Time-traveling, carefully

Van Riper’s history of Edgartown takes you there.

Bow Van Riper, who is a research librarian at the Martha's Vineyard Museum, has a new book out: “Edgartown: Images of America." Here, Van Riper stands with his book and a piece of Island history, the Mayhew peddler at the museum. —Gabrielle Mannino

Bow Van Riper is the research librarian at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. As you read his history of Edgartown in his new book, part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, two things stand out: He loves his job, and he has a talent for letting images tell the 375-year history of one of the country’s oldest ports.

Van Riper uses seven periods in Edgartown history to guide us through the town’s journey. And I learned the key to enjoying this “read” is to study the photos, the people, buildings, and objects in them.

Now, most of the photos date only to the mid-1800s, when photography was available, but they include buildings dating from the 17th century, and they track changes in the landscape, in work and leisure, and in fashion. The effect is that Van Riper has created an ultra-slow-motion video that allows us to get the picture of Edgartown’s evolution.

Edgartown’s history is drawn for us here in distinct periods of change: The Shire Town (1642-1820); The World the Whalemen Made (1820-1870), An Uncertain Future (1870-1895); Building a Summer Resort (1890-1925); A Changing Waterfront (1900-1920); Learning to Be Modern (1920-1940), and Welcoming the World (1940-1975).

Each chapter includes a one-page summary and dozens of photos, each one with a 60- to 80- word description that provides underlying, and often delicious, details. Van Riper has done this descriptive work accompanying nearly 200 photos, some dating back more than 150 years. You gotta love your job to do this painstaking research.

The text and photo package provides us with a luxurious opportunity to pay attention and to use our imagination to fill in the blanks about life and people through history.

It was fun. My personal favorites include shots of the Dukes County Courthouse and the Harbor View Hotel in the second half of the 19th century. The buildings stand alone; no neighboring structures existed.

Several photos of workmen in boots and knockabout trousers tell a story as well. The men did not pose, but clearly were halting work for a moment to allow a photo to be taken. You get a sense that you can almost see them moving back to their work after the photo was taken.

That was life in those pre-selfie days. Every minute and dollar counted on an Island where you ate what you were able to buy, catch, kill, or grow. And having your picture taken, these men seem to be saying, doesn’t help you do any of those things.

In an interview this week, Van Riper said, “Edgartown is its own story, trying to go from a community with some fishing and farming to whaling, and later to a vacation destination as well being as the county seat.

“The thing that most struck me as I was writing it, while reviewing hundreds of photographs over 150 years, is how much changed, and how much is still recognizable. The continuity over time is striking, more so in Edgartown than in any other Island town,” he said.

Van Riper has written or co-edited about 15 books, mostly in collaboration with writing partner Cindy Miller. This is his first about the Island, though he is considering a future book about Vineyard Haven. He said he has worked on books offering views of teaching technology, and using horror and sci-fi movies to teach popular culture.

This book is a trove of information and insights, perhaps best enjoyed by people with a sense of the Island and its historical family names, and those who want to know how we got to be as we



“Edgartown: Images of America,” by A. Bowdoin Van Riper, from Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, S.C. Softcover, 127 pages with photographs. $21.99. Available through Bunch of Grapes Bookstore and online.