I have passed Dave Tilton’s home in Menemsha countless times while walking my dogs, and wondered who had two New Hampshire license plates honoring Menemsha. I finally ran into him when we were the only people out during the first blizzard of the year. But we went back to his tiny home abutting Menemsha Harbor, and couldn’t have been cozier.
The house was originally built after the Second World War by New Bedford electrician and Menemsha swordfisherman Bill Barlow. Lenny Jason brought the wood from New Bedford on the Little Lady for Barlow’s house; built the place, and Barlow did the electrical work. Lenny built himself an identical building, still standing today, just across the harbor.
When Tilton purchased the place in 1978, it was the first time anyone had ever paid over $100,000 (in this case, $110,000) for a house in Menemsha. “This place was falling in the harbor,” he said and despite updating the house upon purchase, he did not have “winter water” until singer Billy Joel moved to town. Menemsha water pipes are only two inches underground. No buildings on the harbor had winter water. So in the 1980s at a meeting that included Bob Flanders, Billy Joel was told, “You can’t have water up there; it would cost a million dollars,” to which the singer replied, “Who do I make the check out to?” After they got winter water, it became available to the other waterfront homes. Even today, not everyone has winter water.
Dave Tilton was born on-Island in 1934. His mother was an Edgartown Osborn whose family owned six or seven whaling ships. His father’s side of the family were known as the “North Road Tiltons,” including his Uncle Zeb Tilton, the legendary Island captain.
Tilton’s grandparents lived on Nomans Land in the late 1800s with their five children. His grandmother gave birth to four of the children on the Vineyard, but for one she never made it over. The Boston Globe got a Mayhew to row over a writer to do a story about the Tiltons on Nomans. They had a team of oxen to pull the boats out in storms. As a teenager, Tilton’s grandmother, Harriet Butler Tilton, would sail over from Nomans to Menemsha for provisions. Tilton says, “At the end of the codfish season, they’d have a race, and at the age of 14 she beat ’em hands down. She knew the tides, where she could go, and had been back and forth so many times.” Tilton has been to Nomans many times, and is unsure when his grandparents moved back to the Vineyard. One of his great-uncles, rumrunner Frank Butler, was mentioned and pictured in “The Black Ships” by Everett Allen, originally published in 1979.
From the age of 12 on, Tilton fished with his father commercially in the summers, swordfishing with a harpoon out of Vineyard Haven. He harpooned his first swordfish and then went out in a dory to pull the fish in, getting back in “about 20 minutes.” He thought it was “too easy.”
There were only four or five boats harpooning swordfish on the East Coast back then, including one boat from the Vineyard, one from New Bedford, and one from Port Judith, R.I.
Tilton described a fishing trip out to Georges Banks when he was still in high school: “In 1950 on the Southern Cross [a trawler initially built as a yacht for partying during Prohibition days], we put two 50-gallon drums and an extra 30-gallon drum of fuel on deck, 12 tons of ice, 325-pound blocks, in the hold, and then we filled it with crushed ice. We planned for a two-week trip. It would take us anywhere from 24 to 30 hours to get down to Georges [Bank] where we were going to fish.
“We’d fish with the Canadians. Later in the season, the boats were all fishin’ together. We’d go aboard the Canadian boats and visit with them, and vice versa, and became friends. The first trip we were there, we got down to the southeast part, and the only thing we had for navigation was a sounding lead, a piece of lead on a codfish line to drop and hit the bottom. You had the line marked in places; on the bank we were fishing between 50 and 100 fathom, and then you had the canyons. You’re going along and maybe you’re 75 fathom, and then you’re 150 and over the edge of the canyon.
“We had a ship-to-shore radiophone, a direction finder that would lock in on a radio station, then you set the compass which way the boat’s headed and get another setting and you’d have a cross on the chart and knew just about where you were.”
I wondered what they did at night, and Dave explained, “You shut the engines off at night. We had what you call a ‘riding sail’; it would help to slow the roll of the boat. We stood two-hour watches at night. You had to watch out for other boats drifting into each other, and keep an eye out for tramp steamers cutting across the bank. In pea soup fog and no wind, you could still hear them, but if the wind was blowing, then you’d wake the crew up and be ready to start the engines, with someone at the front holding a double-barrel 12-gauge shotgun. We’d wait until you could hear the wash of the bow from the waves and point right there and then b-bow b-bow. That was the signal to start the engine. If the thing was comin’ from the east, we’d go north 90°. The reason we’d wait till the last instant was once we started the engine, if there’s another one of these damn things, you won’t know it.”
Tilton married in 1953, one year after high school, and at the time fishing was not looking like a great way to earn a living. “I saw people working hard their whole lives, still renting and not able to own their own home,” Tilton said, “and fishing was very difficult at that time. We were fishing three-handed on a 49-foot wooden boat, round the clock, weather permitting. I was mate on the boat, and at the wheel every other tow. I can remember going out and getting maybe 5,000 pounds of fish as long as the weather would hold and we could stand it. We’d get 10 cents a pound, yellowtail flounder primarily. Then going out and finding a patch of fish, 10,000 pounds, and getting 5 cents a pound for them.
It finally got so bad, between the work on the nets and the boats, and I was taking home about $25 a week. I quit my father, quit fishin’, and went to work for the town of West Tisbury six days a week, eight hours a day, for a dollar an hour, and it was almost double what I was making dragging during the winter months.” But he missed being on the water.
“I had a chance to go work for one of the three oyster companies on Tisbury Great Pond,” he said, “all on the Chilmark side of the pond: Johnny Mayhew, the West Tisbury Shellfish Association, and [brothers Everett and] John Whiting and Willy Huntington’s Quansoo Shellfish. They paid a dollar and a half an hour working on pulling dredges by hand. Biggest outboard was 25 horses; we had a barge, and Forrest Alley from Gay Head and I would be pulling drags by hand, similar to scalloping, culling on the pond. When we weren’t on the pond, we were shucking. At that time it was four years for oysters to be mature, and now they harvest even the wild ones in three years. There were 300 to a bushel. If they were cutting good, if the meats were good, you could get a gallon of meats out of a bushel of oysters. I got paid $1.25 for shucking a gallon into a perforated bucket so there’s no juice. The best I could ever do was 300 oysters in 40 minutes.”
But in 1955, with a child on the way, Tilton knew it was time to find his fortune elsewhere. He spent several years in Minnesota working for a Swedish chainsaw company, and in 1971 he came back East to raise his family in New Hampshire. But over the years he’s continued to return to Menemsha for vacations.
Dave could have told fish tales through the night if I’d been a willing listener, but the snow wasn’t letting up and it was time to go. It was a pleasure to have a window into Dave Tilton’s life, family history, and Island history, and If the blizzard hadn’t been roiling outside, I might have stayed a few hours longer. One thing is for sure: Dave Tilton has stories to tell, and anyone who gets to listen should consider themselves lucky.