Most kids had paper routes growing up in Edgartown in the 1920s, but S. Bailey Norton Jr. had a fish route. This makes perfect sense as Mr. Norton is the oldest living descendant of the first captain of the Charles W. Morgan whaleship, his great-great uncle Capt. Thomas Adams Norton. Although not armed with a harpoon and living for years at sea, young Bailey was staying true to his heritage.
“Usually once a week, towards the end of the week, I’d buy fish from local boats or sometimes my grandparents or uncle,” Mr. Norton said in a recent interview with the Gazette. “I’d try to buy three boxes of codfish per week, 125 pounds to the box. I’d buy the fish for three cents a pound. I’d sell two boxes for a nickel a pound to the A&P and First National.”
Like generations of Nortons before him, Bailey Norton was born in Edgartown. He is 93 years old and grew up in a house on Daggett street that is now the Anchors, home of the Edgartown Council on Aging. Today, he lives with his wife Joan on North Water street, a stretch known for whaling captains’ homes, widows’ walks and large porches.
Mr. and Mrs. Norton’s home was built by another family member, John Norton, in 1717. The ceilings creak with history and the walls are filled with maps and emblems of a time long ago. John Norton was a customs agent and Bailey has an original customs document signed by President Andrew Jackson by the doorway of his home.
Great-great uncle Thomas Adams Norton was born in 1809 and sailed the first voyage of the Charles W. Morgan from 1841 to 1845 in the Pacific Ocean.
“From day one my whole family was involved in fishing,” Mr. Norton said. “I think that’s really all we knew.”
And when the Charles W. Morgan sails into the harbor, the Norton family history will come full circle. Bailey Norton will help escort the ship into the Vineyard Haven harbor aboard the Cangarda.
Captain Thomas Norton’s house is still a fixture on Pease’s Point Way, close to the Edgartown Yacht Club tennis courts. Like any great whaling captain of the day, he wanted something fitting, Bailey remembered.
“Great-great uncle Thomas was going away on a whaling voyage and he talked to the local contractor and said he was getting married on his return and he wanted a suitable house,” he said. “The contractor asked him how big a house, and he said, ‘well I have $2,000 to spend. The best you can do for that.’”
Three years later, Captain Norton returned.
“He went to take a look at the house and saw this huge house down here,” Bailey said. “And the contractor told Thomas Norton, we’ve got one problem. This house did not cost $2,000. We only used $1,800.”
Stories like these are handed down generation after generation, Mr. Norton said. “This stuff is all true as far as I know,” he said with a laugh.
Bailey Norton has left his own impression on the waterfront beginning at a young age.
“Sports were not the big deal they are today,” he said. “We had a few teams and we’d play with other Island teams. But the main thing here when school let out at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, everyone immediately went to the waterfront. Either you were opening scallops, catching fish or selling fish.”
In those days Mr. Norton would fish for “just about everything.”
“In summer there was a lot of bluefish and bass, and then there was bottom fish — scup, flounder, sea bass. It was mainly first to get something to eat.”
Mr. Norton grew up in a time when summer people walked on the waterfront side of the street while locals walked on the more inland side.
Mr. Norton’s father, Samuel B. Norton, was a sailor and yachtsman who captained the Manxman, the largest cruising yawl in the world of its time. Samuel Norton captained the 120-foot cruiser for 15 years during and after the Great Depression. The ship spent summers in New England waters and winters in the south. Bailey Norton spent three summers working on the Manxsman on the starboard launch, the side for the owners’ parties. The crew used the port side.
“It was a confined life, you rarely got ashore,” Bailey said of his father’s travels. “You maybe went ashore once a month for a haircut and to get drunk.”
When Bailey was a boy his father sailed down to the West Indies and Caribbean, and was gone for months at a time. Shorter than a whaleship trip, but as the years added up, not too different in terms of a child growing up without his seafaring father.
“I remember getting postcards from him all the way down to Trinidad,” Bailey said. “He’d be gone most of the year. He’d be south in the winter, come back to New York and maybe come to the shipyard for maintenance and come home for a few days. I didn’t see much of my father for the first 10 years of my life.”
After high school, Bailey took a post-graduate year at Admiral Farragut Academy in Pine Beach, N.J. with an eye towards entering the Naval Academy. But after a preliminary exam determined his teeth needed straightening before admission, he opted for college at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He received a four-year scholarship that totaled $1,375.
Mr. Norton moved to Warren, Ohio, to work for Federal Machine and Welder. But when World War II began, he felt the call of duty and volunteered for the Navy. At the lower ranks they didn’t mind his crooked teeth. After training, he thought he’d be building ships but instead found himself heading for the Pacific. As he was on his way to Hawaii, preparing for the invasion of Japan, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
“We got word the war had ended,” he said. “After I got out of the service I returned to Edgartown. My dad thought I should take a month or two off before I went back to work.”
He then returned to Ohio to his old job and worked there for seven years before joining a small startup company, Acme Chain, which made rolls of chain like those used on bicycles. He and his family moved to Mt. Holyoke until he retired and moved back home to the Vineyard full time in 1981. He didn’t waste time renewing his love for the ocean.
His first boat when he returned home was called Gem, a 26-foot Fortier built in Fall River with an Eldridge McGinnis-designed hull. He had two other boats of the same design, a 33-footer and 40-footer, and sailed as far north as Grand Manan Island in Canada.
In retirement, Mr. Norton wrote a memoir called My Long Journey Home: A Life Worth Living, and became active on the board of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. He also led a $3 million project to restore the North Water street corridor to a design that echoed back to the days of the whaling captains.
Mr. Norton travelled the world but always felt drawn back to the Vineyard.
“All my working years I looked forward to coming home and having my own boat and being able to get on the water,” he said. “It’s the best place of all.”