This Was Then: Island Hermits

A visit to Trippy’s.

Unidentified beachfront shack, West Tisbury. — Courtesy Chris Baer

Our Island has hidden a lot of hermits and recluses over the years. Some perhaps hiding, some just peculiar, some maybe seeking a little peace and quiet. Others isolated themselves for reasons we may never learn. 

There was Nancy Luce, of course. The famously ​​poultry-philic writer was described by the late 19th-century national press as “The Female Hermit of Martha’s Vineyard.” She and her rustic country home became a tourist attraction in her later years. 

Mostly forgotten now, but almost as famous then, was Edwin Luce (1844-1911), “The Hermit of Indian Hill.” He owned most of the well-known North Tisbury peak, at that time a clearcut vantage point commanding a breathtaking view. From his home at the foot of the hill, Luce kept careful records counting every summer visitor to climb his peak. He counted 758 in 1904 alone. The old farmer died of breast cancer in 1911.

The late Henry Scott of Chilmark wrote of the 19th-century owner of the home known as the Experience Mayhew House in Quenames. Scott referred to him as “a bachelor, a fancied horse-doctor, something of a hermit. He ran it as a farm. He cut marsh hay with a scythe, wearing a shirt, but no pants. When the Hancock girls from nearby appeared, he would hastily put his pants back on. The house was in quite a shambles when he died.”

At the turn of the 20th century, there was an immigrant West Tisbury fruit farmer named Carl Sievert (1847-1918), better known as “German Charlie.” Dionis Coffin Riggs referred to him as a “mysterious character” in her book, “People to Remember.” She noted that “Sievert and his wife established a good farm, building up the sandy soil. People came from miles away to buy their strawberries which were mulched with pine needles. Theirs was then the only house on Old County Road, except those near the post office.” 

Even more mysterious was another German farmer, Heinrich “Henry” Buhk (1852-?), known as “the German Hermit,” who maintained a farm in what is now the State Forest. He was sometimes associated with Baron Von Horst, knighted baron of the dukedoms of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who purchased huge swaths of Vineyard real estate about 1900, reputedly to grow hops, only to be later imprisoned for espionage in England.

There was Harold Look, the hermit of Vineyard Haven’s Herring Creek, at Tashmoo. Described by the Boston papers as a “fisherman recluse.” Look would occasionally take in visitors. In a 1982 interview, the late Stan Lair recalled, “He lived right out on the Herring Creek in an old shack there. In his younger days he used to have all these stories he’d tell about ‘riding the rods’ — I guess he was sort of a hobo, went all over the country. Kids used to go down there when they were catching herring in the spring. You could go down there and spend the night and you’d get a half a share when they sold the herring. I was put up in Harold’s house there a few times, He was a sort of funny guy. When you went in, instead of saying ‘shut the door’ he’d say ‘put the wood in the hole!’ You know, that sort of stuff. Tough guy. But I got along all right with him.” 

Look’s years of solitude ended abruptly in 1935, when he murdered Knight Owen, a socially prominent investment broker. With three point-blank shots from his pistol outside a Vineyard Haven cocktail party, Look killed Owen as he sat in his parked car, reportedly over an imagined slight involving a female neighbor. The Boston Globe noted, “After the killing, Look said he guessed he had ‘lived too much alone.’” (It was often described as the first murder on the Island in 60 years, but that’s only if you don’t count at least three other suspicious deaths that occured in the years spanning them.)

Then there was Harry Tripp (1870-1969) of West Tisbury. Riggs counted him among the most notable of the “Great Pond People.” A Rochester (Mass.) farmer, Tripp left his wife and son around 1910 to make a new home in the woods near Tisbury Great Pond. Riggs wrote, “Living at Middle Point on not much but Pond fare and liquor, he was well over ninety years old when he died.” Indeed, he was six months shy of his 100th birthday when he died in 1969.

In a 1982 tape, the late Basil Welch of Vineyard Haven told the story of visiting Tripp while reminiscing about his friend Cornish “Bud” Hinckley, wood dealer at Hinckley’s Beach Road lumberyard.

Basil recalled, “Old Bud Hinckley. God, he was a funny, funny guy. I liked Bud. He used to go out to Tisbury Pond. Old Hal Tripp lived out there. ‘Trippy’ we used to call him. He was an old hermit. And Bud Hinckley used to like to go out there. I didn’t think too much of it ‘til I found out that he used to like to go out and have a drink or two with old Trippy.

“One winter, God there was a lot of snow on the ground. Bud didn’t dare to try to go out in his car, and he asked me if I thought we could get out there. He hadn’t been out there for a week. I always had some old cars that I was always tinkering with; there wasn’t too many places I couldn’t get with them. I picked up Bud one night, bag of food, pint of liquor, and we made it all the way out to Trippy’s, out through the woods, out at Deep Bottom. A couple times we had to back up and bang our way through the drifts, but we made it. God, Bud talked about that ride right up to the day he died. But he never went out there again without inviting me and I used to go quite a bit with him. 

“God, this night we went out to Trippy’s. Well, like I say, he used to take food and Trippy would cook supper for Bud and we’d have a drink before supper and a drink after supper and then they’d play a couple, three games of cribbage, and he’d bring out a couple of books or something for Trippy and then he’d leave whatever was left in the bottle, and we’d come back. And this night that we went out there in the snow, Bud took some extra food because, you know, I was there, and so Trippy cooked. Well, Trippy would never eat with us. He’d cook but he wouldn’t eat with us. And Bud took a couple of steaks and there was some potatoes and peas, and Trippy cooked them up on the stove for us. We had a drink. He cooked up that food. My God, I don’t know what he did to it, it was the best-tasting meal. Maybe it’s because it was snow and cold and whatever, but God it was delicious. I remember Bud saying to Trippy — you had to really know Trippy to appreciate him; he was tall and lean, a big droopy mustache, chewed tobacco, no teeth — and Bud says, ‘My God,’ he says, ‘this is good food!’ And I remember Trippy wadding his tobacco around his mouth, and he lifted up the stove lid and spit into the stove, put the lid back down. ‘Shucks,’ he says ‘tain’t nothin’ but common vittles!’ And that was his way of saying it. But I enjoyed going out there with Bud. I always felt bad when he died because it was the end. I used to go out and see Trippy many times after that, but it was a real enjoyment going out there with Bud, I’ll tell you. Always gave me the finger every time he’d see me. Oh, yeah. Always had to throw one finger up in the air, and then he’d laugh like hell.

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.