An Island Apart

From the Gazette edition of October 9, 1959:

Joseph E. Howes of West Tisbury visited Tarpaulin Cove, Naushon Island, a couple of weeks ago. Taken to the island aboard the party boat of his neighbor, Nelson Bryant, Mr. Howes visited the scene of his youth for the first time since he left it sixty-five years ago.

Mr. Howes went to the island with his parents at the age of 14 and lived at the cove until he was 20. His father, Capt. Sparrow Howes, was associated with the place, and Mr. Howes’ brother, Ensign, was customs officer, proprietor of a store, and eventually succeeded in having a post office established there, of which he was the postmaster. In addition to the handling of these varied businesses, the Howes family operated a farm, keeping a number of cattle and five horses.

It was a busy place in those days, with large fleets of sailing vessels seeking shelter in the cove and with the men landing for various purposes. The present lighthouse was built during this period, and Mr. Howes and his relatives hauled the bricks for this structure from the landing place.

Returning to the cove after sixty-five years, Mr. Howes was struck by the change, and particularly with the desolation which surrounds the once busy roadstead and landing. Yet there were things which had changed little. The store-room in the old house still contains the counter, shelving, and even the scales used sixty-five years ago.

But the vessels are no more, the vast sheep flocks have vanished, and the fields have been untilled for many years. Virtual desertion of the cove came about through the abolition of the custom house, which was followed by the rapid decline of the coasting trade under sail. But the memories of bold days persist, though little more remains than the empty store, the lighthouse and some brush-covered graves of unfortunates who made their final landing at this place.

Urged to reminisce, Mr. Howes had many a tale to relate of his experience on Naushon.

It was Capt. David Beetle, customs officer at the cove, working under directions from the customs house in Edgartown, who first employed Ensign Howes and a few months later decided to resign, whereupon young Howes inherited the position. The situation was unique. He leased the farm from John Forbes, owner of the island, paying his rent in wool. He could work the farm, and there was a very steady demand for meat, vegetables and milk from the vessels that stopped there. Such was the demand that they sold eighty per cent of the milk from a sizable herd of cows.

The officer set the weather signals, flags by day and lanterns by night, worked on the roads and other tasks for Mr. Forbes. He also reported daily on the vessels taking shelter, and whenever there were vessels to report, he received a day’s pay. It may thus be seen that he was a busy man and being single, Ensign Howes invited his father and family to join him on Naushon, which they did.

Mr. Howes’ reminiscences begin at this point. He helped on the farm, and in the boats, for daily communication with Woods Hole was maintained for most of the year. He worked at various odd jobs for Mr. Forbes, earning extra money, and he became endeared to his employer because the latter took pains to see that he had these opportunities to earn.

His experiences were varied and sometimes shocking. He drove the cows to pasture and walked the beach to look for anything landed by the tide which might be of value. Something lifted from the waves one morning, waving or beckoning, and when he waded in to see what it might be, found that it was the arm of a drowned man. He landed the body, mooring it to a rock because he could not haul it above the tide. The Howes family learned of the loss of a Gay Head man, Fred Devine, while fishing and a check-up on description made it clear that it was Mr. Devine’s body which had been found. A group of men from Gay Head came, “the biggest men I had ever seen,” he says and took Mr. Devine home for burial.

Mr. Howes remembers a house, situated on what was known as the “Wilson lot,” being taken down and moved to Edgartown, where it was rebuilt and still stands on Fuller street. It was moved aboard the schooner Glide, Capt. John Forman, who owned the house for many years.

Mr. Howes tells of traditions that sprang up around the French Watering Place, and other landmarks of the Revolution. For he knows well of the ancient breastworks on the west, and the old fort on the east, the guns of which commanded the ship channel in that war.

Fifty to one hundred vessels laid in the cove at times, and in summer a large fleet of hand-liners, small boats, also made port there, besides a number of yachts owned by the Forbes family and others, which came to the cove to remain for varying periods. Among the yacht owners were the famous “Smith Brothers” whose cough drops are still popular.

Compiled by Cynthia Meisner