This Was Then: Baxter’s Saloon

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A 13-piece brass band poses on the porch above Baxter’s Saloon on Circuit Avenue. —Courtesy Chris Baer

T. Baxter’s Saloon was the front end of Baxter House, a 75-guest hotel on Circuit Avenue next to the Island House — roughly where Carousel Ice Cream is today. Opened by Thatcher T. Baxter in 1868, it was one of the earliest hotels in Oak Bluffs. Baxter quickly tired of this venture and returned to his home in West Dennis in 1871, but the Baxter House continued under his name for many years afterward — first under J. & N. Phinney, then Gus Chase (formerly the head cook of the Central House), and by 1880 under A.B. Davis, who subsequently changed its name to Warwick House.

Baxter’s “saloon” likely referred to an “ice cream saloon” rather than a bar, as liquor was still technically illegal here. (The Sea View and Highland House featured billiard and bowling “saloons” during the 1870s, as well.) “There is no drinking, no profanity (that I have heard), no rowdyism here … Nothing stronger than ginger ale is exposed for sale,” wrote the Hartford Courant in 1872.

But that didn’t mean that liquor was unavailable. Earlier that summer the Courant wrote of Oak Bluffs, “Liquor that intoxicates is not sold there; not even New England Rum, unless that may be the base of the ‘Quaker Bitters,’” referring to the popular drugstore tonic that claimed to cure everything from pimples to worms to “female derangements.” Another visiting Connecticut journalist wrote, “No spirituous liquors are sold in the place, yet you can find the contemptible ‘Plantation Bitters,’ or in other words St. Croix rum, under the disguise of a few bitter drugs.” (Plantation Bitters, like Quaker Bitters, were a druggist’s cure for everything from constipation to mental despondency. “If the brain has been haunted by morbid fancies, they are out to flight” after a few bottles of the Quaker Bitters, read their claims.)

And it wasn’t just the drugstores. In August 1879, Vermont journalist H.S.B. wrote in the Burlington Free Press: “In the early days of its prosperity, Martha’s Vineyard was almost a synonym for sobriety and good order. Alas, that happy condition of things exists no longer. At every corner drugstore and in the rear of nearly every boarding house liquors flow like water — provided they are paid for. While the Tabernacle is resounding with songs of praise, a dozen barrooms within a minute’s walk echo the fiendish brawls of drunken sots.”

Brass bands, however, were openly celebrated. A staple of summertime life in Cottage City, hotels joined forces to hire off-Island bands to play in town throughout the summer. The New York Times reported in 1885, “The hotel proprietors and others are negotiating for a band of 20 pieces to play here three times a day during the season and to enliven the warm Summer evenings with sweet lullabies.”
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.