George Mathiesen Dies at Age 84

Vintner and Farmer Led Commission in Early Days

George H. Mathiesen, a well-known Vineyard figure who with his wife Catherine founded Chicama Vineyards in West Tisbury, the first bonded winery in the commonwealth and the first successful winery on the Atlantic coast, died Monday at the age of 84.


A retired broadcast executive who moved to the Vineyard in 1971, Mr. Mathiesen forged a life on the Vineyard as a farmer, family man, quiet conservationist and political leader. He was a charter member of the Martha's Vineyard Commission and served as chairman of the commission for a number of years. He also served as chairman of the board of directors at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital.

He and his wife built Chicama Vineyards from the ground up, clearing the land themselves.

"There are no vineyards of any size producing wine grapes in Massachusetts," he told the Vineyard Gazette in a 1972 interview. "So if we're successful it will be the first time since the late 1600s that they will be an important Massachusetts product."

Three years ago he told Hollis L. Engley in an interview with the Martha's Vineyard Magazine: "It's been hard. We've fought the deer, who love grapevines; and fought the frost, which can be deadly. You fight for recognition of your product . . . and it takes a long time to be good at what you do. There are a lot of hardships connected with it, but we're out the other side and indeed it is a success."

George Harry Mathiesen was born in Centerville, Calif., the son of George Washington and Luella Mathiesen.

Fascinated by radio and television, George went to work at KSFO in San Francisco as a transmission engineer. During World War II he served as a Chief Petty Officer in the United States Navy, focusing on radio and radar countermeasures. Stationed in England, Italy and Morocco, he surveyed the coasts of France and Italy, gathering information about German radar installations. He served on the USS Ancon during the invasion of Normandy on D-Day.

After the war, George was a research engineer at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. where he met Catherine Frances Ryan. They were married on Sept. 15, 1945.

George returned to San Francisco after the war where he was technical director at television station KPIX. In 1951, he was the chief engineer for the first live coast-to-coast broadcast of the Japanese Peace Conference. While at KPIX, he received an Emmy award for the first live telecast of open heart surgery and also for the news programs he later developed.

Fascinated by wine and grapes, George and Catherine and their six children moved to Martha's Vineyard in 1971 to start Chicama Vineyards, the first bonded winery in the commonwealth.

He loved the Vineyard and cared deeply about its future. He was elected as a member of the first Martha's Vineyard Commission in 1974. Records in the Vineyard Gazette show that he received 1,250 votes in the at-large election. He later became the second chairman of the commission. Mr. Mathiesen presided over the commission during a time of controversy and uncertainty in the aftermath of the furor over the Kennedy Bill, an unprecedented proposal for federal legislation to protect the two Islands. Developers had just begun to carve the Island into grid-style suburban communities, and the first commission had to feel its way amid much skepticism.

"Whatever else it has accomplished in its first two years, the Martha's Vineyard Commission, anyone can see, has nourished its critics," the Vineyard Gazette mused in an editorial in 1976.

Through it all, Mr. Mathiesen kept a steady hand on the tiller.

"He was a wonderful chairman. He seemed to just have a natural ability for it," said Edith W. Potter, a Chappaquiddick resident who served on the commission in the early years alongside Mr. Mathiesen. "I thought the world of him and I think he was very instrumental in getting the commission on its feet. Because he was quiet people responded to him. Those were the years that we were creating the districts of critical planning concern and it took a tremendous amount of work and he was very supportive of all the committees that were working so hard. When I look back now it is amazing what was accomplished, especially by a bunch of amateurs."

Mrs. Potter also recalled Mr. Mathiesen as a conservationist and farmer who loved to be out on his tractor.

"He loved the land around him and I think he did an awful lot for the Vineyard," she said.

In the Martha's Vineyard Magazine interview Mr. Mathiesen reflected on the subject of land use and conservation.

"We all want it to stay the same," he said. "We want it to be like it used to be, whatever that is. We all think, wouldn't it be nice if we could pass it on to future generations? And we know we can't."

Mr. Mathiesen is survived by his wife Catherine, his children Kris, Lynn, Paul, Mike, Tim and Sean; their partners Stewart, Alex, Dana, Robin, and Delphine; and his grandchildren Chance, Wyndham, Hugo, and Rosemary, and her partner Chris.

Donations in his name may be made to the Martha's Vineyard Hospital. A private service will be held at a later date.