allen of the Gazette upon Captain Benson’s retirement that year. “Drifted sand covers some of their abandoned spiles. Iron fittings of various sorts come to light at times, following a gale which brings heavy surf. Even the casks, which they set in the springs [that] boil out of the beaches in order to have a supply of drinking water, occasionally come to light near some old landing.
“Now, the final chapter has been written, pertaining to a brave life, led by lusty men of great strength and skill. Will this industry ever revive? The old-timers who remember the heyday, through which Captain Benson has lived and made his way, will wonder.”
In addition to those named in the story, sources include Herschel West, Marguerite Cottle, Alan Wilder, Brian Flanders, Barbara Fenner, Frank Fenner, Merrily Fenner, S. Bailey Norton, members of the Chilmark Historical Commission and others who wished to remain unnamed. Those who want to contribute old Island films to the Historic Movies of Martha’s Vineyard project, or who have questions about it, should contact Tom Dunlop at firstname.lastname@example.org.