The Name Behind Dutcher Dock

Despite the prominent sign pointing toward Menemsha’s Dutcher Dock, the source of the name is a mystery to most visitors and residents.

It took the destruction of a village to preserve the name of Rodney Dutcher.

On September 21, 1938, the Great New England Hurricane howled its way up the eastern seaboard, and among many other demonstrations of its ferocity, swept the village of Menemsha into Vineyard Sound. Where there had been fishing shacks, a boat basin, and working catboats and trawlers tied to wharves along the shoreline, there was suddenly, for an hour or so, the Atlantic Ocean – and then nothing. Nothing but a village store, a few wooden spiles canted this way and that, and dozens of fishing boats stranded on the rocks, atop embankments, and capsized in the marshy weeds.

On a hilltop looking down on the little seaport, watching as the storm waves rolled mercilessly through it, stood a newspaperman named Rodney Dutcher. He was a Vineyard native, but at this point in his life few Vineyarders knew him, for he had left the Island as a boy and apparently returned only occasionally, sailing into Menemsha on seasonal cruises. When the hurricane struck, it was the last day of Dutcher’s summer vacation.

It had been nearly thirty years since he’d lived on the Island, but it was plain he still knew the working men of Martha’s Vineyard and understood how lastingly a storm like this would set them back. His father, William, had been one of those working men, running Dutcher’s Vineyard Zuoaves, a marching and drilling regiment that conducted ceremonial exercises for summer visitors to Oak Bluffs, where Rodney Dutcher was born on April 26, 1901. On his mother’s side, the family went back several generations on the Island, but in 1910 she died and he moved to Vermont with his father and a brother, leaving behind no relatives.

Dutcher enrolled at Worcester Academy but left school at sixteen to pursue a career in journalism, where he thrived. At twenty-six, he became a bureau manager and political columnist for the Newspaper Enterprise Association. Eleven years later in 1938, his column for Scripps Howard, “Behind the Scenes in Washington,” was in five hundred papers across the country – more, it was said, than any other columnist in America at the time. Dutcher was widely read, but too friendly with too many powerful men to be really effective as a critic of their policies or their work. “As nice a guy as ever was,” one associate wrote of him years later, but “no Mark Sullivan or Walter Lippmann.”

Yet it was his friendliness with cabinet officers and other influential people – his “great charm as a host” of salons and dinner parties in Washington – that got Dutcher immortalized in Menemsha. (His grave can be found in the Chilmark town cemetery.) Shortly after the storm, he wrote a column about the destruction of the village and began to call the undersecretaries, commissioners, and directors who could most effectively organize a rebuilding program and direct federal money to the effort. But two months later, at midnight on November 18, 1938, he was found slumped over his typewriter, dead of heart failure at a portly thirty-seven.

Even in those earlier days of resorthood, Chilmark and Menemsha were well seasoned with prominent lawyers, professors, artists, and visiting politicians. After his death, several of Dutcher’s summer friends, including Edward Greenbaum, an influential New York attorney, helped push things along. The funds to dredge the harbor and rebuild the wharves and fishing shacks – from federal, state, county, town, and private monies – were all lined up and the project was well underway by early 1940. But there was no money left to build a pier for the pleasure boaters who, like Dutcher, had begun to frequent Menemsha more and more before the storm destroyed it.

Greenbaum and other friends, especially a Labor Department official named William A.H. Stevenson, began to suggest to others in authority that it was the keen desire of the town and village that such a recreational pier be built and named for this late son of the Vineyard. President Roosevelt and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, among others, all felt that such an adjunct pier would provide “a very practical and appropriate tribute to Rodney,” Stephenson wrote in a letter to another federal official in 1939.

There was brief puzzlement about this Dutcher business among residents in Menemsha. It is said that more than a few residents spent time trying to recall which visiting yachtsman Dutcher was, precisely. Yet when on August 22, 1941, Governor Leverett Saltonstall and officials from Washington, along with a host of other state and military officials, came for the dedication ceremony, the town turned out with flags, bands, selectmen, and the citizenry dressed in their Sunday best to extol Rodney Dutcher: He was the man on the scene during the storm who, with his column and connections, had set everything in motion in the weeks before his unexpected death.

And so it was that Washington came to believe that the town wanted the pier named after Dutcher and the town went along with a tribute that seemed rather mysteriously attached to the last chunk of money coming from Washington. Either way, the use of his name finished a job that Dutcher himself barely had time to start.

Today most people consider Dutcher Dock to be the wharf that runs along the north side of Menemsha harbor – alongside the fish markets, the harbor master’s office, and Menemsha Texaco – though the name was originally intended to apply only to the segment angling from the wharf toward the jetties, the narrow pier where privately owned recreational boats tie up.

Indeed, seventy-three years after his death, Dutcher is a name far better known on the Vineyard than it ever was during the man’s life, even if the Island hasn’t ever quite known why.

One in a series of articles by Tom Dunlop on people from the Vineyard’s past who have been memorialized around the Island. Sources for this story include the libraries of the Vineyard Gazette and Martha’s Vineyard Museum and Chilmark residents Everett Poole, Jane Slater, and Daniel Greenbaum.