This Was Then: The 1912 Fair

Who ran the races?


For generations, the fair has been a late-summer draw for kids of all ages. The late Stan Lair (1902-1987) of Vineyard Haven remembered it in the early 20th century as “a big event for kids, if you could get up there, you know. You never had transportation. If you could get up there some way. I played in the Vineyard Haven Band, that’s how I used to get up there. The band would play up there one day. Concerts and stuff.” Often held in September, the Island schools would close for a day to let students attend.

The 1912 fair opened on Tuesday, August 28. Put on by the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society and billed as the “annual cattle show and fair,” the event’s nominal draw was an exhibition of oxen and “cattle of all varieties” together with horses, sheep, and other livestock.

But the 1912 fair had a special treat for kids. The Fall River Daily Evening News reported, “A series of novelty sports afforded a great deal of pleasure to the spectators. A large crowd was in attendance, many making the trip from Oak Bluffs. There was a baseball game at 2:30, between the Vineyard Haven and Edgartown teams.”

The photo above, taken by 25-year-old Clara Look of West Tisbury, depicts the 100-yard dash at the 1912 fair. On the back of the photo, someone has handwritten the names of most of the participants:

The boy on the left, and the winner of this race, is identified only as “Madden.” While this might have been a nickname or a person yet to be identified, there was a 26-year-old candymaker from Boston named Jeremiah Madden who spent his summers in the 1910s working at Darling’s on Circuit Avenue, Oak Bluffs, and boarding in a home on Kennebec Ave. (He went on to work for the Jackson Confectionery Co. and a long career in candy making in Arlington.) Could this be him?

The next boy is tentatively identified as “Jeff Norton.” Was this Philip Jeffrey Norton (1892-1985)? The son of an Edgartown farmer who would have been 20 years old in this photo, Norton went on to serve as registrar of deeds for Dukes County for more than half a century.

The third runner from the left is Norman West (1891-1966). The son of dairy farmer Edgar West, Norman served in France in World War I with a motor transport company. He later became a Menemsha fisherman. (His son Hershel West has an uncredited role in the 1975 movie “Jaws” as Quint’s mate, “Salvatore.”)

The runner fourth from the left, sporting a “1914” shirt, is listed only as “_____ Marchant” of Edgartown. Could the “1914” refer to a graduating Tisbury High class? There are lots of Marchants in Edgartown, but this may have been 19-year-old Walter Marchant (1893-1932) or his 18-year-old brother, Arthur Marchant (1894-1957), sons of an Edgartown farming family. Walter was born in Denver, Colo., during their parents’ brief experiment with Western life, and eventually left the Island for a career in Newton as a machinist. His brother Arthur took over his father’s farm on Robinson Road in Edgartown.

The runner on the right is Darias Johnson (1890-1913) of Gay Head, a 22-year-old Wampanoag man who lived and worked as a laborer on the Chilmark dairy farm of James Adams. Darias and his brother Thaddeus were born to an unmarried Gay Head woman, Hannah Johnson; their grandfather Simon Johnson was a Wampanoag whaler who worked aboard the whaling ships Eagle, John Adams, Robert Morrison, and Mermaid from the 1830s until the 1850s. (He was evidently the man known as “Simon Dose” and apparently unrelated to Deacon Simon Johnson of Gay Head, sometimes referred to as Chief of the Wampanoag tribe.) But tragedy followed this family. Hannah, who made a living as a farmer, died of cancer when Darias was only 15. Darias himself died of a heart infection just one year after this photo was taken. His brother Thaddeus died two years afterward.

In the distance, on the right, is John R. Tilton (1869-1941). The writer noted on the back of the photo that Tilton was “somewhat late in leaving his ‘starting block.’” At 42 years old, it was unlikely he was actively competing in this race, and the remarks on the photo were probably made as a joke. Tilton was a single man, living with his parents and later with his brother’s family. He was usually (but not always) described as illiterate and jobless, although in later life he was described as a “farm laborer.”

In the second photo, 16-year-old Manuel Leite Campbell (1896-1988) of West Tisbury is seen winning the one-mile race at the 1912 M.V.A.S. fair (popularly known as “the County Fair”). A member of the Tisbury High School Class of 1915, Campbell was born on the island of São Miguel in the Azores, and was later drafted into the Army and sent to France, although he didn’t become a U.S. citizen until years after the war. He worked as a car salesman for the Dukes County Garage in Vineyard Haven, and then became co-owner of the bus and taxi business known as Island Transport, as well as a gas station and car wash. He ran the Boston Marathon for several years, and in his younger days was also remembered as a star pole vaulter. He would eventually survive to become one of the last four living veterans of World War I on Martha’s Vineyard.

The photographer of both photos, Clara Look, later married Horace Athearn, who appears in the second photo in his white shirt and tie. “He was second in the high jump that year. I still have his trophy,” remarks grandson Charlie Kernick of West Tisbury.

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.



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