Our picture of early 20th-century Provincetown and Cape Cod is substantially, marvelously richer because of the work of Josef Berger (1903-1971), who wrote pseudonymously under the name of Jeremiah Digges. In 1934, he moved to Provincetown from New York City, where he’d been a newspaper reporter and editor and an author of children’s books. Two years later be began working on Cape Cod Pilot (1937), unique among the volumes in the Federal Writers’ Project American Guide Series (the W.P.A. guides) as a collection of personal anecdotes and observations. One of Berger’s two chapters on Provincetown, for instance, includes this memorable and perennially useful guide to marketing: “When you buy a fish, look him in the eye. If his gaze is bright and unblurred, he has not been away from home long. … But if his eye is dull and sunken, he probably has been witnessing the destruction of his race over a long spell in the hold of a beam-trawler.”
Here is Berger’s sense of the place in 1937, five years before Mary Heaton Vorse published Time and the Town:
Provincetown has not “gone off-Cape.” She carries on a summer business comparable to that of the South Shore communities, yet she has not lapsed into a summer resort. She is the Cape’s only touch of old-time urbanity. Her battered old soul may have its scars, its dark spots along with its highlights, but such as it is, she has withheld it from the market.
The unexpected success of Cape Cod Pilot brought national notoriety to Berger and along with it — and perhaps because of it — a Guggenheim fellowship in 1938. That $2,500 award (about $40,000 today) allowed him to move to Gloucester to work on his next and in some ways even more valuable book: In Great Waters: The Story of the Portuguese Fishermen, published by MacMillan in 1941.
Among other stories he passed on was how the great highliner Joe King managed to get that name from the one with which he had been born São Miguel, Antoine Joaquim Souza. He was known in the Azores as Tony Melão, or Tony Canteloupe, because his grandfather’s head had once been likened to a melon. “Senhor Souza at once became Senhor Melhão,” Berger wrote, “and he lived to be Grandfather Canteloupe to a houseful of little Cantaloupes — among them Tony Cantaloupe.” Young Tony Canteloupe was determined to leave that name behind him as he emigrated to the New World. When asked his name by an English-speaking agent for the whaling ships, he replied, “Joaquim.”
“The agent smiled a moment, and then, as he had done many times before, wrote down what he considered to be the nearest English equivalent: ‘Joe King.'”
Berger was living here with his wife, Dorothy, and their young daughter, Elwynne, when the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation informed him of his good fortune. He explained his success with appealing modesty to The Advocate, saying: “When men talk on Cape Cod, sitting on a wharf, or a fish shed, or in the fo’cs’le of a flounder-dragger, it is just so much talk to them; but to a fellow in my line of business — why, it’s very often pure gold which they are tossing around so carelessly! So, I keep my mouth shut and let them toss.”
Posterity is lucky that Josef Berger was there to catch.
Twenty years later, in 1958, the property was purchased from Robert A. and Alma D. Welsh by John E. and Isabelle M. Dutra. Their grandson, Russell Dutra, offered this evocative reminiscence in 2013:
“The story of the house I learned from growing up was that it was first built on the Point, when the beach was a small town, and then floated over on a raft and dragged to its current location, but that was never proved. The house was a three-quarter Cape. The front door had two full-size windows to the left and one full-size window to the right. The house did not have that dormer in the second floor.
“When you walked in the front door, the living room was to the left, with the two windows facing Commercial Street. What they called the ‘borning room’ was to the right. The borning room was supposed to be where the women gave birth. It was a small room. The wall between the living room and the borning room had a fireplace that faced the living room. That fireplace was supposed to warm the borning room for the mother and new child, to keep them warm. There was a separate upstairs apartment that my Grandmother rented out for a few years.
“The house was beautiful and full of charm, and love. I spent the best and the happiest years of my life in that house. My Grandfather died in 1969 and my Grandmother lived in the house until she needed to be closer to family. She sold the house in 1981 for $55,000 to two men from New Jersey.
“The house has changed so much over the years, lost some of its charm, but overall I think the multiple owners since 1981 have done a great job keeping it close to original. That dormer is a sitting room that you can see the harbor from and behind that is a huge bedroom and bathroom — last time I was in the house, anyways, which was years ago.
“I will never forget, in the far back room of the house, it was like a workshop of sorts; not insulated, very rustic. When you opened the door, written on the wall was “Killed in Gulfport, Miss., 1952” (or 1956). There was an old Ouija board in there, too. No one ever knew or understood what it was meant for.
“I have always wanted to do more research on the house, and my dream was to someday own it again, but the last sale was somewhere around a million dollars, I believe, so it does not look like that will ever happen for me. But I still have my memories that no one can take away.”
Thank you, Mr. Dutra, for sharing those memories with us.