Obie Tower liked his toys. Basil Welch reminisced about him in a 1982 conversation with my grandfather, Stan Lair, in a recording made about a year after Obie’s death: “Obie always had a sporty-looking car,” recalled Welch. “He always had a motorcycle, or boats, or something. He thoroughly enjoyed life.”
“He also was a musician,” added Lair. “Played saxophone. I played with him for a long time. He used to have this sweet potato he’d pull out once in a while and play a chorus on that.” (A “sweet potato” is a common nickname for an ocarina, a flutelike instrument popularized in recent years by the video game The Legend of Zelda.)
Welch continued, “He was very likable, very personable, very humorous. He loved to have fun, laugh, have a good time. He really should have been born wealthy, because he enjoyed what wealth could do. In other words, sporty cars, sporty boats, and having a good time. And it’s too bad that he ever had to work.”
So it’s no surprise that Obie would be among the first on the Island to pick up a newfangled 8mm movie camera, developed and sold by Eastman Kodak, beginning in 1932, as the first portable, nonprofessional film format. It used what we now call “standard 8mm” or “regular 8” film.
Hubert Osborne (“Obie”) Tower (1916–81) grew up on Mount Aldworth Road in Vineyard Haven. (His nickname, “Obie,” is pronounced to rhyme with “Bobby.”) He was the son and grandson of the two well-known chaplains of the Seamen’s Bethel in Vineyard Haven, Austin Tower and Madison Edwards, and the husband of the Bethel’s final caretaker, Tessie Tower. But Obie was more technologist than missionary. So he became an auto and marine mechanic, working first for Clarence Davey at the Dukes County Garage at Five Corners as an electrical mechanic, and then later for himself in Oak Bluffs.
Fast-forward to August 2022. I was cleaning out some of my grandfather’s things from the family basement when I found a mildewed leather satchel full of two dozen or so battered boxes and cans. I came close to throwing them all out. But on closer inspection, I discovered they contained 8mm films, which from their expiration dates can be dated to the late ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. Penciled on them are titles like “Hurricane,” “Menemsha scenes,” and “On and About the Vineyard.” There’s also a name written on most of the boxes: Hubert O. Tower.
But how can they be viewed, in an era when even finding a VHS player can be a challenge? That’s where the Oak Bluffs library came to my rescue. Reference librarian Nina Ferry Montanile informed me of the library’s grant-funded “Project Illuminate” initiative, brainchild of library director Allyson Malik, which provides a set of resources to collect and preserve the untold stories of the people of Oak Bluffs. Among their equipment is a device that digitizes 8mm and super-8 film.
So with the help of library associate Marco Daniels, I was able to digitize a handful of the old films. Their system scans two frames a second — 10 times the playback length. So scanning a three-minute film takes about 30 minutes (plus setup and rewinding) to generate a beefy .MP4 file on your SD card. (Have any old films? It’s pretty easy. Go see Marco to get started!)
One of Obie’s boxes, marked “Boats,” contained a black-and-white film reel labeled “Wrecks.” On it we found footage from Menemsha made immediately after the Great New England Hurricane of Sept. 21, 1938 — among the most destructive hurricanes ever to strike the Vineyard. Obie was 22 years old when he captured just over a minute of silent footage of what little was left of Menemsha after the devastating hurricane tore through it. Locals, aided by the Coast Guard, toil to free the boats as the wind whips through the grass. That scene is followed by a 10-second pan across the ruins of Hariph’s Creek Bridge, where the deadly storm surge turned Gay Head into a temporary island after the storm.
Another box of color film is marked “1944 Hurricane.” On it is more than three minutes of silent color footage taken from locations across the Island immediately after the Great Atlantic Hurricane of Sept. 15, 1944 — a Category 2 tempest that caused widespread destruction across the Vineyard and beyond.
The 1944 film begins with more than a minute of heaped wreckage — the remains of torn metal sheds, and wooden boats stacked like dropped toys — at the Martha’s Vineyard Shipbuilding Co. (today the M.V. Shipyard) along Beach Road in Vineyard Haven.
By 1:11, Obie appears to have moved to the ruins of a beach house along East Chop Drive, with East Chop Light visible in the distance. At 1:16, he’s moved again to the Oak Bluffs steamer wharf, strewn with debris. At 1:31, he shows us a car he found buried in the beach, evidently off Beach Road near Harthaven. At 1:36, we see the disaster in Edgartown Harbor, between Osborn’s Wharf and Memorial Wharf. I showed Bow Van Riper of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum the footage; he notes, “The fishing vessel Priscilla V. is visible, driven ashore by the giant steel-hulled yawl Manxman, of which Sam Norton was the paid captain. Some of the wreckage behind them is probably the ruins of Chadwick Coal Co.’s shed and offices. Most of the wrecked buildings you can see in subsequent shots are probably fishing shacks along Dock Street. The Kelley House, its yard filled with small sailboats, appears briefly.”
At 2:32, we see the wreckage of the teahouse at the Lagoon drawbridge. Then we’re back to Beach Road, Vineyard Haven, near Packer’s brick office building; the old, narrow oil tanks stand in the background. The final scene consists of some long pans along a wreck-strewn beach on the western side of the Vineyard Haven Harbor. The On Time II of Vineyard Haven is just one of many vessels thrown high onto the beach. Owen Park is briefly visible.
Obie spliced together his reels to produce longer films, too. I have digitized the first six-and-a-half minutes or so of a longer film titled “On and About the Vineyard,” depicting more tranquil scenes from Vineyard Haven to Gay Head, including a curious scene of a woman wearing trousers and a baseball mitt walking her pet goat down some Island street. (Can anyone recognize who or where?)
While Obie was evidently the filmmaker of most of the shorts in the satchel, there were a few other amateur cinematographers’ works found in it as well. There’s one film by Fred Gaskill (1908–80) of Oak Bluffs, a Canadian native who was for many years the proprietor of a laundry on Siloam Avenue in Oak Bluffs. Evidently made during the winter of 1946–47, the film starts with his toddler daughter Susan showing off her smart new outfit before it pans across the placid waters of “new” Menemsha, rebuilt after the ’38 Hurricane. The film ends with what looks like the south shore, perhaps Chilmark Great Pond.
Thanks to Bow Van Riper of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and Casey Regan of Oak Bluffs for helping identify the scenes in the films, and to Nina Ferry Montanile, Allyson Malik, and Marco Daniels of the Oak Bluffs library for the opportunity and assistance in digitizing them.
You can watch the films on the MV Times website at bit.ly/mvearlyfilms.
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.