This Was Then: Cap’n Dave

“Inventor of the steam wheelbarrow.”

Butler (left) with an unidentified man. — Courtesy David Trull

Cap’n Dave Butler of Menemsha Creek (1859-1943) grew up on Nomans Land, the son of artist George Butler, one of the Vineyard’s first photographers.

As a young man, Dave and his brother Frank whaled on the steam bark Navarach of San Francisco, spending two winters at Herschel Island in the Arctic Ocean, in what is today the northernmost point of Yukon Territory. Their first mate was Joseph Belain of Gay Head. The Butler brothers’ further early adventures are mostly forgotten, although Joe Allen hints in his book, “The Wheelhouse Loafer,” “Dave served in the naval forces that cleaned up the northern Pacific cannibals, and they do say — but never mind, perhaps we’d better not go into further details.”


Cap’n Dave Butler’s place, Menemsha. — Courtesy Chris Baer

After returning home to the Vineyard, Frank went on to become a successful rumrunner (although his luck was tested in 1931 when the Coast Guard shot him in the wrist with a machine gun and blew up his armored speedboat while he was attempting to run liquor from his stash on Nomans to the mainland). But Dave became a law-abiding fisherman and lobsterman, and maintained weirs in Menemsha Pond and the Sound as well as a fishing boat. He kept a small store in Menemsha, pictured, from which he sold rope and other supplies, as well as gasoline and oil.

Butler’s store was completely destroyed, together with all of the neighboring buildings, in the 1938 hurricane. But Butler continued to be a colorful Menemsha character, often appearing in Joe Allen’s stories. Allen declared him “inventor of the steam wheelbarrow” (“which is destined to revolutionize warfare and peacetime transportation”) and “skipper of the chowder works”: “His hobby is chowder-building. So intense is his interest in concocting this variety of food that he will make chowder out of anything.”


Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.