Sam Hart Low
My first memory of the Vineyard is of the 1944 hurricane when many relatives
came to our house, deep in the woods, for refuge. I was two years old.
I remember the hurricane because my parents gave me a flashlight for
amusement. I shined it on the faces of our guests and was amazed at
the emotion there - the first time I saw adults display fear.
In the woods, where I lived with my parents, tall pines were sheathed
in bark like the skin of alligators, their high branches exploding in
the sunlight. Amidst the pines, we lived in a "gingerbread house" that
came from the campgrounds where my father and mother and their artist
friends often painted. They found the house in August, 1938, during
the depression. It was tiny. It had a "for sale" sign on it. The owner,
Mrs. Alice B. Burns, had moved to Cape Cod. The price was one hundred
"What shall we do with the furniture in it?" my parents asked Mrs. Burns.
"Keep it," was the response.
I was told they moved the house from Oak Bluffs to Harthaven with a
team of oxen. If you know where to look, you can still find a tiny empty
lot where the "gingerbread house" used to be.
When I was seven, I walked barefoot down the sand road in front of our
house and then along the tarred part in front of Ted Harts' house. The
road was nubbled with round smooth stones, and warm - and then I crossed
the highway (with almost no traffic so it was safe for kids) and went
to the harbor in the bracing air and out onto the gray planks of the
I Netted crabs in the morning, starting at the Young's dock and working
south to the Vibberts' - six docks, all owned by relatives - but Stan
Hart's was the best because there were so many fish heads on the bottom
there to attract crabs (Stan was a great fisherman). Then I sold them
house to house - ten cents each, twenty-five for soft-shells.
I remember Stan, early in the morning, opening up his boathouse - dew
still clinging to the door and inside the smell of oil, varnish, paint
and manila rope neatly hanging on pegs. I remember Stan's belt cinched
up around his belly, his glasses' case attached to it, marlin looped
around the belt and descending into a pocket where it was attached to
a knife with many folding blades.
I remember rowing a square-stern Old Town canoe between the jetties
to "Louise's Beach" nestled against the north breakwater where the ocean
was deep and the sand smooth; following my father along the beach as
he hunted boat-shells and periwinkles and - horror of horrors - ate
them; lying on the curving floor of a canoe on a still summer afternoon
and listening to the lapping of water; digging clams in front of the
My dad taught me to row a skiff backwards, making no noise, as he speared
eels in the harbor on calm nights.
"No sound except the water dripping from the oars," he said.
Then a sharp splash as the spear went down and the eel slithering along
the bottom of the boat. I learned to put my heels up on the gunwales
and continue to row. Walter Korder, an artist who painted murals with
my father, went ass over teakettle on our porch when the pliers he was
using to skin an eel lost their grip. A conger eel that looked dead
bit my father's wrist and we employed two screw drivers to pry it loose.
My father stretched a net across the harbor entrance at night and found
big holes when he hauled it the next morning. Sharks, probably, or big
stripers. Beneath its placid surface, the harbor was wild.
The people who settled Harthaven first came down to the Vineyard in
the 1870s from the Hardware Capital of the World. The Hardware Capital
was New Britain Connecticut, so named because industries like Corbin
Lock, Russel, Erwin and Company, North and Judd Manufacturing, Landers,
Frary and Clark and the Stanley Rule and Level Company (later Stanley
Works) sent tall blackened chimneys into the air over the growing town
where a population of mostly immigrant labor produced such things as
hinges, hammers and locks.
"These companies," historian Alfred Andrews wrote in 1867, "are said
to have indirectly coined money during the Civil War and all with their
perfected machinery are able to compete in most articles of hardware
with the old establishments and cheap labor of England."
One of the captains of this thriving industry was my great grandfather,
William H. Hart, president of Stanley Works. He was an inventive man,
with many patents to his name. He is credited (at least within the family)
with developing the first American cold rolling process for manufacturing
In 1867, George W. Landers may have been the first hardware capitalist
to buy a lot in Oak Bluffs, at least that's what the records in the
Duke's County Courthouse say. Philip Corbin came down in 1868 and erected
the turreted Victorian mansion, the one renovated about ten years ago
that overlooks the park and bandstand. In 1871, William Hart arrived
in Oak Bluffs and bought five lots from the Land and Wharf Company on
Penacock Avenue and three on Massasoit Avenue which he combined to provide
an ample family compound. In 1873, he bought three more lots on Pequot
Avenue. He was looking ahead.
William and his wife Martha had five children - George, Howard, Edward,
Maxwell, Walter (my grandfather) and Martha. For more than 40 years
the family summered in Oak Bluffs, but in 1911 William began buying
up land to the south of Farm Pond, eventually acquiring property that
extended all the way from the end of the Oak Bluffs seawall to the second
inlet into Sengekontacket Pond. He bought land from mostly old time
Vineyarders such as Harry P. Kent, John H. Anderson, Manuel S. de Bettencourt,
Charles T. Luce, John C. Hamblin, Susan F. Norton, Mary A. Beetle, Michael
J. Keegan and Susan R. Beetle. This was the beginning of a family settlement
soon to be called Harthaven.
My great grandfather laid out lots and formed a company - Hart Realty
- to manage and sell them. The community filled out. Martha Hart married
Ethelbert Allen Moore and their house was built pretty much side-by-side
with those of Howard, Walter, Edward and George. Children came along,
then grandchildren. In 1942, it was my turn.
Every day when the weather permitted, my grandfather, Walter Hart, descended
from his house fronting the harbor to the dock where he kept his catboat
- Sea Pup. He dressed for a sail in a blue denim jacket, blue pants
and a floppy white golfer's hat. Sailing in the Sea Pup as a "cabin
boy," I served ginger ale and ritz crackers smeared with peanut butter
to my grandfather and my grandmother and, often, to a maiden aunt who
we called "Bea".
I remember my father and his "artists' group" gathering at the "Flea
Bag" (Stan Hart's guest house) in the early morning when dark shadows
splayed out from pine trees and scrub oak. They joked and grumbled.
They smelled of cigars and garlicky food and, usually, of liquor and
fish. By seven or so, they were gone to places all over the island that
my father had scouted in his many summers on Martha's Vineyard. Sometimes
I went with them.
Menemsha was a favorite painting spot. At the end of rickety piers fishing
craft with high bows and low sterns were moored. I remember one lean
man, dressed in hipboots from which a blue work shirt emerged, his face
grizzled with beard, who greeted my father with: "Well hello Sandy -
is the sap still running?" The man was called Horsepower Mayhew. He
was famous among the already legendary fisherfolk of Menemsha. Later,
when I asked my father what Mr. Mayhew had meant by "sap," I received
an evasive reply.
It was a time before the deluge of tourists and summer people and so
the artists were welcomed by the men who labored in the tiny shacks
at the head of each pier. It was a time when Martha's Vineyard seemed
truly remote. None of my school chums, for example, had ever heard of
I once asked my father why he always painted sorry-looking dilapidated
buildings. "Why don't you paint new ones?"
"Because old places are more beautiful," he told me. "They contain the
memories of all the people who lived in them."
The artists were mostly professionals but they were occasionally joined
by amateurs. The one I remember most was a man small in stature but
large in muscle and character. A shock of red hair framed a face which
displayed great sweeps of emotion - James Cagney, the actor. There was
also Roland Winters, another actor, who often appeared in Charlie Chan
movies. There was a writer whose work regularly appeared in The Reader's
Digest, and there was the owner of a large department store in Hartford,
Connecticut, who I knew only as "Mr. Allen."
In their forty or so years of visual explorations, the artists came
back with scenes of beaches, boats, houses, lobster pots, gulls, fishermen...
They painted in weather both angry and serene. At the end of their stay,
they displayed their work on the porch of the Flea Bag. Most everyone
in Harthaven came to drink gin and tonics and old-fashioneds and admire
A lot of their paintings now hang on walls all over the island and in
New Britain, a catalog of Martha's Vineyard in a time well before the
flood of day-trippers and millionaires who brought mainland discriminations
with them. You did not then identify yourself by what town you lived
in, for example. You did not live in Oak Bluffs or Edgartown, although
even then each town had its own cachet. You lived, simply, "on the Vineyard."
The entire island was your community.
When it was time to learn to swim my father told me that his father
had taught him by throwing him overboard and he guessed it was the "best
way." But my mother had other ideas and taught me herself, from the
beach, with patience.
We went up to the South Shore with the Moores in an old woody station
wagon and dangled our feet off the tailgate, giddy with the motion of
the flashing road beneath us and the exhaust from the old engine. We
mostly had the beach to ourselves and stayed all day, cooking hot dogs
When I was sixteen and we could drive, my cousin Ronnie Moore and I
went to parties all over the island which was then a single teenage
community. The parties were open to everyone and so they were huge,
often a hundred kids or more.
I speared tautog with mask, fins and "arbalette" down at the old jetties
- the ones that, today, Alison Shaw loves to photograph. The tautog
appeared in a hole in the rocks, paused, then turned to go back in.
That's when you speared them, right behind the eye.
To meet girls, I took a job writing the Gazette's "Harthaven column."
There were many babysitters my age in those days and so I developed
a keen journalistic interest in visitors with children. I met my wife
Karin that way. She was sitting for the Donald Harts at the Crow's Nest,
a complex of houses that starred out over a high bluff toward Nantucket.
One steamy summer day I walked up there and knocked on the door. Karin
appeared, obviously in a state of confusion.
"Are you the plumber?" she asked.
I considered an affirmative reply but I was only fourteen and it seemed
doubtful that she would believe for long that I was a plumber.
"No," I said, "I'm the plumber's helper. He always sends me ahead to
find out what's wrong." (I still think that was an inspired answer.)
What was wrong was obvious. Karin was standing ankle deep in soap suds
hemorrhaging from a washing machine that had stopped responding to the
off button. In an uncharacteristically intelligent response, I shut
off the electricity at the fuse box. I was a hero. In our subsequent
forty or so years of courtship and marriage I have been unable to repeat
such an act of heroism, but she married me anyway.
I also wrote for the Gazette about diving on the Port Hunter (a freighter
that sank off Hedge Fence Shoal with general cargo in 1918) and about
finding other shipwrecks with friends from Oak Bluffs - Arnie Carr and
the "Jones Boys," Dick and Wille. I didn't write about almost burning
up our boat when we took white phosphorous off the Port Hunter and it
As a result of writing for the paper, I received my first (and only)
angry words from my uncle Stan Hart. I had reported, in various Harthaven
columns, about his running aground in the entrance to his own harbor
and on the back of a whale; about trying to harpoon swordfish, missing,
and fouling a propeller with the harpoon's rope. I wrote irreverent
descriptions of cocktail hour aboard his boat - the Curlew. I referred
to Stan's crew, my father among them, as "Harthaven's Katzenjammer kids."
Then one day, up at Stan's house, he hooked me with a cold stare.
"I don't EVER want to see my name again in that column of yours, do
you hear me?"
It was my first experience with censorship and, for a moment, I considered
discussing free press issues with Stan - but better judgement prevailed.
I learned later that the boating crowd in Essex had become acquainted
with my column and that when Stan cruised into Essex harbor that year,
he was greeted with:
"Is that you Captain Hart? How did you manage to run aground in your
own harbor? Look out for that shoal over there!" "Hit any more whales
have you?" "How's the sword fishing been?"
I couldn't really blame him for being angry.
In another column I managed to set the jaws of yet another elder, a
cousin, by referring to him as "Captain Ha-Ha" Russ Hart. This resulted
in a number of letters-to-the-editor from Russ and his brother Pete.
In one of them Russ took me to task by pointing out his vast seafaring
"Breaking in on small sailboats at the age of 5 or 6, in the pond between
Crows' Nest and the Vibberts' place," he wrote, "I early learned the
finer points of dirty yachting and the art of treading water. I served
an apprenticeship, working my way from first mate to able seaman, on
Vineyard Fifteens and Eighteens under the harsh tutelage of such redoubtable
captains as Al 'Whaddya mean, rocks? The chart shows 60 feet of water'
Pease. I have a blue captain's hat with gold braid. Fifteen years ago,
I could chart courses with precise, accurate speed, take azimuths, shoot
the sun, and determine latitude and longitude, and correct compasses
to within a degree. Today, I must confess, I chart courses slowly and
inaccurately, have no idea what an azimuth is, can 'shoot the breeze'
but not the sun, seldom know exactly where I am, consider my compass
accurate if, on a cloudy day when I can't see the sun, it tells me 'North
is roughly speaking over that way', and think that 'tide tables' are
instructions as to the proper amount of detergent for various fabrics."
"Nevertheless, when a brilliant neuro-surgeon becomes, in time, a doddering,
wheezing, incompetent old windbag who couldn't put on a Band-Aid without
making a hash of it, people still call him 'doctor,' out of respect
for the skill and knowledge he once possessed. So, young insolent pup,
shall I continue to have my title In front of my name on my calling
cards and stationary, and so I shall expect others to call me."
The dispute over the "Captain Ha-Ha" title continued for many weeks
in the letters-to-the-editor section with non-Harthavenites joining
in to condemn the letters as drivel and others approving the right of
the Gazette to publish drivel. Eventually it all died down.
The mansion built by Harthaven's founder, William Hart, still stands
at the head of a circular drive looking out with severe pomp over a
sward of grass and, across the Beach Road, to the harbor. On September
17, 1914, a Vineyard Gazette reporter visited the new home and published
a gushing report. "There is a prospect that more new houses will be
built in the new "Hart Settlement" off the Beach Road," she wrote. "It
was our privilege to be shown over the lovely estate and new summer
residence of Mr. Wm. H. Hart one day last week. Here are all the latest
modern improvements and conveniences. Electric bells and electric lights
all over the house and on the spacious piazzas. The interior of the
house is of hard wood, finished in natural color. Fine oriental rugs
cover the floors and the furnishings and hangings are all in keeping.
Mr. Hart has built a fine circular driveway made from the Beach Road
up to and from his residence. This has been concreted. The house sets
a long distance back from the road and is in the midst of groves of
oaks and pines. …A fine view of the sound is seen from the house as
well as the interior ponds upon which his land borders. …Mr. Hart has
had broad roads cut through his land making a drive through the woods
a great pleasure. There is no doubt but that this estate will be one
of the beauty spots of the town in a few years."
On one late summer afternoon in about 1959, the circular driveway in
front of this imposing mansion, now owned by the Moores, became a race
track where we staged the "Grand Prix du Harthaven." We had flaggers
at the corners to turn away traffic. We had Allen Moore in his Alfa
Romeo Gulietta, Ron Moore in a 1933 Plymouth sedan, Birge Hewlett in
a black MGA, Mark Donohue in a red Corvette and me in my parent's Volkswagen
beetle. The Volkswagen did alright for a while because the track was
so tight the other cars couldn't use their horsepower. But then, coming
into the North Turn, I found Mark's Corvette on my bumper, overcooked
the turn and took the "escape road" up toward the Moore's backporch.
I hit the brakes but it was all sand and leaves and the car didn't seem
to slow down at all. I almost destroyed the steps leading up to the
porch from which Peggy Moore was watching the race. "Your eyes were
as big as saucers," she later told me. I guess they were. The race was
called soon thereafter and Mark was declared the winner. He would later
go on to win, among other famous races, the Indianapolis 500. His brilliant
career as a professional racer was cut short in a horrifying accident
on a famous race track, driving a Porsche 917, the most powerful car
of its day.
I have returned to Harthaven's tiny harbor on many different boats,
in fair weather and foul, by day and by night, under sail and power…
and each return has been different and each has been exhilarating. In
the Puffin, a 28 foot sloop, you could try to run in under sail, but
you had the engine running in case there was trouble making the turn.
In my father's boat, the Dollop, you felt the heat coming up from the
engine on a cold Fall day as you throttled back to take the entrance.
If you had been fishing, you held up a number of fingers to correspond
to your catch when Stan or my dad or Max Moore would ask to know. Or
you held your hands palms upward which meant you had been "skunked."
Homecoming in a boat is special everywhere, but coming back to our harbor
always seemed a little better than anywhere else I have been. It still
The clambake was the BIG annual Harthaven event. Stan Hart had his company
fabricate stainless steel bake boxes. Everyone gathered on Stan's lawn
before the bake. Kids were allowed. We peeled potatoes, put streamers
in cheese-cloth bags, cut up fish, shucked corn. There was music and
laughter and much conversation.
Kids were not allowed at the clambake itself, however. You couldn't
get in until you were eighteen, so it became a rite of passage. I was
twelve when I learned why. That was about 1954, when the bake was held
on the beach across the harbor from my grandparents' house (The Walter
Harts). To get there, the adults were rowed across in skiffs by us kids.
I had my Delano Sea Skiff, Ronnie Moore had his Skimmar and Pete Basset
had a wonderfully strange craft fashioned cunningly by his father from
strips of wood and tarpaper. I swear! His dad had made a framework of
pine which he sheathed in tarpaper (of the kind shacks are made of).
He gooped up the seams with more tar so they held out the water. Pete's
boat had the advantage of being light and easy to row, but it looked
Getting the guests over to the clambake went without incident. Then
we waited to ferry them back. We waited for about four hours.
When our elders finally appeared on the dunes, the sun had begun to
address the horizon. There was much laughter and merriment. There was
singing and shouting. There was also a great deal of nautically improper
behavior. Some adults would NOT SIT DOWN as we had all been taught to
do in boats since babes. They stood up and waved and carried on. We
took them across anyway.
As the afternoon lurched toward evening, the process became more perilous.
One gentleman who insisted on standing toppled overboard, upsetting
the boat which went down stern first amidst - and this was even more
horrifying - gales of laughter. For a time we were able to reestablish
a semblance of discipline by reminding our riders of the fate which
had befallen their comrades.
It was near six o'clock when a particularly unruly lot called for a
boat. It was Peter's turn. In retrospect, we should have known what
was about to happen. From a near vantage point, I watched as Peter loaded.
"Step carefully, " he ordered, "do not step on the tar paper, only on
the wooden framework. NOT ON THE TARPAPER, YOU WILL GO RIGHT THROUGH!"
Peter shoved off and stroked for the opposing shore with an energy inspired
by premonitions of disaster. Half-way across, a gentleman stood up to
hail his wife.
"NOT ON THE TARPAPER," screamed Peter.
The man took a step toward the bow.
As in all disasters, what happened next seemed to occur in slow motion.
The gentleman descended through the tarpaper, still standing, until
all I could see above the gunwale was his head and shoulders, arms flailing.
"JEESSUUSS CHRIST!" he yelled.
I imagined that his feet must now be touching the bottom of the harbor
and he might simply walk the boat to the opposing shore. But, unfortunately,
the watertight integrity of Peter's craft had been broached catastrophically.
Within seconds, all that remained were swimmers and floating pocket
A few days later we hauled Peter's craft out to deep water, filled it
with stones, and buried it at sea. For a few years, I could find the
outline of it on clear days but then, finally, it disappeared.
In 1964 my father died. Of him, James Cagney said, "he was a great artist
but an even greater friend." A few months after the funeral, Stan Hart
took me aside and said, "when they made him, they threw away the mold."
In the Fall of 1964, we laid his ashes in swirling currents off Cape
I went away from the island for a while. I sailed the Pacific, courtesy
of the U.S. Navy; visited my father's birthplace in Hawaii; dove as
an archeologist on Byzantine and Roman shipwrecks in the Mediterranean;
lived with Peruvian squatters and wrote a Ph.D. thesis about their lives;
moved to Vermont, then Maine where I began my life with Karin. When
Karin and I revisited the island in the mid-seventies, we found tour
busses too big to negotiate eighteenth century streets; newcomers with
overheated egos; houses out of scale with the land and our memories
of it. For a time, we stayed away.
But Harthaven drew us back. I found my extended family - what Hawaiians
call "ohana" - still in residence. My mother, now a year-round resident,
had merged her life with those of the Abbes, Duttons, Bodkins, Harts,
Lorentzs, Bamfords, Hansons, Moores, Peases, Vibberts, Youngs, Conlins
and so many others. The place was thick with memories. Karin and I found
ourselves visiting more often and staying longer.
In our absence, bass, bonito and blues continued to frequent the rips
off the Pogue. Younger fishermen, risen from the ranks, had discovered
their own secret fishing spots. The Harthaven community had filled out
a bit. There were new people but they seemed to understand the legacy
- perhaps better than I did.
Coming home from the sea, I now find the harbor peopled by friendly
spirits. I see Curlew and Dollop tied up at Stan's dock. There is also
Sea Pup, Stormy Petrel, Red Snapper, Windward II, Hart's Desire - and
their captains. My grandparents still inhabit their house overlooking
the harbor. Max Moore waves from his porch. Stan is in his boathouse,
coiling rope. My father scales fish.
Now, as Karin and I contemplate moving permanently to the island, we
find it a place that resonates with the lives of those who have gone
on before us. The homes built by Harthaven's founding fathers and their
ohana continue to embrace, as my father once put it, "the memories of
all the people who have lived in them."