From the September 5, 1980 edition of the Vineyard Gazette by Joseph Chase Allen:

The name of Mayhew is prominent in all Island annals: in politics, industry, religion and virtually all pursuits. If there has been nothing written or printed about the humorist of his generation, it has not been because of any shortcoming on the part of James Mayhew, best known in his day as “Powder Jim.”

His nickname came about through his exploits with the fowling piece and also because he was a “hard rock” man and used blasting powder on occasion.

To begin with, Powder Jim was a fisherman of great skill who followed the tides with profit during the proper seasons. He is credited with building boats, repairing others, and as a boatman himself, he rated above average.

Because of his work as a hard rock man, the Island is dotted with stone fences and gateposts that were split by his capable hands. There are even large, low doorsteps which he fashioned.

As a trickster of note, he found ways and means of balancing the score if anyone tried to take advantage of him. In all his ways and works he loved to reply to queries and comments in rhymed couplets, and he held the inquisitive person in deep disgust. From these causes there have arisen a string of anecdotes that would fill a volume. A few of them, and an explanation of them, will be set forth here.

During the fishing season, particularly in warm weather, Powder Jim made his headquarters in a tiny shanty in the vicinity of Menemsha Creek.

Jim was advanced in age at the time mentioned, and there were youthful sprouts who thought it great sport to play tricks on old Jim. They proposed to enter his shanty, which was never locked, and mess things up a little - not vandalism — but enough to arouse the old man’s temper.

Such plans were never attempted a second time. Powder Jim arranged booby traps which involved various items, including a shotgun. No one ever knew exactly how it was rigged, nor what it might do, so they left the man entirely alone.

All that anyone would ever say was Jim had been seen opening his shanty door and something of menacing appearance met him in the doorway. Jim anticipated such a reception and suffered no injury or scathe, but the stranger might have fared differently and the youths would take no chances.

In those days the menhaden fishermen were numerous and they would take advantage of the hand line fishermen who “chummed up” a school of mackerel with ground bait which made a slick on the water. The pohie boat, which was a purse seiner, would set his net around the school and the boat as well, purse in and bail out the fish and laugh at the lone boatman who was out of luck.

Powder Jim endured this at least once, and then he made an iron centerboard for his boat and ground the forward edge razor sharp. Then he went out to fish and sure enough a seiner set around his boat.

Jim laid quietly until the fish were well bunched up and then he bailed as many as he well would hold. Then setting his sail, he stood for the cork line of the seine where his sharp centerboard cut through the rope and the net as well. As the seiners hauled, the net split deeper and deeper and the fish escaped. This was the end of such tactics on the part of the seiners. Powder Jim chuckled when he described this passage, being a humorist through and through.

Because of his skill with the tools of a rock man, there have always been people who have suspected that the so-called rune stone on Nomans Land may well have been cut by Powder Jim. For many years after the codfish fleet had forsaken Nomans, there were mooring stones and ballast rocks around the shores with initials cut in them: smooth, well-balanced lettering, the work of Powder Jim. Why not runes or an imitation of the same?

At the blacksmith shop at Menemsha Crossroads, Powder Jim displayed a tin can filled with very fine scouring sand. So fine that it would not scratch, he said. There was a man noted for his inquisitiveness who remarked about the sand. He expressed the wish that he might get some and asked where it was found, “You know where Stonewall Beach is?” queried Jim. “Why yes!” replied the inquisitive one.

“Well it came a long way from there,” said Jim. There were no more questions.

Of the many rhymes he made, the majority of them have been lost. Some were just rhyming comments on the weather for example:

“The crow riz up and gave a yell,
He liked the weather very well.
But when he started for the norrad,
He had to put his best wing forrad.”

There was another hard rock man on the Island in the days of Powder Jim and the atmosphere between the two was not congenial, especially on the part of the other rock man. But Powder Jim seemed to bear no malice, but rather took things as a matter of course. He said:

“Two of a trade will never agree,

That’s why Ephraim won’t speak to me!”

Compiled by Hilary Wall