This Was Then: Frank Bodfish, blacksmith

And his poor stuffed chair.

Frank Bodfish stands in the doorway of his father's blacksmith shop. It later became Hancock Hardware, and today is Boch Gardens, on Beach Road, Vineyard Haven. — Courtesy Chris Baer

Blacksmith William Bodfish and his wife Polly Crowell moved to Holmes Hole from Yarmouth in the late 1850s, where they became the parents of Vineyard Haven’s five well-known Bodfish brothers: Josiah, the dry goods merchant (a “very large” man remembered for sitting in his display window, expertly crocheting lace); Captain Hartson, the whaler (author of the maritime memoir “Chasing the Bowhead”); William, the grocer (namesake of Smith, Bodfish, and Swift); Eben, the realtor (with his popular catchphrase, “Ask Eben”); and Prentice, the eldest son, who inherited his father’s career as the village blacksmith.

Prentice (sometimes spelled “Prentiss” or “Prentis”) opened a blacksmith shop on Beach Road, not far from modern Five Corners, where the recently completed Boch Gardens now stands. Author Everett Allen described Prentice as “a man of unusual strength and striking, rawboned appearance. Generations of townspeople and summer visitors stopped by the open door of his shop to watch him at work.”

By the late 1890s, Prentice’s eldest son, Frank, joined him in the trade. Frank shoed horses, while his father did the machining. “[They] operated from there for a long time, shoeing horses,” recalled the late Stan Lair (1902-1987) of Vineyard Haven. “Their biggest revenue, I guess, was horseshoeing, and general blacksmith work.”

But then automobiles came, and the trade which had occupied his father and grandfather was transformed, and maybe Frank was, too. In the 1910s Frank gave up on blacksmithing and horseshoes, and focused on his love for the horses instead: he became a teamster. He dedicated his leisure time to racing: driving sulkies on the racetrack at Girdlestone Park in Oak Bluffs in warm weather, and competitively sailing iceboats on Tashmoo in cold. By 1940, he became custodian of the Tisbury town dump.

That’s where the late Basil Welch of Vineyard Haven blew up his chair. Welch recalled in a 1981 interview, “Frank Bodfish was, as when I remember him, a dump keeper. He had no teeth. He used to smoke a pipe. Pipe used to flap up and down his mouth when he was talking. We used to call him ‘Barmy.’ He had an old shack up at the dump, and he had an old scrap iron pile, and he had an old stuffed armchair up against the shack.

“And Marshall Norton one time gave me a quart of black powder, gunpowder,” continued Welch, “and I didn’t know what the hell to do with it. So Sidney Counsell and I took it up to the dump, and Frank wasn’t there. We took the gunpowder and we sprinkled a little path of it, and we stuck it underneath his damn stuffed chair. And then we set a fire to the little trail of powder and that damn quart of gunpowder went off, boy, there was upholstery flying for fifty feet in the air, and it took every damn shingle off the side of his shack. They fell off just like dominoes tipping over. And we got the hell out of that dump some quick, I’ll tell you. And boy, he talked about that around town for a month, how somebody had blown up his chair and ruined the end of his building. God, what a mess we made up there. We never told anybody for years afterward.”

Frank’s father Prentice continued blacksmithing on Beach Road into his 80s. But the old shop was eventually sold to his niece’s husband, Hariph Hancock, who moved it further back on the property and built a new hardware store in front. “I believe some of the old blacksmith shop was still preserved in one of those back rooms,” recalled Lair. “At one time, I know the forge was there.” It was now Hancock Hardware.

The hardware store and what was left of the blacksmith shop was demolished in 2016, after sitting vacant for nearly 30 years, and any visible memories of Bodfish’s smithy were erased from Beach Road like that stuffed chair.

Welch was unrepentant of his childhood prank on poor Frank. “God, I’d like to relive some of those things again,” he concluded.

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.