The Ford Motor Company is often lauded for the invention of the modern assembly line (a claim that begins with a lot of caveats). But the truth was, unless you lived near Detroit, that Model T you ordered in 1919 from, say, Martha’s Vineyard, would come disassembled and packed tightly inside a railroad car when it arrived in Woods Hole.
So Vineyard Haven Ford dealer Walter Renear regularly sent a group of men to Woods Hole to reassemble the Model T Fords after they came down from Boston on the railway, six “knocked down” autos to each freight car. Renear, who was also a Vineyard Haven realtor, liveryman, undertaker, and sheriff of Dukes County, operated a Ford dealership at the bottom of Church Street from 1911 until his death in 1924.
The photos you see here were made about 1919, and depict four of the men Renear regularly hired for the job: Frank Amaral, “Boots” Andrews, “Buss” Smith, and “Chicken” Baptiste, all of Vineyard Haven.
Frank Amaral (1872-1937) was a native of São Miguel island in the Azores, and the oldest of Renear’s team of auto assemblers. After immigrating to the United States as a teenager, Amaral spent more than a decade living in Ohio before coming to the Island in the early 1900s to work as a gardener for Annie Flanders at the head of Center Street in Vineyard Haven, where took care of her cows and garden.
Stan Lair recalled the reason Renear hired him: “They’d take Frank along for the ‘beef.’ He was a big, rugged man and he could lift the bodies right on the chassis, and that was his main job… He could lift those things up like nothing. He was a real nice guy, though, we always liked him.”
Albert “Boots” Andrews (1897-1955) was born in Edgartown, the son of Azorean immigrants. He served in the Naval Reserves during World War I, then became a driver for a Vineyard Haven express company. He was brother-in-law to both of his young co-workers at Renear’s, Buss and Chicken.
“He was quite a guy,” recalled the late Stan Lair of Vineyard Haven. “He was always raising the dickens around.” His nickname “Boots” was “because he wore high ones,” remembers his grand-nephew, Lester Baptiste of Vineyard Haven. By the 1930s Andrews had moved to Phoenix, Az., where he spent the rest of his life working as a highway patrolman and city employee.
Herbert “Buss” Smith (1899-1983), whose sister Marguerite married Boots, worked summers for Harry Horton’s bus line, which consisted of two wooden-bodied Reo buses running between Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs. Buss’ father, grocer Art Smith, was co-owner of S.B.S. By the early 1920s, Buss moved off-Island, first to New Bedford and then to Quincy, to pursue a career with the telephone company.
George “Chicken” Baptiste (1895-1966) was a Vineyard Haven native, the son of Azorean immigrants. He was a World War I veteran, and worked as a mechanic for Renear’s Garage and Service Station on Church Street for many years. He was married to Boots’ sister, Mary Andrews.
The late Basil Welch recalled, “Chicken Baptiste was kind of short, bowlegged. Oh God, he was bowlegged. But I don’t know of anybody that got more fun out of life, really, than Chicken Baptiste. I know he worked at Renear’s garage, the Ford garage, for a good many years, and he was working at Dukes County Garage when I worked there. He worked in the body shop painting all the cars. I don’t know of anybody that got more fun, laughing, out of life than he did.”
Lair added, “He came out of the Navy; he was in the Navy during World War I. He learned to play a little ukulele, and he delighted in getting that ukulele going and singing these songs they sang in the Navy, entertaining the boys. A little bit off-color, most of them.”
“He got the ‘Chicken’ nickname because he raised chickens, pigeons, and had a huge garden and fruit trees at the family homestead,” writes his grandson, Lester Baptiste, who still has his grandfather’s ukulele. “My father taught me the ukulele at 5 years old,” he writes.
Sheriff Renear’s son, Leland, took over the Ford dealership and garage, and eventually Leland’s son, Bob Renear, took over management of it in turn. Today, Renear’s Ford Showroom, built of reinforced concrete in 1922 by Major Charles Barnett, is now known as Church Street Landing.
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.