This Was Then: Roger Amidon, ‘radiophan’

By 1924, Amidon opened the first — and arguably the only — radio store in Vineyard Haven.

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Dukes County Garage, Five Corners, circa 1923.

“Roger Amidon’s radio repair shop,” recalled the late John Canha of Vineyard Haven. “Amidon repaired my RCA Victor and GE radios. He was very friendly, pleasant. My first radio experience was at my neighbors’ set using earphones; this was about 1926 or ’8. My favorite program each evening at 7 was ‘Amos and Andy.’”

West Tisbury native Roger Amidon (1901–85) probably had few memories of his father, the Rev. John Amidon, who died of sarcoma when he was only 4 years old. Young Amidon was raised by his mother and great-uncle, and after a brief stint working as an automobile repairman in Boston, he became a garage mechanic at Dukes County Garage, located at Five Corners in Vineyard Haven. 

The garage — the large concrete building still standing next to the Black Dog — was owned by William G. Manter. “Manter was a big operator in those days,” explained the late Stan Lair of Vineyard Haven. “[He] had several projects, businesses, going at that location. He had a contracting business, he had a house painting business, along with his garage work and dealership in Buicks and Chevrolets. Well this garage, it was made of concrete, with a metal roof. Had a parts department, an electrical department, a car painting department, and a repair department. So it was quite a large operation for that time.”

But after hours, Amidon was a “radiophan” — an amateur radio engineer who competed with other enthusiasts to see how many stations they could hear and identify in the shortest amount of time. In 1923, Amidon was lauded in the Boston Globe for successfully tuning into 24 stations — from WOO in Philadelphia to WBAP in Texas — in one night, on his homemade regenerative receiver and two-stage amplifier in Vineyard Haven. 

By 1924, Amidon opened the first — and arguably the only — radio store in Vineyard Haven. Over the years it moved to various locations on Main Street, most memorably in the house across from the stone bank, next to what was then Cronig’s. “Tell your RADIO troubles to Roger F. Amidon” read his ads in Vineyard Magazine in 1924. “Installations — Supplies — Repairs.” (What kind of supplies do you need for your radio, you ask? Well, he sold Eveready B batteries for $5 each, and tubes for $1.75.) Meanwhile, Amidon continued to work on and off at the Dukes County Garage.

In October 1929, just two weeks after his marriage to Edgartown beautician Constance Beetle, Amidon was sitting in his parked car in Edgartown when it was struck by a landing airplane. The plane ripped off the top of Amidon’s roadster, and shattering glass severely cut his face and head. The student pilot, whose name was not reported, managed to safely land the airplane in the nearby Curtiss Flying Field at Katama. Amidon had taken flying lessons himself at Boston Airport a couple of years before, and was said to have become the first civilian airline pilot on Martha’s Vineyard. He had reportedly parked his car near the landing field in Edgartown to watch student pilots learn to fly.

By the 1930s, recovered from his injuries, and divorced and remarried, Amidon returned to Main Street to open a new radio repair shop specializing in GE and Philco radios. He also moonlighted as a movie projectionist. “I remember kind of a big man,” recalled the late Basil Welch. “Had a little pencil-line mustache.”

 

At the beginning of World War II, Amidon and his wife left the Island and moved outside of Hartford, Conn., where he spent his final years working as a foreman for the Fafnir Bearing Co., manufacturing control bearings for aircraft. We can imagine if Amidon had a passion for something other than cars and radios, it might have been to help better control aircraft.