James “Jump Spark Jim” West (1859-1948) presided over a Vineyard Haven antique shop known as “The Shop of Unusual Things.” His specialty was Vineyard whaling relics — captains’ chests, lances he claimed Capt. Cleveland carried on a 1847 voyage of the Charles Morgan, and the quarterboard of the Ocmulgee (pictured below), among other treasures. His father, Benjamin West, was a lifelong Vineyard whaler who had sailed on the whaling ships Java, Virginia, and Moctezuma, and served as first mate of the Chase.
But the most unusual thing in the Shop of Unusual Things was undoubtedly West himself. He held an impressive range of occupations during his lifetime: gold prospector, Port Hunter salvager, jeweler, boat dealer, dredging engineer, cabinetmaker, fisherman, furniture dealer, fine artist, mattress dealer, upholsterer, and lastly, antique dealer. He was known for his folksy (if sometimes bizarre) epigrams — “Jump Spark Jim Sayings” — which he published with every advertisement for his shop.
And the most prolific trade at his shop was certainly West’s colorful autobiographical tales … like the time he dynamited a glacier in the Klondike during the gold rush and uncovered the frozen carcass of a mammoth, which he cooked and feasted on with his dogs. (“Good eating” he later told a Boston Globe reporter.) Or the time while working for the shipping firm of Holmes, Luce & Co. in Boston when he trapped 50 rats, anesthetized them with ether, hung little sleigh bells on them, and turned them loose to jingle in the walls. A year later, one of his belled rats was caught in London and its picture published in Strand Magazine, which West proudly displayed in his shop.
The Ocmulgee was one of a small handful of whaling ships, including the Pocahontas, Malta, and Helen Augusta, based out of Holmes Hole. (Edgartown had a few more; most Vineyard whalers worked out of New Bedford.) The Ocmulgee sailed on at least five successful whaling voyages to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, and in 1849 became one of the very first whaling ships to pass through the Bering Strait and enter the Arctic Ocean to hunt bowheads. In 1862 the ship was captured and burned off the Azores as the first northern whaler sunk by the Confederate warship Alabama during the Civil War. Its quarterboard survived and eventually returned to the Vineyard — in 1908 it could be found hung over a boathouse door on South Water Street in Edgartown — and ending up in West’s shop. (Do any readers know its whereabouts today?)
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.