This Was Then: Mr. Meara and Mr. Davis

The old Meara building has quite the backstory.

Main Street, Vineyard Haven, looking south. The Meara building stands on the corner of Spring Street, behind the car.

On the southwest corner of Main and Spring streets in Vineyard Haven stands the old Meara building. It has tales to tell.

Sherman Meara, an Irish shoemaker, built it about 1895. Sherman wasn’t his birth name; he immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager named Michael Meara. But “he is dissatisfied with his name and wishes it changed,” read his statement to the judge as a 19-year-old, offering no further explanation. He attended a seminary school for a short time, but soon wound up in Edgartown, where in 1860 he married Eugenia Norton, became a naturalized citizen, and found work fixing shoes.

Then the war came. Meara enlisted as a private and served nine months as a bootmaker behind the lines in North Carolina, then re-enlisted with the Massachusetts Volunteer Heavy Artillery. His garrison in Plymouth, N.C., was attacked, and after a four-day ambush now known as the Battle of Plymouth, surrendered to the Confederates. Meara and thousands of other soldiers (sometimes nicknamed the “Plymouth Pilgrims”) were sent to notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia, where many died from the nightmarish conditions. After 10 months in Andersonville and other prisons, Meara escaped, and eventually made his way back to his regiment, and ultimately the Vineyard.

Jim Norton of Vineyard Haven recalls the family tale: “While he was imprisoned in Andersonville, the people who lived around the prison were aware of the hardship which the prisoners were experiencing. They began to bring food and blankets and clothes to distribute to those in the camp. One family happened to bring a Confederate officer’s jacket among the clothes they brought. Sherman recognized it and immediately put it on and walked out of the camp.”

The Mearas resettled in Cottage City, where Sherman maintained his first boot and shoe shop. He opened a second shoe shop in this new building he erected in Vineyard Haven, together with Eugenia’s millinery shop. “Feet properly covered has much to do with the preservation of health,” he advertised.

His spacious building became an incubator for a number of other businesses. “Judal Brickman made his start in the rear of this building,” recalled Stan Lair of Vineyard Haven. “He had a small room there, and he was repairing shoes, and he worked there night and day.” The Meara building also housed the Eagleston Brothers’ dry goods store in the late 1890s, and it would later become the Come and See Shop in the 1920s, as well as Roger Amidon’s radio supply store, Peterson’s Ice Cream, a young men’s social club, and, in 1945, Mosher Studios, among other businesses.

Another well-remembered tenant was Dr. Samuel Davis. “Dr. Davis was a man of tremendous size,” remembered Lair. “He had to have the steering wheel of his Model T made special so he could get his stomach in the car. It was ordered special by Walter Renear, who then was a Ford dealer, and was hinged in some way so it could be moved forward to allow for his tremendous size. As I remember seeing that thing, it seemed to be mounted off-center, also. The steering column came up right near the front of the wheel.”

Davis was an Edgartown native, but after taking two winter courses at a medical college in New York — enough in those days to grant him a degree and a license to practice medicine — he went on to have a 30-year career in Orleans as a family physician and as the medical examiner of Barnstable County. (In 1898, he was put in charge of identifying bodies recovered from the loss of the steamer Portland, victim and namesake of the tragic Portland Gale.) Dr. Davis retired to his native Island in 1908, where he began a second career as a village physician and as medical examiner of Dukes County, taking charge of the occasional body which washed ashore upon a Vineyard beach or found floating in the Sound.

Ralph Look of Vineyard Haven remembered Dr. Davis in one interview: “Well, Wallace Lindsay, see, and I were out riding on a bicycle, and Wallace had me on the handlebars — I was a little younger than he. And we fell off, and the peddle went right into his leg and gouged a hole about that big around. You could see the veins right inside the calf of his leg, see? We went right into Dr. Davis’ office, as I remember. I think he used iodine. He poured that in there and that kid cried — oh my mercy — and in turn he bandaged it up in a good way so that Wallace could go out and just step on it lightly. Did a good job! Do you know that boy had a scar, but for a man that hadn’t had too much experience that way, Dr. Davis was an old man then!”

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.