Depending on how you want to define it, there are fewer than 10 grocery stores on the Island today. But it wasn’t always so. The 1907 directory of Martha’s Vineyard listed 25: seven in Oak Bluffs, six in Edgartown, three in West Tisbury; Chilmark and Gay Head had two each. Vineyard Haven had five: Look, Smith & Co.; Bodfish & Call; E. St. Croix Oliver; Swift Bros.; and William H. Walker; plus a fish market, a fruit shop, three bakeries, a confectioner, and a milk dealer.
The Look, Smith & Co. grocery (originally Look, Washburn & Co.) was located underneath Lane’s Block on Union Street. Founded by the Look family in the 1860s and specializing in beef, mutton, and pork, it was for many years the island’s largest business, with two branch stores in Oak Bluffs, one in Edgartown, and a horse-drawn cart covering the up-Island towns.
Among their many employees was George Norton (1861-1942) of Cape Higgon, Chilmark, who joined the firm in the late 1880s as a butcher. For many years he drove the up-Island “meat cart.”
In 1910, a grand grocery merger took place in Vineyard Haven. Look, Smith & Co. combined forces with Bodfish & Call and the Swift Brothers groceries to form “Smith, Bodfish, and Swift” — the S.B.S. grocery. (“‘Soak ’Em, Beat ’Em, and Skin ’Em,’ we used to call it,” recalled the late Stan Lair of Vineyard Haven.) The S.B.S. grain store, originally on Water Street, still prospers today on State Road.
To fill the void created by the consolidation, and to serve the residents of the ancient community between Vineyard Haven and West Chop known as “Down-Neck” or “Frog Alley,” Norton opened his own grocery store about 1915 in an old chandlery he moved from the shore to a lot near the bottom of Daggett Avenue: the George M. Norton Store.
“It was a full-fledged grocery store,” recalled Lair. “He sold meats, he had a refrigerator in there — a real large, walk-in refrigerator for meats. Like a neighborhood grocery store.” Norton’s grocery was only open in the summertime, at least initially. Norton described his business as a “grocer and provisioner,” and advertised “right dealing at right prices.”
Norton was married to Lamyra Gould, who kept a small boarding house in their home next door. She was the daughter of Constable Henry Gould, who lived across the street. “Grandpa” Gould, as he was known around town, was Vineyard Haven’s sole policeman, and also served as the village lamplighter, lighting and extinguishing the gas streetlights in town each evening and morning.
Norton hired a Cape Verdean immigrant, Eugene Isaacs (1891-1923), to reach up-Island clientele. “He ran a Model T Ford truck driven by Gene Isaacs, which would travel as far as Gay Head,” recalled Lair, “stopping at houses along the way. And if [Isaacs] didn’t have what you wanted that day, you’d give him your order and he would bring it up the next trip. This truck was loaded with everything you could think of — meats, fruit, canned goods, you name it.” Isaacs owned a home near Norton on West Chop Road.
Isaacs was born on the tiny volcanic isle of Brava, the smallest island in the African archipelago of Cape Verde, ancestral home of the Araujo, Ben David, Cecilio, Fortes, Gonsalves, Moreis, and many other Vineyard families. After the better part of a decade working for Norton and conducting all of his up-Island grocery business, Isaacs tragically took his own life in 1923 at the age of 35. The Boston Globe reported that “he complained of being lonesome on account of the absence of his wife,” who was away visiting family for Thanksgiving. It was Norton who discovered Isaac’s body, alone in his bed, a revolver in his hand. Isaacs left four young children, the youngest only 5 months old, together with an adopted nephew.
In 1926, Norton sold his store to grocer Paul Bangs, who kept it as a branch store of Main Street’s Bangs Market, and soon after ran it as an ice cream parlor. The ice cream shop was there as late as the 1950s, managed by Rod and Linnie Cleveland, who bought it at the end of the war. The Nortons retired and moved back to George’s childhood farm at Cape Higgon.
But were events as they appeared in the Globe’s article? The official death record of Gene Isaacs reports his cause of death as “2 pistol shot wounds in head,” and living family members have long shared rumors of a love triangle and murder plot involving Isaacs’ first wife, an African American maid from North Carolina, and members of the once influential Holmes family of Vineyard Haven. “The court records have all been blacked out,” writes one Edgartown family member. “Isaacs was shot in the back of the head, declared suicide, and the records stamped out forever. Great mystery!”
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 2018.