The Great Fire of 1883 burned down all of downtown Vineyard Haven — both sides of Main Street and part of Beech Street, more than 40 acres in all. Historian Charles Banks wrote in “The History of Martha’s Vineyard,” “When the last embers had died out, it was found that the Baptist meeting-house, 32 dwelling houses, 26 stores, 12 barns, and two stables had been burned to the ground.”
But Banks added, “A damage more irreparable was done to the beautiful shade trees on the Main street and others covered by the burnt district, as these noble trees were all killed by the flames.” Rows of linden, chestnut, and elm trees planted only two years before in front of John H. Lambert’s dry goods store (roughly where Bunch of Grapes is today) were among them.
In spite of fears that the village was too devastated to ever be rebuilt, a new downtown sprang up from the ashes astonishingly quickly, and a sole linden sapling was planted next to the brand-new Luce Brothers clothing store (today occupied by Stina Sayre) sometime in the mid to late 1880s.
The little tree would become the heart of the town. Innumerable bake sales and Santa visits were held under it. In the early 1900s, Ben Turner, a fondly remembered local character who was always ready to “chew the rag” with passersby, kept a shoeshine stand under the tree each summer. Another local character, Jean Canha (1922–1989), whose IMDb profile reminds us of her brief appearance in “Jaws,” was stationed here daily for years with her nearly empty shopping cart and portable radio. “Always has a story, if you stop and talk with her,” recalled Stan Lair of Vineyard Haven. “She’ll always come up with a story for you.”
In 1996, despite professional efforts to save it, the linden tree was declared dead at the age of 110, give or take a few years. The town mourned, but a new sapling was soon planted, which has since grown a mature canopy over Canha’s old seat next to the Capawock. With a little TLC, we hope it will stick around to ring in the 22nd century.
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, was released in June 2018.