This Was Then: Superintendent of streets

Keeping the streets clean in Vineyard Haven in the early 1940s was no work for slouches.

George Sears and Mike Fontes, Vineyard Haven, circa 1940s. — Courtesy Chris Baer

“You didn’t have tractors, you didn’t have the machinery that you got today,” recalled the late Basil Welch of Vineyard Haven in a 1982 recording. “We had an old 1936 ton-and-a-half dump truck, and we put a plow on it that had to be pumped up and released by hand. We used to go out and plow snow with that thing. You had to put chains on the back wheels, and that was in the days when before you plowed the streets, you shoveled the sidewalks. [The Tisbury Highway Department] used to hire the school kids to shovel the sidewalks away from Main Street, but we used to shovel the sidewalks on Main Street and then plow the snow on Main Street. Then we had to shovel all the snow that was on the street into the trucks and cart it all off by hand. There were no backhoes or tractors to do it like there is today. And the streets were in better shape than they are nowadays, too. They were clean. We used to sand the streets with this ton-and-a-half truck and there were no sand spreaders like they have today, and we used to have two men in the back of that truck with shovels, shoveling sand and spreading it out the back of the trucks.”

George Sears (1887-1965), a former insurance agent, was elected road commissioner of Tisbury in 1933, replacing oil salesman Fred Vincent in the position. Born in Dennis, Sears moved to the Vineyard in the 1920s and made the newspapers briefly in 1929 when he and his father-in-law went missing overnight after they set off from Dennisport for the Vineyard in an old leaking dory. (Their motor died, and they drifted back to shore soaked but unharmed 36 hours later.) Sears ran Tisbury’s highway department for more than 20 years.

Welch recalled, “He was a good-sized man, had a big chin on him, and I guess you’d call him a politician, too. He knew how to play the game. Everybody criticized his work, and others praised his work, and those that criticized him this year were praising him next year, because he had a way of, well, like I said, he was a politician. He had a way of getting around people. A likable guy; I liked George. He was good to the people that worked for him. I worked for George one winter on the highway department in town here, and he was a nice guy. If you worked, he made sure that you had a day’s work any time you needed it, and if you didn’t want to work, if you were a slouch, then he didn’t want you.”

It wasn’t his only job. Sears ran a fish market briefly on Union Street, and was later said to have been the local vendor of lottery tickets, then illegal. “At one time he was in the numbers racket,” recalled the late Stan Lair of Vineyard Haven. “He used to come around and sign you up for the Treasury balance.” (The “numbers” was commonly based on the last three or five digits of the daily U.S. Treasury balance, a figure printed daily in national newspapers.) Sears’ family, on the other hand, recalls that he was also deputy sheriff of Dukes County. “My mother told me my grandmother had a picture of him in uniform hanging on the wall,” writes his great-granddaughter, Bethany Scanlon of Edgartown.

By 1940, Sears hired Miguel Bettencourt “Mike” Fontes (1880-1955) as the town street sweeper at a salary of $1,800 a year. Fontes was a native of São Jorge Island in the Azores, and had previously worked as a laborer at Seven Gates Farm.

“Mike’s job was to sweep the street,” recalled Lair, “and he started working well into the night, sweeping the streets. That was his entire job. He always had the streets off Main Street looking very good, too.”

“Old Mike Fontes lived on the Edgartown Road,” recalled Welch, “almost up to Skiff Avenue on the right-hand side. Mike Fontes was the street sweeper in Vineyard Haven here, he didn’t drive or anything else. Mike used to go to work around nine or ten o’clock at night, and he started at the Mansion House at one end of Main Street and swept the whole street and down toward the wharf, and then along Union Street, with a rubbish barrel on wheels that he used to push, and swept it all by hand, every day. Then he’d go home, he’d get through around five or six o’clock in the morning. Oh my God, God, he worked hard. He did that for years, he was an old man. And his wife, boy, she was a gadabout, though. She drove a car, Mrs. Fontes. She dressed like a million dollars. I never, ever remember seeing her taking the old man anywhere in that car.”

Their jobs changed titles over the years — it was “Road Commissioner” and “Superintendent of Streets” in 1931; in 1938, the elected position became “Surveyor of Highways,” which by 1953 became a board of three road commissioners, while the hired position became the “foreman.” But the term “Superintendent of Streets” was still used casually in Vineyard Haven throughout much of the 20th century (and is still used today by other towns, including West Tisbury).

By 1954, Sears and Fontes both retired, and Manuel J. Canha, a/k/a “Manel” King, became the next foreman of the Tisbury Highway Department, a position he held into the 1960s. (Like many members of the Canha family, Manel sometimes used the surname “King.”)

“Manel was a local boy,” recalled Welch. “He was Manuel King’s son, lived up on the Edgartown Road, the corner of Skiff Avenue. Manel was an awful nice guy. He went in World War II, and come out, and he worked for the highway department, and then he was superintendent of it. God, he was a most accommodating, obliging guy that there was in town. Nothing he wouldn’t do for anybody. Manel was born with a physical defect of a hair lip and he talked through his nose, like. He finally had his lip operated on. You always had trouble sometimes understanding him. He was an awful nice guy.”

“The street was a hell of a lot cleaner than it is today,” summarizes Welch in his 1982 recording.

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.