Family Portrait: The Larsens

Five generations, and still fishing.

The Larsens in the 1980s: Louis, Beth, Travis, Hans, and Andrew. — Photo by Alison Shaw

The Larsen family story is huge on this Island. For one thing, there are a lot of them. And they are big, strapping people. Their kids and their grandkids are big. You don’t have to look hard to find a Larsen on Martha’s Vineyard.

The Larsen name is synonymous with fishing and seafood on the Island today, but it wasn’t always that way. Not by a long shot.

When Norwegian immigrant Daniel Ludvig Larsen took his catboat out of Menemsha to fish in the 1920s, he had the waters to himself. “He wasn’t welcome in the fleet. He told my dad [Louis Larsen Sr.] he fished alone and offshore — but not because he wanted to,” Louis Larsen Jr. recalled with a smile recently at the Net Result, his family’s fish market on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven, where he and his wife Beth (Elizabeth Renear) Larsen work side by side. The flourishing Menemsha fishing fleet got all the fish they wanted, right close in the Sound, and they wanted nothing to do with the new guy looking to feed five kids.

Louis’ brother Dan has operated Edgartown Seafood, which is located on Cooke Street at Cannonball Park in Edgartown, for 28 years. Their sister, Mary Elizabeth “Betsy” Larsen, and her husband, Robert Sloane, operate the 46-year-old Larsen’s Fish Market hard by the harbor in Menemsha. That’s what’s known as “brand dominance” across the water in America.

The Larsens are now five generations on the Island, but the first three gens weren’t, ah … brand dominant. In fact, each of those generation had some hardscrabble times. Things are better these days. The Net Result is celebrating its 30th anniversary this month. “It was all timing. I was out fishing for a living, and the kids were getting bigger. I wanted to be around for them. We opened in 1985, knowing that a seafood store had just failed in Vineyard Haven,” Mr. Larsen said.

“We didn’t make any money; we lost money the first couple of years. We’d just built a house, and the bank would lend us money on the house but not on the business. We learned 1,000 ways to eat codfish. Then the boom hit … thank God,” he said.

Beth Larsen also has a clear memory of the days before the high rollers and tourist dollars provided a myriad of career opportunities for residents in a place where, basically, the land and the ocean had sustained its people for thousands of years.

“We were building our house, living with my parents, working 20-hour days, bay scalloping, oystering. My mother would drive me to Menemsha to haul nets. We’d paint the brand-new house at night,” she said.

Beth is a fourth-generation Islander, descended from French and English lineage that included risk takers as well. “Walter H. Renear, my great-grandfather, started an auto dealership [initially Reo, then Ford motorcars] in the early 1900s on Church Street in Tisbury. My dad, Dixon Renear, left the dealership to start Island Insurance Co. [now the Martha’s Vineyard Insurance Co.]. Dad helped start Camp Jabberwocky. That was his love. We were all involved in it — a wonderful experience,” she said.

Beth and Louis Larsen remember all the details of their courtship, seamlessly handing off elements of a love story with a transcontinental twist. Beth Renear left the Island for school in Boston after high school graduation in 1972, then went farther afield.

“I had relatives in France, living in Paris and outside the city. My grandmother’s sister visited the States, and invited me to visit her. I spent a year in Paris, living with family and studying at the Alliance Française [a French nonprofit organization with cultural and educational initiatives around the world],” she said. Heady stuff for a Tisbury kid, but she remembered Louis, and wrote him a letter from Paris. When she returned home, they began dating, married in 1977, and began a family in 1980.

Last week, the couple talked about their nearly 40 years together. “I’d had a crush on him since we met in sixth grade and —” Ms. Larsen began — “It was the chocolate chip cookies,” Mr. Larsen interjected with a grin.

“Yes. We had a deal. In junior high and high school, he would drop off lobsters in my locker and I’d make chocolate chip cookies and deliver them to Chilmark. Didn’t see him much, though; he was always fishing with his dad,” she said.

Louis and Beth Larsen are authentic people. You like them. Trust them. They are also the last generation that lived the old ways of fishing and life on a virtually unknown Island rooted in the old cultural ways.

“At the time, we [Louis and brother Dan] thought our father was mean, keeping us out there in all kinds of weather, sometimes 20 hours a day. Now I miss those days. Our boys [Travis, 34, Hans, 31, and Andrew, 25] have all worked the long hard days in the retail business. Andrew works here now. The older boys say it’s made life easier for them in their careers,” he said.

Mr. Larsen wants to keep the old ways alive for his kids. He’s got a 30-foot Fortier (billed by its maker as “an honest seaboat”) in Fall River being fitted out as a harpooner fishing boat.

Mr. Larsen hopes that he and his sons will have an authentic swordfishing experience on the Miss Violette (named after his granddaughter). “We’ll take her out after July 4th, when the swordfish should be close by, sunning and ‘chocked up’ [both dorsals visible on the surface]. I’ll certainly try to harpoon one. It’s been a few years, but I used to be able to hit ’em,” he said.

More than anything, he wants his sons to experience the thrill of seeing the fish. “There’s an adrenaline rush around swordfishing. We always got just as excited on the 30th fish as on the first one. I want them to be able to experience that,” he said about a fishing trip that will nurture the old ways for another generation.