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Library - Martha's Vineyard

Memories of Harthaven

By Sam Hart Low

My first memory of the Vineyard is of the 1944 hurricane when many relatives came to our house, deep in the woods, for refuge. I was two years old. I remember the hurricane because my parents gave me a flashlight for amusement. I shined it on the faces of our guests and was amazed at the emotion there - the first time I saw adults display fear.

In the woods, where I lived with my parents, tall pines were sheathed in bark like the skin of alligators, their high branches exploding in the sunlight. Amidst the pines, we lived in a "gingerbread house" that came from the campgrounds where my father and mother and their artist friends often painted. They found the house in August, 1938, during the depression. It was tiny. It had a "for sale" sign on it. The owner, Mrs. Alice B. Burns, had moved to Cape Cod. The price was one hundred dollars.

"What shall we do with the furniture in it?" my parents asked Mrs. Burns. "Keep it," was the response.

I was told they moved the house from Oak Bluffs to Harthaven with a team of oxen. If you know where to look, you can still find a tiny empty lot where the "gingerbread house" used to be.

When I was seven, I walked barefoot down the sand road in front of our house and then along the tarred part in front of Ted Harts' house. The road was nubbled with round smooth stones, and warm - and then I crossed the highway (with almost no traffic so it was safe for kids) and went to the harbor in the bracing air and out onto the gray planks of the docks.

I Netted crabs in the morning, starting at the Young's dock and working south to the Vibberts' - six docks, all owned by relatives - but Stan Hart's was the best because there were so many fish heads on the bottom there to attract crabs (Stan was a great fisherman). Then I sold them house to house - ten cents each, twenty-five for soft-shells.

I remember Stan, early in the morning, opening up his boathouse - dew still clinging to the door and inside the smell of oil, varnish, paint and manila rope neatly hanging on pegs. I remember Stan's belt cinched up around his belly, his glasses' case attached to it, marlin looped around the belt and descending into a pocket where it was attached to a knife with many folding blades.

I remember rowing a square-stern Old Town canoe between the jetties to "Louise's Beach" nestled against the north breakwater where the ocean was deep and the sand smooth; following my father along the beach as he hunted boat-shells and periwinkles and - horror of horrors - ate them; lying on the curving floor of a canoe on a still summer afternoon and listening to the lapping of water; digging clams in front of the Vibberts' house.

My dad taught me to row a skiff backwards, making no noise, as he speared eels in the harbor on calm nights.

"No sound except the water dripping from the oars," he said.

Then a sharp splash as the spear went down and the eel slithering along the bottom of the boat. I learned to put my heels up on the gunwales and continue to row. Walter Korder, an artist who painted murals with my father, went ass over teakettle on our porch when the pliers he was using to skin an eel lost their grip. A conger eel that looked dead bit my father's wrist and we employed two screw drivers to pry it loose.

My father stretched a net across the harbor entrance at night and found big holes when he hauled it the next morning. Sharks, probably, or big stripers. Beneath its placid surface, the harbor was wild.

The people who settled Harthaven first came down to the Vineyard in the 1870s from the Hardware Capital of the World. The Hardware Capital was New Britain Connecticut, so named because industries like Corbin Lock, Russel, Erwin and Company, North and Judd Manufacturing, Landers, Frary and Clark and the Stanley Rule and Level Company (later Stanley Works) sent tall blackened chimneys into the air over the growing town where a population of mostly immigrant labor produced such things as hinges, hammers and locks.

"These companies," historian Alfred Andrews wrote in 1867, "are said to have indirectly coined money during the Civil War and all with their perfected machinery are able to compete in most articles of hardware with the old establishments and cheap labor of England."

One of the captains of this thriving industry was my great grandfather, William H. Hart, president of Stanley Works. He was an inventive man, with many patents to his name. He is credited (at least within the family) with developing the first American cold rolling process for manufacturing steel.

In 1867, George W. Landers may have been the first hardware capitalist to buy a lot in Oak Bluffs, at least that's what the records in the Duke's County Courthouse say. Philip Corbin came down in 1868 and erected the turreted Victorian mansion, the one renovated about ten years ago that overlooks the park and bandstand. In 1871, William Hart arrived in Oak Bluffs and bought five lots from the Land and Wharf Company on Penacock Avenue and three on Massasoit Avenue which he combined to provide an ample family compound. In 1873, he bought three more lots on Pequot Avenue. He was looking ahead.

William and his wife Martha had five children - George, Howard, Edward, Maxwell, Walter (my grandfather) and Martha. For more than 40 years the family summered in Oak Bluffs, but in 1911 William began buying up land to the south of Farm Pond, eventually acquiring property that extended all the way from the end of the Oak Bluffs seawall to the second inlet into Sengekontacket Pond. He bought land from mostly old time Vineyarders such as Harry P. Kent, John H. Anderson, Manuel S. de Bettencourt, Charles T. Luce, John C. Hamblin, Susan F. Norton, Mary A. Beetle, Michael J. Keegan and Susan R. Beetle. This was the beginning of a family settlement soon to be called Harthaven.

My great grandfather laid out lots and formed a company - Hart Realty - to manage and sell them. The community filled out. Martha Hart married Ethelbert Allen Moore and their house was built pretty much side-by-side with those of Howard, Walter, Edward and George. Children came along, then grandchildren. In 1942, it was my turn.

Every day when the weather permitted, my grandfather, Walter Hart, descended from his house fronting the harbor to the dock where he kept his catboat - Sea Pup. He dressed for a sail in a blue denim jacket, blue pants and a floppy white golfer's hat. Sailing in the Sea Pup as a "cabin boy," I served ginger ale and ritz crackers smeared with peanut butter to my grandfather and my grandmother and, often, to a maiden aunt who we called "Bea".

I remember my father and his "artists' group" gathering at the "Flea Bag" (Stan Hart's guest house) in the early morning when dark shadows splayed out from pine trees and scrub oak. They joked and grumbled. They smelled of cigars and garlicky food and, usually, of liquor and fish. By seven or so, they were gone to places all over the island that my father had scouted in his many summers on Martha's Vineyard. Sometimes I went with them.

Menemsha was a favorite painting spot. At the end of rickety piers fishing craft with high bows and low sterns were moored. I remember one lean man, dressed in hipboots from which a blue work shirt emerged, his face grizzled with beard, who greeted my father with: "Well hello Sandy - is the sap still running?" The man was called Horsepower Mayhew. He was famous among the already legendary fisherfolk of Menemsha. Later, when I asked my father what Mr. Mayhew had meant by "sap," I received an evasive reply.

It was a time before the deluge of tourists and summer people and so the artists were welcomed by the men who labored in the tiny shacks at the head of each pier. It was a time when Martha's Vineyard seemed truly remote. None of my school chums, for example, had ever heard of it.

I once asked my father why he always painted sorry-looking dilapidated buildings. "Why don't you paint new ones?"

"Because old places are more beautiful," he told me. "They contain the memories of all the people who lived in them."

The artists were mostly professionals but they were occasionally joined by amateurs. The one I remember most was a man small in stature but large in muscle and character. A shock of red hair framed a face which displayed great sweeps of emotion - James Cagney, the actor. There was also Roland Winters, another actor, who often appeared in Charlie Chan movies. There was a writer whose work regularly appeared in The Reader's Digest, and there was the owner of a large department store in Hartford, Connecticut, who I knew only as "Mr. Allen."

In their forty or so years of visual explorations, the artists came back with scenes of beaches, boats, houses, lobster pots, gulls, fishermen... They painted in weather both angry and serene. At the end of their stay, they displayed their work on the porch of the Flea Bag. Most everyone in Harthaven came to drink gin and tonics and old-fashioneds and admire the paintings.

A lot of their paintings now hang on walls all over the island and in New Britain, a catalog of Martha's Vineyard in a time well before the flood of day-trippers and millionaires who brought mainland discriminations with them. You did not then identify yourself by what town you lived in, for example. You did not live in Oak Bluffs or Edgartown, although even then each town had its own cachet. You lived, simply, "on the Vineyard." The entire island was your community.

When it was time to learn to swim my father told me that his father had taught him by throwing him overboard and he guessed it was the "best way." But my mother had other ideas and taught me herself, from the beach, with patience.

We went up to the South Shore with the Moores in an old woody station wagon and dangled our feet off the tailgate, giddy with the motion of the flashing road beneath us and the exhaust from the old engine. We mostly had the beach to ourselves and stayed all day, cooking hot dogs for lunch.

When I was sixteen and we could drive, my cousin Ronnie Moore and I went to parties all over the island which was then a single teenage community. The parties were open to everyone and so they were huge, often a hundred kids or more.

I speared tautog with mask, fins and "arbalette" down at the old jetties - the ones that, today, Alison Shaw loves to photograph. The tautog appeared in a hole in the rocks, paused, then turned to go back in. That's when you speared them, right behind the eye.

To meet girls, I took a job writing the Gazette's "Harthaven column." There were many babysitters my age in those days and so I developed a keen journalistic interest in visitors with children. I met my wife Karin that way. She was sitting for the Donald Harts at the Crow's Nest, a complex of houses that starred out over a high bluff toward Nantucket. One steamy summer day I walked up there and knocked on the door. Karin appeared, obviously in a state of confusion.

"Are you the plumber?" she asked.

I considered an affirmative reply but I was only fourteen and it seemed doubtful that she would believe for long that I was a plumber.

"No," I said, "I'm the plumber's helper. He always sends me ahead to find out what's wrong." (I still think that was an inspired answer.)

What was wrong was obvious. Karin was standing ankle deep in soap suds hemorrhaging from a washing machine that had stopped responding to the off button. In an uncharacteristically intelligent response, I shut off the electricity at the fuse box. I was a hero. In our subsequent forty or so years of courtship and marriage I have been unable to repeat such an act of heroism, but she married me anyway.

I also wrote for the Gazette about diving on the Port Hunter (a freighter that sank off Hedge Fence Shoal with general cargo in 1918) and about finding other shipwrecks with friends from Oak Bluffs - Arnie Carr and the "Jones Boys," Dick and Wille. I didn't write about almost burning up our boat when we took white phosphorous off the Port Hunter and it ignited.

As a result of writing for the paper, I received my first (and only) angry words from my uncle Stan Hart. I had reported, in various Harthaven columns, about his running aground in the entrance to his own harbor and on the back of a whale; about trying to harpoon swordfish, missing, and fouling a propeller with the harpoon's rope. I wrote irreverent descriptions of cocktail hour aboard his boat - the Curlew. I referred to Stan's crew, my father among them, as "Harthaven's Katzenjammer kids."

Then one day, up at Stan's house, he hooked me with a cold stare.

"I don't EVER want to see my name again in that column of yours, do you hear me?"

It was my first experience with censorship and, for a moment, I considered discussing free press issues with Stan - but better judgement prevailed. I learned later that the boating crowd in Essex had become acquainted with my column and that when Stan cruised into Essex harbor that year, he was greeted with:

"Is that you Captain Hart? How did you manage to run aground in your own harbor? Look out for that shoal over there!" "Hit any more whales have you?" "How's the sword fishing been?"

I couldn't really blame him for being angry.

In another column I managed to set the jaws of yet another elder, a cousin, by referring to him as "Captain Ha-Ha" Russ Hart. This resulted in a number of letters-to-the-editor from Russ and his brother Pete. In one of them Russ took me to task by pointing out his vast seafaring experience:

"Breaking in on small sailboats at the age of 5 or 6, in the pond between Crows' Nest and the Vibberts' place," he wrote, "I early learned the finer points of dirty yachting and the art of treading water. I served an apprenticeship, working my way from first mate to able seaman, on Vineyard Fifteens and Eighteens under the harsh tutelage of such redoubtable captains as Al 'Whaddya mean, rocks? The chart shows 60 feet of water' Pease. I have a blue captain's hat with gold braid. Fifteen years ago, I could chart courses with precise, accurate speed, take azimuths, shoot the sun, and determine latitude and longitude, and correct compasses to within a degree. Today, I must confess, I chart courses slowly and inaccurately, have no idea what an azimuth is, can 'shoot the breeze' but not the sun, seldom know exactly where I am, consider my compass accurate if, on a cloudy day when I can't see the sun, it tells me 'North is roughly speaking over that way', and think that 'tide tables' are instructions as to the proper amount of detergent for various fabrics."

"Nevertheless, when a brilliant neuro-surgeon becomes, in time, a doddering, wheezing, incompetent old windbag who couldn't put on a Band-Aid without making a hash of it, people still call him 'doctor,' out of respect for the skill and knowledge he once possessed. So, young insolent pup, shall I continue to have my title In front of my name on my calling cards and stationary, and so I shall expect others to call me."

The dispute over the "Captain Ha-Ha" title continued for many weeks in the letters-to-the-editor section with non-Harthavenites joining in to condemn the letters as drivel and others approving the right of the Gazette to publish drivel. Eventually it all died down.

The mansion built by Harthaven's founder, William Hart, still stands at the head of a circular drive looking out with severe pomp over a sward of grass and, across the Beach Road, to the harbor. On September 17, 1914, a Vineyard Gazette reporter visited the new home and published a gushing report. "There is a prospect that more new houses will be built in the new "Hart Settlement" off the Beach Road," she wrote. "It was our privilege to be shown over the lovely estate and new summer residence of Mr. Wm. H. Hart one day last week. Here are all the latest modern improvements and conveniences. Electric bells and electric lights all over the house and on the spacious piazzas. The interior of the house is of hard wood, finished in natural color. Fine oriental rugs cover the floors and the furnishings and hangings are all in keeping. Mr. Hart has built a fine circular driveway made from the Beach Road up to and from his residence. This has been concreted. The house sets a long distance back from the road and is in the midst of groves of oaks and pines. …A fine view of the sound is seen from the house as well as the interior ponds upon which his land borders. …Mr. Hart has had broad roads cut through his land making a drive through the woods a great pleasure. There is no doubt but that this estate will be one of the beauty spots of the town in a few years."

On one late summer afternoon in about 1959, the circular driveway in front of this imposing mansion, now owned by the Moores, became a race track where we staged the "Grand Prix du Harthaven." We had flaggers at the corners to turn away traffic. We had Allen Moore in his Alfa Romeo Gulietta, Ron Moore in a 1933 Plymouth sedan, Birge Hewlett in a black MGA, Mark Donohue in a red Corvette and me in my parent's Volkswagen beetle. The Volkswagen did alright for a while because the track was so tight the other cars couldn't use their horsepower. But then, coming into the North Turn, I found Mark's Corvette on my bumper, overcooked the turn and took the "escape road" up toward the Moore's backporch. I hit the brakes but it was all sand and leaves and the car didn't seem to slow down at all. I almost destroyed the steps leading up to the porch from which Peggy Moore was watching the race. "Your eyes were as big as saucers," she later told me. I guess they were. The race was called soon thereafter and Mark was declared the winner. He would later go on to win, among other famous races, the Indianapolis 500. His brilliant career as a professional racer was cut short in a horrifying accident on a famous race track, driving a Porsche 917, the most powerful car of its day.

I have returned to Harthaven's tiny harbor on many different boats, in fair weather and foul, by day and by night, under sail and power… and each return has been different and each has been exhilarating. In the Puffin, a 28 foot sloop, you could try to run in under sail, but you had the engine running in case there was trouble making the turn. In my father's boat, the Dollop, you felt the heat coming up from the engine on a cold Fall day as you throttled back to take the entrance. If you had been fishing, you held up a number of fingers to correspond to your catch when Stan or my dad or Max Moore would ask to know. Or you held your hands palms upward which meant you had been "skunked." Homecoming in a boat is special everywhere, but coming back to our harbor always seemed a little better than anywhere else I have been. It still does.

The clambake was the BIG annual Harthaven event. Stan Hart had his company fabricate stainless steel bake boxes. Everyone gathered on Stan's lawn before the bake. Kids were allowed. We peeled potatoes, put streamers in cheese-cloth bags, cut up fish, shucked corn. There was music and laughter and much conversation.

Kids were not allowed at the clambake itself, however. You couldn't get in until you were eighteen, so it became a rite of passage. I was twelve when I learned why. That was about 1954, when the bake was held on the beach across the harbor from my grandparents' house (The Walter Harts). To get there, the adults were rowed across in skiffs by us kids. I had my Delano Sea Skiff, Ronnie Moore had his Skimmar and Pete Basset had a wonderfully strange craft fashioned cunningly by his father from strips of wood and tarpaper. I swear! His dad had made a framework of pine which he sheathed in tarpaper (of the kind shacks are made of). He gooped up the seams with more tar so they held out the water. Pete's boat had the advantage of being light and easy to row, but it looked god-awful.

Getting the guests over to the clambake went without incident. Then we waited to ferry them back. We waited for about four hours.

When our elders finally appeared on the dunes, the sun had begun to address the horizon. There was much laughter and merriment. There was singing and shouting. There was also a great deal of nautically improper behavior. Some adults would NOT SIT DOWN as we had all been taught to do in boats since babes. They stood up and waved and carried on. We took them across anyway.

As the afternoon lurched toward evening, the process became more perilous. One gentleman who insisted on standing toppled overboard, upsetting the boat which went down stern first amidst - and this was even more horrifying - gales of laughter. For a time we were able to reestablish a semblance of discipline by reminding our riders of the fate which had befallen their comrades.

It was near six o'clock when a particularly unruly lot called for a boat. It was Peter's turn. In retrospect, we should have known what was about to happen. From a near vantage point, I watched as Peter loaded.

"Step carefully, " he ordered, "do not step on the tar paper, only on the wooden framework. NOT ON THE TARPAPER, YOU WILL GO RIGHT THROUGH!"

They obeyed.

Peter shoved off and stroked for the opposing shore with an energy inspired by premonitions of disaster. Half-way across, a gentleman stood up to hail his wife.

"NOT ON THE TARPAPER," screamed Peter.

The man took a step toward the bow.

As in all disasters, what happened next seemed to occur in slow motion. The gentleman descended through the tarpaper, still standing, until all I could see above the gunwale was his head and shoulders, arms flailing.

"JEESSUUSS CHRIST!" he yelled.

I imagined that his feet must now be touching the bottom of the harbor and he might simply walk the boat to the opposing shore. But, unfortunately, the watertight integrity of Peter's craft had been broached catastrophically. Within seconds, all that remained were swimmers and floating pocket books.

A few days later we hauled Peter's craft out to deep water, filled it with stones, and buried it at sea. For a few years, I could find the outline of it on clear days but then, finally, it disappeared.

In 1964 my father died. Of him, James Cagney said, "he was a great artist but an even greater friend." A few months after the funeral, Stan Hart took me aside and said, "when they made him, they threw away the mold."

In the Fall of 1964, we laid his ashes in swirling currents off Cape Pogue.

I went away from the island for a while. I sailed the Pacific, courtesy of the U.S. Navy; visited my father's birthplace in Hawaii; dove as an archeologist on Byzantine and Roman shipwrecks in the Mediterranean; lived with Peruvian squatters and wrote a Ph.D. thesis about their lives; moved to Vermont, then Maine where I began my life with Karin. When Karin and I revisited the island in the mid-seventies, we found tour busses too big to negotiate eighteenth century streets; newcomers with overheated egos; houses out of scale with the land and our memories of it. For a time, we stayed away.

But Harthaven drew us back. I found my extended family - what Hawaiians call "ohana" - still in residence. My mother, now a year-round resident, had merged her life with those of the Abbes, Duttons, Bodkins, Harts, Lorentzs, Bamfords, Hansons, Moores, Peases, Vibberts, Youngs, Conlins and so many others. The place was thick with memories. Karin and I found ourselves visiting more often and staying longer.

In our absence, bass, bonito and blues continued to frequent the rips off the Pogue. Younger fishermen, risen from the ranks, had discovered their own secret fishing spots. The Harthaven community had filled out a bit. There were new people but they seemed to understand the legacy - perhaps better than I did.

Coming home from the sea, I now find the harbor peopled by friendly spirits. I see Curlew and Dollop tied up at Stan's dock. There is also Sea Pup, Stormy Petrel, Red Snapper, Windward II, Hart's Desire - and their captains. My grandparents still inhabit their house overlooking the harbor. Max Moore waves from his porch. Stan is in his boathouse, coiling rope. My father scales fish.

Now, as Karin and I contemplate moving permanently to the island, we find it a place that resonates with the lives of those who have gone on before us. The homes built by Harthaven's founding fathers and their ohana continue to embrace, as my father once put it, "the memories of all the people who have lived in them."

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