‘Martha’s Vineyard Tales’ by Chris Baer

No telling what you’ll get when you shake the Vineyard family tree.


Chris Baer is like a bottomless well of Martha’s Vineyard arcana. He has been publishing his column, “This Was Then,” in the Times since 2014; during that period he has written more than 150 columns. And the well does not appear to be running dry anytime soon. 

This spring Chris published a compilation of many of his columns (Globe Pequot) titled “Martha’s Vineyard Tales: From Pirates on Lake Tashmoo to Baxter’s Saloon,” and the title alone should tell you that his is no dusty Island history. He’ll give a talk and sign copies of the book at Bunch of Grapes this Friday night, June 1, at 7 pm. Baer will also be part of a panel discussion about writing columns at “Islanders Write” on Monday, August 6. 

In his introduction Baer writes, “This is not a textbook. It is intended to be opened anywhere and enjoyed; it’s a book more for the night table than the classroom. It’s intended to be whimsical, not stuffy. Nevertheless, I take the research for these stories very seriously.”

I asked Baer how he goes about researching his subjects. To begin with, he credits his grandfather, the late Stan Lair, with sparking his interest in photography.

Baer inherited most of his photos and negatives from Lair. “He collected and copied photos from anywhere and everywhere — family photo albums and the like,” he told The Times. Many of his columns were sourced from these photos, and he’s added to them over the years.

“I have lots of great photos,” Baer said, “and lots of great stories, but they don’t always line up. Sometimes I analyze a photo and try to figure out something I can research from it. Other times I’ve found a good story, and I’m looking for a photo to illustrate it with. Writing the book allowed me to include some additional stories for which I had no photos, including some really short bits that weren’t really fit for ‘This Was Then.’

“As for research, I love plowing through old newspapers, but I have lots of other resources, like censuses, books, and digital archives. Sometimes crowdsourcing works really well — if you ask enough people, somebody will have the right answer. Facebook is great for this. There are a lot of really knowledgeable people on this Island. You just have to connect the dots.”

“Martha’s Vineyard Tales” contains 65 stories ranging from the early years, where Baer questions whether Martha’s Vineyard was originally called “Martin’s” Vineyard” or even “Luisa Island,” until the later years when Lewis “Bum Dogs” Miller and Landers “Pork Chops” Samuels, two robbers from Queens, were apprehended in 1929 in Oak Bluffs. Or when Antonio “Tony the Scissors Man” Decarlo walked the streets of Martha’s Vineyard every summer mending umbrellas, sharpening knives, and repairing scissors until he died in 1967.

Baer writes about how in 1888 a raft of some 24,000 logs nearly a quarter-mile long called the Joggins stopped in Vineyard Haven Harbor en route to New York. It was said at the time to be the largest raft ever constructed, and over 5,000 people came to view the Joggins; thousands actually boarded her.

In “Arvagasugiaqpalauqtut Kinguvaanginnik Qaujinasungniq,” Baer tells the story of George Cleveland, a Vineyard Haven whaler who spent many winters in the Canadian territory of Nunavut waiting for the spring whaling season to begin; he apparently made the most of his time. He is suspected of fathering at least 15 children with nine or 10 Inuit women there; he was known as “Sakkuaqtirungniq” (“the Harpooner”). Today it’s estimated that Cleveland has well over 1,000 descendents in the territory.

In August 1915, Welcome Tilton of Chilmark was working in the woods when he spotted a large animal. At first he thought it was a bear, but bears hadn’t been seen on the Island in 300 years. In “Welcome and the Ape,” Baer writes about the hysteria that gripped the Island as a genuine Bigfoot moment occurred. The leading theory was that the animal dropped or was thrown from a passing ship and swam ashore. “Remarkable stories were rife,” concluded the Boston Globe.

“The Artist Mystic” is the story of the Chilmark artist Frederic Thompson, which involves ghosts, poisonings, adultery, secret codes, hidden chambers, and the Mafia. But on a much more uplifting note (and what wouldn’t be), Baer brings us the story of “The Cottage CIty Carnival of 1882.”

Back in the late 19th century, Illumination Night, the crown jewel of the Oak Bluffs Campground season, took the form of “an end-of-the-season-blowout party celebrated across the whole of Oak Bluffs, known as the Cottage City Carnival.”

During the day there were athletic events such as foot and bicycle racing, sack racing and swimming contests, tennis matches and whaleboat racing, high diving and trick bicycle stunts. A greased pig race on Ocean Avenue drew 3,000 spectators. Then at nightfall, a torchlit procession began, and houses all around town were emblazoned with a galaxy of Japanese and Chinese lanterns. In 1884, 30,000 people attended the Cottage City Carnival, including President Ulysses Grant.

Reading “Martha’s Vineyard Tales” is like sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner with your grandparents and all the old uncles who love nothing more than to spin yarns. Baer treats us to tales of sea serpents, jewel thefts, an alligator named Bozzy who lived at the Neptune Club, and the finest poultry farm in the world — he does a remarkable job of bringing the history of the Vineyard to life.

“Martha’s Vineyard Tales” is available on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble, and you can buy it locally at Bunch of Grapes bookstore.