From a 1932 Gazette:
To those who would look intelligently upon the distant past of Martha’s Vineyard, an authority to be commended is Charles H. Brown, Vineyard Haven attorney at law. A Vineyarder of a Vineyard family, Mr. Brown was, nevertheless, born in Charlestown, Mass., but, coming to the Island at the age of six months, he may justly claim the Vineyard as his only home. His father was a physician who practiced on the Vineyard.
Mr. Brown’s boyhood was spent almost entirely on the Vineyard and his reminiscences date from childhood, when he played about the village streets or rode over the Island with his father as the latter attended his patients. Much of his knowledge of Island lore is due to the interest of his father, who accumulated a vast store of information which he passed on to his son in the form of stories and anecdotes.
His grandfather’s home, the residence of Capt. Charles Smith, stood on the site of Lane’s block. It was a large structure, which had once been a tavern, with no less than seventeen rooms, three chimneys and thirteen fireplaces and two brick ovens.
There were wrecks aplenty in those days when shipping filled the harbor. Many of the wrecks were brought alongside the dock for repairs or to discharge cargo. Molasses casks, from which the contents had leaked, were very commonly found there and these were eagerly sought by the boys who knew that the molasses sugar would be unharmed inside. Many a feast have they had on the old wharf, and many a small boy went home with hair and clothing a sticky mass of sugar, caused by his small bulk toppling inside the cask as he endeavored to secure his share of the sweets.
Half the male population of the village were interested in wrecks and the salvaging of cargo. Whenever there was a storm, these wreckers could be found grouped in the lee of the buildings along the shore and watching the anchored vessels in the harbor. No one wanted men’s lives endangered or property lost, but they were keenly alert for business, nevertheless. On one occasion a schooner began to drag her anchors far down the harbor and the watchers realized she was doomed to strike somewhere on the beach. One pious Baptist wrecker was pacing nervously back and forth as he watched. Finally his impatience burst forth: “How damned slow she moves!”
Many of these men were pilots and someone with a gift for rhyming fashioned courses, distances, holding grounds and ranges into verse. The pilots memorized these verses doubtless as an aid in the practice of their calling, and Mr. Brown recalls snatches of the detailed sailing directions. Chief among the pilot rhymsters was Capt. Samuel Daggett, who was famous, although he never received just credit for his brilliance. Captain Daggett probably composed most of the rhymes on piloting. His chief other work was a book on navigation which he had published in a limited edition. Captains have told Mr. Brown that they preferred this book to the famous Bowditch. Unfortunately there are no copies of the book known to be in existence.
Not all of Mr. Brown’s recollections are of Vineyard Haven. One amusing story is of an eccentric elderly man whose house had fallen into a state of disrepair. A visitor calling at the house one day during a rainstorm had difficulty in locating the householder. He was finally discovered inside an old-fashioned brick oven. In explanation he said that his roof leaked and wishing to keep dry and comfortable he had crawled into the oven.
Not so many generations ago residents of all Island towns were assessed parish taxes in addition to other taxes, the same being applied to the support of the churches. A distant relative of Mr. Brown’s came home from a sea voyage to be visited by the sheriff. “I have a bill here for four years parish taxes,” explained the officer.
“But I have been at sea for four years, why should I pay it? Besides what church is it for?”
Explanations were duly made, and the sailor declared that he did not attend that church, nor did he care to and protested against paying the bill. But the sheriff was adamant. “It must be paid or I will have to put you in jail,” he said.
“Lock me up then,” was the answer.
Having been duly incarcerated in the county jail, the prisoner called the jailer to him. “Look here,” he said, “I’ve been away at sea for several years and have just returned. A great many of my friends would like to see me and celebrate a little. I can’t go to them, but why can’t I get a little rum and a few other things and have them come here?”
This seemed reasonable to the jailer, who allowed the prisoner to go down town and purchase his supplies, after which there was a joyous gathering in the jail that lasted until far, far into the night. For some unknown reason the sailor was released the next day and did not have to pay the parish tax after all.
Compiled by Cynthia Meisner