Sunday, June 15, 2014

My Cuttyhunk by My Father, Robert G. Goodwin

In honor of Father's Day, the following post is a short memoir piece that appeared in the Martha's Vineyard Gazette. It was a collaboration between my dad and me - he wrote the story and I edited it. We did this about a year after he had a stroke in December of 2004. 

I submitted the piece to the Gazette, and heard nothing from them for more than a year. One day I got a phone call from the editor, who said, "I love this piece and I've been hanging onto it until I had space for it. I'd like to run it in the July issue." Dad was so excited - our writing collaborations were one of the things that kept his mind active and his spirits up once he was living in the nursing home. 

MY CUTTYHUNK by Robert G. Goodwin
Published in the Martha's Vineyard Gazette in July 2006

I had never heard the word “Cuttyhunk,” much less of an island by that name, until one day in 1965, when Cornelius Wood Sr., of Andover, Massachusetts, called my father’s office. He wanted to engage a crew to conduct a survey of a portion of his land on Cuttyhunk Island, in order to parcel off a lot that he was in the process of selling.

Dad gave me the assignment. I began learning about Cuttyhunk, and became quite excited at the prospect of doing work in an environment outside of our usual sphere in Essex County. I was also excited about being offered the challenge of taking on a project that not everyone had a chance to undertake in a place that not everyone had a chance to visit.

My first step was to visit Mr. Wood’s office, which was located in the building at the corner of Main and Chestnut Streets, Andover. At the time, that building also housed the Andover Consumer’s Cooperative supermarket and Hartigan Pharmacy, and is now occupied mainly by CVS pharmacy.

A Mr. Dalrymple ran the office. He had worked originally for Mr. Wood’s father, William M. Wood, founder of the American Woolen Company. Mr. Wood built the mill and offices in Shawsheen Village, along with the brick homes that were intended to be a model community for his mill executives. Mr. Dalrymple’s appearance was a bit off-putting, as he had a rather bulbous wart on his nose. I soon was able to overlook that when I realized that he had voluminous records of the Wood family in his keeping, and knew more about William Wood’s properties than anyone.

At the time, Cornelius Wood had large land holdings in both Andover and Cuttyhunk Island, of which he owned about 90% of the land area. In the post World War I years, William Wood bought land on Cuttyhunk for the purpose of accommodating a group of wealthy industrialists and businessmen from Boston and New York as a club for sport fishing. Over the years, he gradually increased his ownership of the island by buying out several of the indigenous land owners.

Mr. Dalrymple supplied me with what Cuttyhunk material he had, though it was very sparse. Not much surveying had been done, and apparently William Wood destroyed all his papers before he committed suicide. In addition to owning nearly the entire island, William Wood also built a mansion at the top of a long knoll, which he called, “Winter House,” because he installed a large furnace to heat it in the event he wanted to spend some time there in the winter. The house is very large, with a living room that runs the entire length of the house, and a wrap-around porch from which there is a 180 degree view of the village and harbor below, the island of Nashowena to the east, and Martha’s Vineyard to the south.

Winter House

William Wood also purchased a ferry boat to serve the island from New Bedford. He named the boat “Alert,” and used it to carry passengers, groceries and building supplies to the island. This is the boat that my crew and I used to make our first trips over to the island. It takes about an hour for the trip of 15 miles.

The Alert
Later on, we found it advantageous to hire Norm Gingras and his sea plane to take us out in about 10 minutes, thereby allowing us more time to get going to work. A few times, he flew up to the Sky Port on the Merrimack River in Methuen to pick us up, which was great fun. On take off, he flew under the Route 93 bridge, and did not tell us until later! He was a great guy and an excellent pilot. Norm landed us in Cuttyhunk Pond, the harbor where he had his own float.

That's the sea plane and that's my dad on the right.

Upon arriving, either by boat or by plane, there would always be a gathering of the island inhabitants to pick up their groceries and supplies. During the summer, many of the men served as guides for sports fishermen going after the stripers. In the winter, they worked for the summer residents as carpenters and tradesmen. They had beautiful and sturdy boats called “bass boats” that are no longer used, because the bass found other waters up the coast in the Newburyport area and the coast of Maine.

In the summer (Memorial Day to Labor Day) the Alert made a round trip every day. The rest of the year it made only two trips a week (Tuesday and Friday). We would plan to go out on Tuesday and hope that we would have completed our work by Friday. On more than one occasion, however, due to the weather or size of the job, we would have to lay over until the next trip. I always brought a small portable Monroe calculator along, and did the day’s computations so that I would have a complete traverse done by the time we left. We usually went over in the off-season, to make sure we would have accommodations at the Poplars, one of two boarding houses on the island. This way, we did not meet many of the summer residents. However, word word passed around that we were doing survey work, and eventually people sent word to us to contact them. In this way, we began to get work from the summer and year-round inhabitants.

To get around the island, we rented a beat-up old jeep with few floorboards for $5 a day from an old-timer named Alan Potter. On the very first visit, while we were waiting to leave on the Alert, I backed the jeep down a slope near the dock and almost wound up in the drink, much to the enjoyment of our crew. Fortunately one of the residents was handy with his jeep and pulled me back up. Was I embarrassed!

The Infamous Jeep

Speaking of jeeps, some residents brought their vehicles over from New Bedford by boat. Although there are not many paved roads to drive on, the vehicles were needed to carry supplies to the two boarding houses, the general store, and groceries and other necessities to the permanent and summer residents’ dwellings. Over the years, the vehicles were subject to the weather of coastal New England and gradually deteriorated to the condition such as found in Mr. Potter’s jeep. They neglected to register their vehicles on a yearly basis, and so if word leaked out that the man from the Registry of Motor Vehicles was on his way out, they all drove their cars to a remote part of the island they called “the dump,” where they pretty much “hid them in plain sight.” Thus they averted another year of registration fees. No fools, these islanders.

The Poplars, where we stayed on our visits, was one of two boarding houses catering mainly to sport fishermen and short-term visitors. It consisted, in the 1960’s, of the main building, which had four bedrooms for guests, the main dining room, a large kitchen, and a living room where guests could watch television in the evening. There was a one story annex that contained 3 bedrooms and 3 small cottages that slept two or three guests. Each cottage had a fireplace that kept the place warm on cool fall nights. The house had a glassed-in porch that was unusual in that the floor sloped away from the house and had scuppers to let the water run out, just like on a ship.

The Poplars

The Poplars was run by Lucille Allen, who provided us with sumptuous meals that included bass, lobster, steak, and chops. If our work took us to a far side of the island, she packed us a great lunch to save time in traveling back and forth. Lucille traveled around the world with her father, who was the captain of a tall ship. Her husband, Clarence, was a character. He can be characterized by the following conversation regarding a brass compass that was embedded in concrete at the front of the main house:

Clarence: Yessir, the front of this house is runnin’ north and south.
Me: Well then, that means the sides of the house are runnin’ east and west, right?
Clarence: “Pert neah!”

Some time between our visits, Lucille decided to retire, and the property was sold to Mildred and Ken Fullerton. They continued to run it as a boarding house. At one point, they had difficulty paying the taxes and were in jeopardy of losing the place. Fortunately, I was able to subdivide it into two lots, of which they sold one, allowing them to pay off the taxes due. They were very appreciative.

The Poplars had one of the two telephones on the island. It was one of those phones where one cranked a handle on the side of the base in order to get the operator, who was based over on the mainland. The other phone was more public and was a pay phone at the Broadway, at the corner of the walkway that goes past the Poplars on its way down to the public dock.

One day, while we were in the process of the East End survey, we were hit with a storm of hurricane proportions. In the evening, we were informed that a Coast Guard vessel had gotten hung up on the Sou au Pigs Reef not too far off the south of the island, and was breaking up. Everyone rushed out to see if any flotsam and jetsam were washing up on the causeway to Canapitsit (the channel running between Cuttyhunk and Nashawena). We joined in the search and rushed down to the barges on the causeway to see if we could see or find anything. The sea was very rough, but we didn’t find anything except some pieces of splintered wood from the hull of the ship.

A few nights later, George Clark and I took advantage of a clear moonlit night to try a little fishing. We drove the jeep down to the causeway and kept the headlights on. George went out on the barges and cast his line. My line got fouled up and I was still untangling it when George hauled in a 38 pound striper. I could have kicked myself, but I was happy for George, because he was a very good fisherman.

In 1967, Cornelius Wood wanted to sell off about 350 acres on the west end, with a provision that it be kept open to the public and a stipulation that those who used it take back out everything they brought in. The parcel contains a body of water called “West End Pond,” containing approximately 50 acres. It is not fresh water, as it is fed by sea r through a small opening on Buzzard’s Bay. The water there is brackish and not good for fishing, though the opening is a good breeding ground for mussels, and someone may have improved it since then.

There once was a true light house with a tender’s house located nearby, but that was replaced with a smaller structure operated by batteries during the war. There is also a small island in the pond on which the South Dartmouth Historical Society erected a stone monument of about 30 feet in height dedicated to Bartholomew Gosnold. He was one of Queen Elizabeth’s explorers who discovered and named the Elizabeth Island chain.

Our survey of the West End involved a traverse using the mean high water marks and tying the whole together by connecting it to the end of the lines across the center of the island which we had set up in 1965. My crew consisted of George Clark and Paul Duggan. As we proceeded along the coast line from high water mark to high water mark, turning our angles and measuring distances, George would be the lead man giving the foresight. One day, as Paul and I approached the area of the Gosnold Monument, we heard some loud singing. When we arrived, there was George, swimming in the pond. Without further adieu, Paul and I undressed and joined him! The water was warm and pleasant, although the bottom was a little muddy. However, it was refreshing, and afterward we continued our work with renewed spirits.

The Gosnold Monument

I left Dad’s firm in June 1968, six months after my mother died. For the next five years, I worked for a general contractor, but kept my surveyor’s registration alive by accepting private surveys. Then in 1970, Charles Anderson, Engineer for the Massachusetts Land Court, asked Mr. Wood if I could conduct a special survey at Cuttyhunk for the Land Court. The intent was to wrap up all the surveys done there by me, to tie on to any bounds which may have been set by previous surveyors, and to draw a plan showing all the connections. All this was to be done at Mr. Wood’s expense. He graciously agreed, so I went there once again for what I called, “Operation Boundhound.” I took one man with me, and stayed once more at the Poplars, which was now called The Allen House. I have in my files a plan of this survey, which shows connections to every bound of record on Cuttyhunk. Mr. Anderson of the Mass. Land Court was greatly pleased.

My final work regarding Cuttyhunk was in the form of a planning and zoning map, which I drew in 1973 at the request of the Selectmen - Alan Wilder, Alphons P. Tilton, and Bruce Borjas. This plan, in reduced scale, was used as the cover for the Town’s Annual Report for 1972.

There is one final plan that I drew for a member of the Wood family. Ariel Wood Panzecchi, Cornelius Wood’s daughter who inherited Winter House, wanted to donate some land to the Cuttyhunk Historical Society. I drew a plan of a parcel of land at the corner of Broadway and Road to the Hill, next to the Town Hall. A small museum has since been built on this parcel, which I have yet to see. I sent the curator, Mrs. Troidell, a number of pen and ink sketches of various sites drawn by George Clark to sell to the general public for the benefit of the museum only.

Cuttyhunk remains a special place in my memory. All in all, with a good night’s sleep in the salty sea air and a full English breakfast every morning, I couldn’t help but feel refreshed for a good day’s work in an environment far removed from my usual daily routine. I consider myself blessed and shall always remember my good fortune to meet the people on Cuttyhunk, and to become familiar, if only for a brief time, with life on an island.


  1. A very interesting memory of a special place...I have not been to Martha's Vineyard but to the general area once.

    1. Hi Bookie! Yes, life on Cuttyhunk hasn't really changed much I don't think - which is a rare thing in this world.

  2. Beautiful memories to cherish. Thank you - and him.

    1. Thanks :). Ironically, the very first story I sold for publication was one that I wrote about something that happened right after Dad's stroke. He and I worked on a few collaborations those first few years and it helped to keep him going I think.


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