Humor and history in curious roadside artifacts
Photo by Susan Safford
Nearly everywhere you drive on Martha's Vineyard, there are little things to see, some so small you might drive by without noticing. Some are meant to make you laugh; some are glimpses of Island history. Some are even both.
On the North Road, between Tea Lane and Tabor House Road in Chilmark, there is a gas pump. You can't buy gas there — it hasn't worked since the late 1950s — but it's real. Pat and Joan Jenkinson own it, and Pat recently repainted it in bright Mobil Oil red. There used to be a diner there, run by Walter and Fannie Jenkinson, and the gas pump was mainly a convenience for school bus drivers and trusted fishermen, who knew where the key was hidden. After Walter died, the diner was hauled away. After Fannie died, the Jenkinson's moved into Walter and Fannie's house, just above where the diner used to be. Ms. Jenkinson says, "I wish I had two cents for every time someone stopped and took a picture."
On the Panhandle in West Tisbury, you might notice a stainless steel boat propeller, sitting on a stump by the west side of the road. You might think that was odd, because there are no houses on that side of the road. Perhaps the prop fell off a truck and someone set it up on the stump so the owner could reclaim it? No. If you investigate, you'll find the prop is securely and permanently fastened to the stump with a long, very heavy-duty lag screw.
George Hartman owns the prop and the lag screw (but not the stump, which is just across the road from his land). "I found two props at the dump," Mr. Hartman explains (Mr. Hartman often finds interesting things at the dump). "As a joke, I nailed the first one to that stump with a long spike." He holds his hands a foot or so apart. "It lasted two days before someone stole it. Someone had to work hard to pry that spike out of there." He sounds shocked by the deliberate thievery.
The present prop is the better of the two, Mr. Hartman tells The Times, and although it is in need of repair, it happens to fit his boat. But for now, it's a shiny decorative object, something like a gazing ball with a nautical flavor on the edge of the woods. Or a practical joke, like nailing a quarter to the floor.
On Lamberts Cove Road, the wide stone wall around Jean and David Merry's house is decorated with rusty old farm equipment dug up about the old Merry farm (farmers used to bury trash to get rid of it, but Mr. Merry digs a lot of holes). It's quite a long wall, and there are more than fifty objects: wheels, pulleys, rims, pieces of harness, an anchor, a scale, hay rakes, plows, broken hand tools. None of it is in good condition, but it's all recognizable, and it looks rather nice along the handsome wall among the flowers that grow there. Many years ago, Mr. Merry's brother, Billy, told this reporter that the wall was a memorial to his father, Lloyd Merry. Ms. Merry told The Times that the rest of the family has a less noble view of the collection.
"It's a lending library of rusty junk," she says with a laugh. It's also mysterious. Objects disappear — she mentioned a rusty sewing machine. But other objects appear — no one has any idea where the hay rake came from.
On State Road, across from the Scottish Bakehouse, a sign high in a tree hoots, "Hoo Rah for Bill --Craig." When it went up in 1998, at the time of the Monica Lewinski scandal, most people could guess that Bill was Bill Clinton. Islanders who knew Craig Kingsbury, whose tree it was that held the sign, would probably surmise that Craig wanted to signal his defiant support for Clinton and amusement at the shenanigans which almost everyone else was deploring (or at least pretending to deplore). Craig Kingsbury was one-of-a-kind.
In 1998, Craig, long a local "character" and the subject of hundreds of tall tales, was already 86 and in poor health. He could not have climbed the tree by himself to affix the sign, but some of his children and friends must have sympathized with his iconoclastic ways, and the sign went up. And stayed up.
The Monica Lewinsky story has faded from even passing interest. Craig Kingsbury died in 2002, but the sign is still up. It has been repainted at least once. It's now a tribute to an old man's love of life and defiant spirit.
There's a visual pun on the Vineyard Haven–Edgartown Road. A white wicker bed sits in the front yard. It looks almost new, and it's planted with flowers. Get it? A flower bed. The white bed is the second bed in that spot. It was preceded by an old brass bedstead, which was sometimes planted with flowers, but often not. Meals-on-wheels drivers used it as a landmark: "The house with the bed in the yard." It wasn't so often a pun then.
It's common on the Vineyard to use as planters large containers that originally had other purposes. Rowboats are common, wooden wine casks, old wheelbarrows. But only the bed is also a joke.
Most winter residents of Martha's Vineyard know where the Gatchells live on County Road in Oak Bluffs. From Thanksgiving until New Year's, the Gatchells' Christmas display is the most spectacular on the Island.
But after the lights come down, the Gatchells' yard is an ordinary yard filled with flowers — hostas, mostly, and black-eyed susans. There is a goldfish pond at one side of the house and a six-foot lighthouse by the entrance to the drive, but way fewer gimcracks and tchotchkes than at Christmastime.
Now there's something new. Bob Gatchell has recently acquired one of the gears that used to raise the old Lagoon Pond drawbridge. It hunkers down next to his lighthouse, like a partially submerged green hippopotamus lurking in the hostas. An electric motor turned the larger gear at one end, which turned a smaller one at the other that moved the bridge.
Mr. Gatchell told The Times that the gears were half of a pair that were anchored in the massive cement pad on which they rested.
Mr. Gatchell was somewhat circumspect in explaining how he acquired the gear from the demolition company, but after raising the draw bridge from 1934 to 2010, it was not going to be recycled. Mr. Gatchell would only say that he traded for it.
In Jean Andrews' yard in Edgartown, a large millstone, about six feet in diameter, is set upright to mark the end of the driveway. It is in very good condition. The center hole is still perfectly round, and the four driving slots are unworn. The surface of the stone has forty grooves cut in a swirling pattern. The grooves would have channeled whatever the wheel was grinding. Some of these are a bit eroded, but the lovely design is still clear.
Jean's late husband, Howard, who was in the monument (grave marker) business, bought it on the way home from a stone-buying trip to Vermont about 25 years ago. It has marked the Andrews' driveway ever since.
One can find stone objects used as decorations all over the Island, but few are handsomer than old millstones, and few millstones are a fine as this one.
Readers are invited to suggest similar examples of curious artifacts.