This Was Then: Norton’s Blacksmith Shop

Where there’s a William there’s a way.

“Carriage Smithing,” “Horse Shoeing,” and “General Jobbing” offered at William Norton Jr.’s blacksmith’s shop on Sunset Lake, Oak Bluffs, roughly 1910. Courtesy Chris Baer.

William Norton Jr. (1872-1958) was a lifelong Oak Bluffs blacksmith. During the first decades of the 20th century, his shop was located on the west side of Dukes County Avenue, backing up upon Sunset Lake, across the street from where the Campground parking lots lay today.

His father, William Sr., had been a Holmes Hole teamster. In the1860s, his teaming and carting office stood on Main Street, about where the stone bank is today in Vineyard Haven. In his obituary, it was recalled that a majority of Vineyard Haven’s homes had been built with lumber Norton had carted. William Jr.’s future, however, was in neighboring Cottage City, where he moved as a young man in the 1890s to begin his blacksmithing career.

Sally Dagnall, author of the the Camp Meeting history “Circle of Faith,” notes, “In the year 1872, it was voted by the board that no blacksmith shop be allowed on the Campgrounds.” But that didn’t stop Norton from opening his shop on the very outskirts of Campground property along the lake (since diminished substantially in size), on the far side of a cluster of storehouses, stables, and coal sheds.

Norton lived for years in the Highlands neighborhood of Oak Bluffs, but his bad back forced the smith and his family to move closer to town. In a 1979 interview provided by Linsey Lee of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, Norton’s daughter Maura explained, “We moved [to the Campgrounds] either 1916 or ’17. My father had sciatica and couldn’t walk up the hill, and we had to find a place down-street … They came looking for a place down where he’d be near his shop.” They purchased one of the only winterized cottages available, and by happenstance, it was on Maura’s great-grandmother’s tent site.

Norton soon moved his business to Lake Avenue, taking over the downtown shop belonging to longtime Oak Bluffs blacksmith Eben Bowman, who left the Island to open an auto mechanic’s garage in Sandwich. Norton’s new shop was located about where the moped shop is today, between Biscuits and the old fire station.

There were a lot of Bill Nortons in Oak Bluffs. The blacksmith was often confused with livery stableman (and later, garageman) William A. Norton, an unrelated Rhode Island native whose business was located almost directly across the street, about where Nancy’s snack bar is today. The liveryman had a son, Billy, a longtime Oak Bluffs plumber, adding further to the confusion of Bills. Although the blacksmith’s father, William Sr., had died decades earlier, he chose to bring back his original suffix. Maura explained, “We got our mail twisted … so finally Dad put ‘Jr.’ on his. That’s the way we could keep the mail straight.”

In 1958, the 86-year-old blacksmith was taken to a rest home, where he soon died. Maura reportedly rented the building to a man named King, who ran the blacksmith shop for a while, but it, too, was soon shuttered for good.

I’m grateful for the assistance provided for this story by Linsey Lee and the Oral History collection of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, together with Casey Reagan, Sally Dagnall, and others.


Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, will be released June 1.