Menemsha Market is indelibly connected to the Seward brothers, David and Doug, whose parents ran the store and the former Post Office within it for decades. David himself ran it in the ’70s, and his mother, Barbara Seward, was postmaster there until 1989. Doug’s daughter and son-in-law, Liz and Ken Oliver, now run the market.
In light of the recent blaze that ruined the inside of the market, David and Doug, 71-year-old twins, took time to describe some of the market’s history, including the 1949 Stevan Dohanos painting of it that graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
The Seward brothers’ parents, Barbara and Bill, bought the market and Post Office in 1948. “It used to be Creekville Post Office, which is where the Home Port is now,” Doug said, “and Carl Reid ran that … When he built the store in 1924, he moved the Post Office in, and the [U.S. Postal Service] renamed it [Menemsha Post Office].”
In 1950 the Sewards put an apartment upstairs in what had been a storage space. “That’s where we lived every summer,” David said,“Dougie and I grew up in Menemsha.”
People in Menemsha often wanted to make purchases outside regular business hours. “It was not unusual to get a knock on the door at five in the morning from a fisherman who wanted cigarettes,” he said. “We had one guy come right in the door — went right into the bedroom — woke my old man up.”
“We used to wake up to the distinct sound of the diesel engine of the Little Lady,” Doug said, when Lenny Jason would head out fishing at 4:30 in the morning. “We’d wake up to that, and we’d go to sleep to the bell buoy, ding, ding, ding.”
“Sometimes on a day when the wind was wrong, Ernest Mayhew, across the basin, would open his bait barrels, and that would bring you out of a sound sleep,” David said.
Doug said Saturday Evening Post artist Stevan Dohanos came to the Vineyard for a number of years and painted about “half a dozen subjects” from the Island. The painting he did of the market appeared on the August 1950 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. That painting re-entered the Sewards’ lives in 1972, two years after David bought the market from his parents.
“I have a chance to buy the store painting from Stevan Dohanos,” David recalled his mother saying. She’d been in contact with Dohanos on and off for years, he said.
“Stevan had called her up and said, I’m down at the Old Sculpin Gallery, I have the painting with me, and I want to give you first shot at buying it.” David said.
Barbara paid $2,500 for the painting, or about $15,000 in 2019 adjusted dollars.
“She went right down with her own money,” David said. “I went with her. She put half down, and paid the rest in installments. Dohanos [later] wrote her a letter and said to her that of all the paintings he sold over the years, this is the most important one for him because it actually went to the people who should have it.”
Two years later, David had a small windfall when the first blockbuster ever, “Jaws,” began production in Menemsha.
“We all made money on that deal,” David said. “I was doing August business in May. Quint’s shack was right next door.”
In 1980 David went through a divorce, and opted to sell the market instead of trying to run it with his ex-wife. The building went to the Packer family, and several different proprietors ran the business until 1997, when Kevin and Liz took it over. Barbara Seward retired as postmaster eight years earlier in 1989, and “was the last postmaster in Menemsha,” David said. For a while afterward, Post Office boxes could be had at the market, but postal services never returned.
Bill and Barbara divorced in 1981, Doug said, and that’s where the story of the painting continued. “My father had taken it to Michigan after his divorce from our mother,” he said.
After his father passed away, Doug said, he tried a few times to reach out to his father’s new wife and ask about the painting. For a while he heard nothing back, and then he got a message on his answering machine.
“Doug, this is Betty, come and get your painting before I die,” he recalled.
David and Doug flew to Michigan, and not only collected the painting but connected with Betty, whom they’d previously not known well.
Asked about the present whereabouts of the painting, Doug said, “We sold it.”
David said there were two reasons behind the sale. First, there was only one painting but two brothers, so only one brother could hang it in his house and only one brother could pass it to his heirs, and that didn’t sit well with either of them. Second, their mother had entered an Alzheimer’s care facility, and accrued debt.
The painting sold in 2015 at a Texas auction house for $167,000, according to Doug and to Heritage Auctions, where it was sold.
The funds enabled the brothers to pay off their mother’s care and medical bills. “It wasn’t hard for us to let it go,” Doug added.
The story wasn’t over after the sale, however. “Last summer, I’m in my [antique shop], this lady and gentleman come in, and they said we frequented this place when Jane Slater had it,” Doug said.
Slater had run an antique shop on the same premises for 40 years before retiring and renting the place to Doug.
The couple, who were from New Hampshire, pointed out Seward had a copy of the Saturday Evening Post for sale with the market on the cover, the Dohanos image. They then said they owned the painting.
Doug took them by surprise with his reply: “Well, I sold it to you,” he said.
With the passing of Jim Morgan, David and Doug consider themselves nearly the last of the “Crickers,” old inhabitants of Menemsha. They count Chilmark Fire Chief David Norton as one of their tiny group, and Everett Poole, too, though both say he didn’t reside in Menemsha but is nonetheless elemental to it.
Slater, who readily recalled when the market offered complete postal service and when Menemsha had its own zip code, wondered how the grocery gap for Menemsha summer inhabitants and boaters will be filled in the upcoming season with the place shuttered. “It will certainly be missed,” she said.
She also noted her brother, the recently deceased poet Conrad Neumann, could be found seated on the porch of the market over many past summers. Doug agreed. He described Slater and Neumann not as Crickers but as people from “Over South,” meaning they grew up on the south side of Chilmark, on the road leading to Gay Head (Aquinnah).
Of the fire, Doug said it wasn’t the first time. “There was another fire there at the store,” he said. He believed it was in 1953. An electrician named Bill Barlow, who owned a camp near the building, saw one windy day that “the weatherhead on the store was sparking and flaming,” he said. “He went out there and cut the right cables, and saved the store from burning down.”
One thing that hasn’t happened since 1924, Doug said, was the market not opening for a summer season.