Biography of a Vineyard House

The writer uncovers the 193-year history of his family’s Edgartown home.

I found out that Ruth Gordon spoke her first sentence in our kitchen in 1898. Back in the days when the kitchen served as the dining room of a boarding house, a waitress offered the two-year-old Ruth a slender slice of melon. The girl, who would become an actress and play Maude in the movie Harold and Maude, looked up at her balefully and said, “When I’m home, I have much.”

I found out that the giant pagoda tree, which reaches a hundred feet over South Water Street a block and a half away, might have been planted in our backyard, had Captain Thomas Milton held on to our home a few years longer. And for a happy day or two, I had good reason to believe that a physician who owned our property (on three separate occasions) might have had a cross-dressing daughter who, in 1862, was nearly stripped and flogged while serving as a crewman aboard a whaleship named America.

I found out all this, and more, last fall as I taught myself how to research the history of my family home in downtown Edgartown. Five years ago, we’d found the calcified pages of a 1917 edition of The Sunday Washington Star in a wall where an old barn had been jammed up against the back of the house and converted to a ramshackle apartment. In our day, the upper half of the barn – pictures and drawings suggest it once stood in a corner of the house lot – had been my boyhood bedroom, the lower half a workroom. We’d torn it down when we rebuilt the tail end of the house in 2000. Handsome and useful as the new addition was, I’d felt a snap of remorse that I did not know more about the story of our home before we removed and renovated a small part of it.

In October, with the encouragement of Jane Dooley, a neighbor across the street who had researched the history of her family’s 1894 Victorian back almost to the very month it was finished, I headed over to the registry of deeds, a wing off the county courthouse on Main Street. There, a small clutch of professional title examiners helped me to get started. Most of them asked to remain unnamed because they work exclusively for law firms and can’t take time away to advise individual researchers. But there are no maps at the registry before 1970, and without these new friends steering me at needful moments to the probate office, the town assessor’s office, or the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society, I would have wept in table-pounding frustration far oftener than I did. Thanks to them, I now understand the meaning of the words “curtesy dower,” “in fee simple,” and “behoof.”

Don’t worry. You won’t see them again here.  
The Charlotte Inn, 1960–1969

This was the easiest part to research: I could rely on family history and a few clips from the library of the Vineyard Gazette, organized and vastly expanded during the past two decades by Eulalie Regan, the newspaper’s librarian and the magazine’s director of research.

My family got to know the house well in the summer of 1963. My maternal grandmother rented part of it from the Charlotte Inn, whose main buildings stand diagonally across South Summer Street. In the ways of old Edgartown, the building was known by the name of the previous owner – the Teller house. Senior residents of the town call it that today. So does my family.

In those days, the Teller house had six bathrooms and thirteen bedrooms, many of them set off from one another by beaverboard walls. My grandmother and grandfather, uncle and aunt and their son and daughter, as well as my mother and father and I, all lived in five or six of those bedrooms in the front half of the house. The cook for the inn, his wife, and daughter lived upstairs in the old attached barn, the kitchen staff in the downstairs workroom. Plus there was an elderly couple in what is now the kitchen and dining room. They must have been quite easygoing, or deaf.

Ruth and Samuel R. Mays, frequent visitors to Chappaquiddick, assumed ownership of the Charlotte Inn in 1959, having managed it for a year. Sam Mays had run a paint company and a boatyard, and Ruth was a landscape designer active in the Garden Club of America. They had fallen in love with the idea of running a seasonal Island inn without knowing much about the economics behind it. As they took over the main building and the backyard annex of the inn, the Mayses also bought the Timothy Coffin house on South Water Street, directly behind the complex, and in February 1960, the Teller house across South Summer – two large, unheated, nineteenth-century houses in less than two years. Too much too fast.

Plans to restore the Teller house seem to have been abandoned almost as quickly as they were published. My grandmother – an old friend of the Mayses from Greenwich, Connecticut – took the Teller house rooms at the end of the summer of 1962 and throughout the summer of 1963 because she knew the Vineyard and loved it, but also to help fill the inn. In those days, the beds were cast-iron, the dressers rough-hewn oak and pine, and an extended family could afford to stay at the Charlotte Inn for the breadth of a Vineyard summer.

Sam Mays died of a heart attack in the summer of 1967. Ruth Mays carried on a few seasons longer, but sold the Teller house and its side yard – it was then the Charlotte Inn parking lot – to my mother and father at the end of the summer of 1969. My parents began to remove bathrooms, tear out makeshift walls, and consolidate bedrooms in a renovation project that, in some ways, continues to this very day.

The Teller house, 1878–1960

When they toured the house this fall, Margaret “Sissy” Boyd, an artist and dealer of crafts, had visited the family homestead just once after her parents Myrtle and Charles A. Teller sold the house to the Mayses in the winter of 1960. Her older brother, Thomas A. Teller, retired Dukes County district court clerk magistrate, had not been in it at all.

In separate walks through the home, Tommy and Sissy pointed to the spot where their grandmother Delia sat listening to Gabriel Heater and Our Gal Sunday on the radio. They showed us the fireplace wall where their aunt busted up a marble mantelpiece by hand after the family decided one day they didn’t like it. And they pointed out the places in the front parlor where the reception table lay for Sissy’s wedding in 1951, and where the coffins stood when the Tellers waked Delia and their grandfather Arthur. (“They had a hell of a job getting them out,” Tommy said of the caskets, angling his hand through the tight turns from parlor to front door to street.)

The Teller family owned this home for eighty-two years and three generations – by far the longest era in the history of the house. Captain Charles M. Teller, of the first generation, was a whaleman who sailed the Arctic seas. He was also a silver-mine superintendent in Mexico who fought against Emperor Maximilian. He came home to command Island steamers before his death, of heart disease and complications from sunstroke, in 1883. He was forty-seven, and left his wife Ariadne, a mother of two children, to run the home she had bought in her own name, for $525, on April 26, 1878.

Apart from the story about imperious, two-year-old Ruth Gordon and the miserly slice of melon, we know little of the year-round boarding house Ariadne established soon afterward. Sissy Boyd thinks her great-grandmother may have run one on the island of Cuttyhunk before coming over to Edgartown. It is Teller family legend that Ariadne could have bought all the land, which was wide open from the front of the house clear down to Edgartown harbor, for an additional $500. Doubtful, I think, on two counts: The waterfront end of the prospective purchase belonged to the South Water Street house built for the blacksmith John Coffin way back in 1682, and that property was not subdivided and developed until just a few years ago. And Ariadne, listed as a dressmaker in the 1880 census, couldn’t have afforded it anyway. A deed at the registry shows her borrowing three-fifths of the $525 from a next-door neighbor, and the times were too hard to find or borrow more: The United States was laboring through a depression following the Panic of 1873, and Edgartown was suffering even worse from the death of whaling. But Ariadne’s investment was a good one. The Teller house nearly tripled in value in the thirty-four years she owned it.

While she was boarding at the Teller house in the 1920s, Tommy and Sissy’s grandmother Delia, who had come from the mainland to teach at the Edgartown School, met Arthur Teller, Ariadne’s son and a swordfisherman. Under the management first of Delia, and then of her daughter-in-law Myrtle, the boarding house went seasonal and began to attract a small colony of artists – Mary Coles, whose painting arm was crippled by childhood polio, and who kept painting even after glaucoma blinded her in the 1950s; Ruth Appeldoorn Mead, a founder of the Old Sculpin Gallery in Edgartown; and Madame Magda Polivanov, a godchild of the last czar of Russia and refugee from the Soviet revolution who worked in Christian iconography. Magda stayed for several summers in what is now my six-year-old niece’s bedroom, before buying her own cottage on the Camp Ground of Oak Bluffs in the 1940s.

From Gazette files I learned that Magda’s father was minister of war to Nicholas II, her mother a lady-in-waiting to Czarina Alexandra. The communists slaughtered Magda’s parents and two brothers in 1917. During her escape at age eight with an older sister, who would die in the influenza pandemic the following year, Magda was bayoneted seven times in the back and legs. Sissy and Tommy recalled glimpsing the thatchwork of scars twenty-five years later. But Magda was always nice to the Teller children, and Sissy was not above playing pranks on a former noblewoman: “All messages went on the table in the hall, and we left her a note saying Joe Blow from Windy City had called, and she could return the call through operator such-and-such. She’s in the hall for half an hour, trying to call the Windy City operator. ’Course, we caught hell for it. We tried to explain it, but she didn’t have a lot of American humor.”

When the time came for Charles and Myrtle to sell in 1960, deeds show the house was burdened with a $17,000 mortgage; the parents could not afford to give it to their son and his new wife Estey. In those days, Tommy was working for the old Harborside Liquor Store as assistant manager: “It might as well have been $1,017,000,” he said. “I would have loved to have taken it. I think my pay then was sixty bucks a week.”

And so the Teller house went to the Mayses and the Charlotte Inn, but the brother and sister never left Edgartown. During their visits to the old family home, we figured out that the 1917 edition of The Sunday Washington Star may have been stuffed behind the wall to commemorate the moment when the barn was moved over to the back of the house. Sissy remembers hearing that a second family lived in the barn annex for a time, and that after this family left, her mother – “a little, bitty woman” – dragged an old soapstone sink down the back stairs and installed it in the kitchen after the Teller sink broke: “She was a feisty little one,” said Sissy. “Of course, this was Depression times. You didn’t go out and buy a new sink.”

But why stuff a Washington newspaper into a Vineyard wall, I’d wondered since the renovation five years ago. Last fall the Tellers gave me the answer.
Their grandmother Delia was born in Washington and there, in 1895, she married Arthur, who was then working as an agent for a shipping company based in Oak Bluffs. For Delia and Arthur, The Star was the hometown paper.
Captain Benjamin Worth and heirs, 1857–1878

Up to now, the deeds were parading backward with beguiling order and logic. In 1878 scriveners were copying the original deeds in beautiful, forward-slanting hands onto paper that felt halfway to cardboard, and they were repeating the same legal phrases (“with all the privileges and appurtenances thereunto belonging or in any wise appertaining”) tens of thousands of times, without a hint of despair in a single stroke of their quills. Heroic, I thought, sitting at the tall tables under the high ceiling of the registry of deeds.

But now I had reason to doubt myself. Ariadne Teller had bought her house from the twelve heirs of Captain Benjamin Worth, a whaling master and agent. But from a house sign, I already knew that Captain Worth lived around the corner, at the intersection of the streets now called Cooke and South Water. So I turned to the work of April Hamel – historian and family friend – who provided a clue in a paper she wrote on the history of the Worth house, in which she and her husband Hap lived until a few years ago: One of those heirs – Captain Worth’s son Thomas – bought a home on South Water Street from his widowed mother in 1877. The sale of our house to Ariadne Teller the following year suggests that it may have been, for some period, his previous home. The names of Thomas and his wife Henriette are the first of the twelve on the deed to Ariadne.

From April Hamel’s paper I picked up something else: In 1833, Captain Worth and his uncle Grafton Norton had built the town’s first important whaling wharf at the end of Cooke Street. (The Reading Room stands there today.) Up to 1828, the Congregational Meetinghouse – and before that, the courthouse – stood at the inland end of Cooke. (The graveyard lies there today.) Had the whaling wharf, meetinghouse, and courthouse all been in business at the same time, our house would have stood forty paces from what surely would have become Main Street, Edgartown. That’s why the old deeds to our house call Cooke, a lane of private homes you can nearly jump across, Commercial Street. And why the future Main Street in those days was merely “the road to Holmes Hole” – the future Vineyard Haven.

Dr. Samuel Whelden and heirs, 1839–1857

Samuel Whelden was a hardworking physician in town, about whom little is known. One fact is that he owned our property three times in the first half of the nineteenth century, and was probably the first man to live in our house after it was finished.

But the most interesting fact might be the suggestion that a relative of Dr. Whelden – who purchased our place for the third and final time in 1839, and died in the house two years later – may have been the George Welden who shipped out as a completely different sort of crewman on the Holmes Hole whaleship America in 1862.

George Welden – never mind the discrepancy in spelling; no one but scriveners could spell in those days – quickly proved himself to be one of the more effective and popular sailors aboard ship. (“No one could spin a tougher yarn, dance a cleverer jig, or do a more daring stunt,” claimed an essay about him on file at the historical society.) But then came the morning when Welden leapt from his oar in a whaleboat and attacked the second mate, who had struck him on the shoulders with a paddle for failing to pull hard enough as they chased a whale. Welden, subdued and bound, was returned to the America. As he was strung up to be stripped and flogged, he cried out, “Stand back, you cowards. Don’t disgrace your manhood by striking me. You don’t know what you’re doing. . . . I am no man. I’m a woman.” Welden was cut down, given a private cabin, and permanently relieved of duty. That evening, Captain John A. Luce of Makonikey Heights wrote in his log: “This day found out George Weldon [sic] to be a woman, the first I ever heard of such a thing. At sunset took in sail. Latter part fine breeze from S’ly.”

The idea that George was a descendant of Samuel came from a scrapbook donated to the historical society by a modern-day summer family. They were living in the South Water Street house that Dr. Whelden traded for ours in 1839, and they picked up the idea somewhere or other. But the story can’t be right. George was believed to be a paroled Confederate prisoner of war before signing on to the America, and Dr. Whelden was a Vineyarder, whose children are all mostly – and dully – accounted for.

That’s what you face when you dig for history below the levels of anecdote and lore: heartbreak. I mourned a day or two, then kept looking back, and found the man who traded our place to Dr. Whelden for the last of the three times he would own it.
I also found out about the fire that nearly burned the place down.

Captain Jason Luce Jr., 1830–1839

Captain Jason Luce Jr. was the man with whom Dr. Whelden traded houses in the late fall of 1839. Luce, a whaling master, may have wanted to be closer to the water – Whelden, a physician, closer to a growing, prosperous town. The new Congregational (now Federated) Church, built in 1828 and standing almost directly opposite our house, had turned its back on Commercial Street and faced the old “road to Holmes Hole” two blocks away. But now it was the real Main Street, its walks lined with new stores, its harborfront-end bustling with wharves and businesses that outfitted departing whaling ships and processed the catch of those returning.

 Anyone embarked on serious research about Martha’s Vineyard will eventually discover The Dukes County Intelligencer, a journal of history published four times a year by the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society, and edited since 1978 by Arthur R. Railton of Edgartown. (No one, it is fair to say, has written and edited a greater body of original Island history than Railton.) Using a gigantic, comprehensive index to The Intelligencer, recently completed by Nancy Young and her late husband Arthur of Edgartown, I looked up references to Jason Luce Jr. From 1974 through 1987, The Intelligencer serialized the invaluable early nineteenth-century journal of Jeremiah Pease, a surveyor, founder of the Camp Ground in Oak Bluffs, and one of Edgartown’s leading citizens. From the journal, I learned that Captain Luce was in the Pacific commanding the maiden voyage of the ship Splendid, which would become one of Edgartown’s most successful whaling vessels, when his house – our house – caught fire.

Flying on a brisk northwest wind, embers had set the Luce house alight “on the end most exposed. By the blessing of heaven and the extraordinary exertions of the people it was extinguished to the great joy of all good citizens.”

At 12:30 in the morning of February 3, 1836, the Davis Academy building on the nearby corner of Davis Lane and School Street was in flames. “The church bell rang. The people ran,” wrote Pease. The Davis school building could not be saved. And flying on a brisk northwest wind, embers had set the Luce house alight “on the end most exposed. By the blessing of heaven and the extraordinary exertions of the people it was extinguished to the great joy of all good citizens. Water was taken from wells and from a pond that was near the fire. The pond was caused by the late remarkably heavy rains. The alarm was great being the first fire ever to burn a building down in this village.”

The loss of the Davis school building amounted to more than $1,000, damage to the Luce house about $300. Within two weeks, Edgartown held a special town meeting and voted to spend up to $2,500 to establish a fire department, wrote Steve Vancour in the August 1993 Intelligencer. Edgartown being Edgartown, petitioners forced a second town meeting two weeks later to rescind the earlier vote, on the theory that twenty-five hundred bucks – the value of two and a half Davis Academy buildings – was too much to spend on a fire department. The petitioners were voted down 109-66.

Captain Thomas Milton, 1814–1830

Captain Milton, born in Teinmouth, England, went to sea in 1797 at the age of ten. By some accounts he was a runaway. In 1808 he was a resident of the village and married, at twenty-one, to Jane Hammet, “one of three illegitimate daughters of Widow Pratt,” reported one account, published in “A Walking Tour of Edgartown,” written by Arthur Railton and published in the May 1986 Intelligencer. “Mrs. Milton was illiterate, could neither read nor write, but. . .[was] of fine character and superior qualities.”

According to his 1862 obituary in the Gazette, Captain Milton commanded the privateer Yankee in a successful campaign against his native country in the War of 1812. After the war he ran a packet ship between Boston and Philadelphia. He also traded in Edgartown real estate. On February 2, 1814, he purchased our house for $1,300 from Dr. Samuel Whelden, the physician regrettably separated by research from any plausible relationship to the cross-dressing whaling woman. Milton added the house and property to a larger, empty lot he owned between the home and the future Commercial Street. He sold the house and a recognizable part of our lot to Captain Luce in 1830.

Had Captain Milton stayed on, the famous seedling he brought to the village in a flowerpot from China in 1837 might have been planted in our backyard, instead of the backyard of the house he built in 1840, upon his retirement from the sea. Today the giant pagoda tree, thought to be the largest on the continent, would reach up and out over the houses on South Summer Street, not South Water. Cutting our lawn would take a little less time. And cleaning our gutters a lot more.

The building of the Teller house

We were closing in on that moment in antiquity when general knowledge of the neighborhood suggested the house had been built. But the deeds up to Captain Milton were describing a lot whose ever-shifting bounds – marked now by piles of stone or stakes of wood, and qualified on many sides by the helpful phrase “or thereabouts” – I could barely grasp. It was now December. I badly needed a Christmas gift from the deed-searching cosmos.
It came, of course, from the historical society.

In a tall, black library cabinet, I found a map I’d actually seen and passed over on an earlier search. There was no Summer Street, no Commercial, no Davis Lane to catch my eye. The focus of its squares and long, long rectangles was still meaningless to me. But suddenly I recognized the name of John Coffin smack in the middle of the paper. The date of 1679 next to his name suggested the imminent construction of his waterfront home in 1682. If this was John Coffin’s land, and that was the town cemetery in the lower left-hand corner, then the lot lines I saw racing across the page, east to west, must encompass and define not only our property, but our neighbors’ on either side too.

Saints and the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society be praised, I was done.

Indeed, as I looked at it afresh, I could see that the map embraced the whole of the south side of downtown Edgartown between the future Main and Cooke streets. Charles Edward Banks, the medical doctor who wrote the great three-volume History of Martha’s Vineyard in 1910, had worked out the original property transactions and bequests for our side of town from the time of English settlement in 1642 up to the start of the nineteenth century. By each new landholder, he’d even written in the book and deed numbers he’d researched at the registry!

Now the whole picture of the Teller house land and its earliest place in the geography of the village came into view, starting from the time of the original sale by Tawanquatuck, sachem of the Nunnepog tribe, to Thomas Mayhew Sr., the founding English settler, in 1642. From here I galloped forward with confidence through a parade of Coffins until I met up with myself in the winter of 1814, where my backward research had left me with the sale of the house by Dr. Samuel Whelden to Captain Thomas Milton.

And it was just before that moment in history that I was able to drive the golden spike in the year I believe our house was built.

In early June of 1804, Dr. Whelden bought our land for the first of the three times he would own it. He paid $35 for the lot and sold it just seven weeks later to a housewright named Joseph Randal. (Throughout his life, Dr. Whelden was an unceasing trader of land. And often an unsuccessful one, as symbolized by the $1.25 he lost on this quick pair of deals. An inventory of the Whelden estate after his death on December 17, 1841, revealed that he had no cash when he died.)

In these two 1804 deeds, there is no mention of a building on the lot, and the price is much too low, even then, to have included a house. Two things point to Randal as the man who would soon build it. Letters reprinted in The Intelligencer refer to him building houses nearby at almost exactly the same time, and when he sold the land back to Whelden (for $900) on February 12, 1813, the deed refers for the first time to “a certain dwelling house situate in Edgartown aforesaid, it being the dwelling house at present occupied and improved by myself. . . .”

That word “improved” did not appear often in the scores of deeds I had seen. To me, it suggests that the house was new – perhaps even still under construction – in the winter of 1813. That winter the house would have been only the fourth or fifth in the neighborhood. One early deed describes the land on which it stood as a meadow. An Indian planting field and wilderness lay forty paces away, just beyond what would become Commercial Street. There was no Summer Street in front of the house. There may not have even been a cart path as Dr. Whelden set out on his rounds each day. (On September 3 of that year, he visited sixty-two patients “besides his family.”)

Now I could turn the page of history forward just one year – back to my old stopping place of 1814 – and find the deed in which Whelden sold a house he was still “improving” to Captain Thomas Milton, the pagoda-tree importer.

Saints and the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society be praised, I was done.

Then, a day or two before Christmas, I remembered a story I’d read at the start of my search in the Charlotte Inn file at the Gazette. I went back to the office and found it again. It discussed the building of the Nathan Jernegan house in 1840. (This house, diagonally across South Summer Street from ours, is still part of the inn.) Before the

Jernegan house was built, there had been a depression in the earth there. “Captain Jernegan told his son that it was a favorite place for skating when he was a boy about 1830–1840,” said the story.

 As I read that afternoon, it struck me that “the late remarkably heavy rains” that had fallen four years before the Jernegan house went up must have filled this depression, creating the mysterious and long absent “pond near the fire” described by Jeremiah Pease in The Intelligencer. And quite suddenly, I realized that it was probably from this pond that the good citizens of Edgartown drew water in a frantic race to keep our house from burning to the ground on the windy night of February 3, 1836.

If you want to research the history of an Island property, but don’t have the time to do it yourself, the following independent, professional title examiners will do the job at various hourly rates: Bill Brosnahan (508-477-7698), Carolyn Flynn (508-627-8508), Donna Goodale (508-627-8339), Kim Lawrence (508-696-9530), and Pat Szucs (508-627-9458).