William Madison Wood

I went down a sidepath of digression while researching the history of the Elizabeth Islands and came across the Wikipedia entry for Cuttyhunk Island, the last of the chain and a very fishy place with a famous striped bass fishing club (which I have never visited, but hope to).

For that matter I have never set foot on Cuttyhunk, but also hope to. Anyway, while researching the history of Cuttyhunk I learned that the old bass club had once been purchased by one William Wood. His story is fascinating, and personally interesting because my life intersects his at a few common points. It’s one of the classic rags-to-riches stereotypes.

William Madison Wood Jr. was the son of Portuguese immigrants. He was born at home on Pease Point Road in Edgartown, on Martha’s Vineyard, in 1858 – about the time of my great-great-grandfather’s last voyage from Edgartown as master of the whaling ship Massachusetts. Wood’s father was a whaler, a common occupation for the Portuguese, many of whom joined American whaling ships when they stopped in the Azores for crew and supplies on their way south to the Pacific fishery. He died at sea in 1861, when William Jr. was 12.

Wood found employment in the textile mills of New Bedford. During the Civil War, eastern Massachusetts’ textile mills were roaring to keep up with demand for woolen uniforms and blankets, and New Bedford was among one of the most robust textile towns, with the Wamsutta Mills dominating the trade there. Wood served his apprenticeship under a wealthy mill owner, Andrew Pierce, and rose rapidly because of his work ethic. He left New Bedford at the age of 18, moved to Philadelphia, found a job at a brokerage firm, and learned finance to the point that he returned to New Bedford and a job at a bank.

Wood made his fortune in Lawrence, Massachusetts where I was a newspaper reporter in the early 1980s. A hundred years before, the massive Washington Mill went bankrupt and was purchased by Frederick Ayer of Lowell, Mass. – Wood was hired and quickly rose through management, making about $25,000, a fortune for the the time. Wood’s smartest career move was marrying Ayer’s daughter.

Wood’s achievement was to consolidate a number of independent woolen mills into one massive trust, the American Woolen Company. He was no friend to labor, and was at the center of some controversial strikes after the turn of the century, including a trial for allegedly paying saboteurs to plant explosives in his own mills. These mills are pretty remarkable structures – massive brick buildings that run literally for a mile along the banks of the Merrimack River.

Anyway … third point of intersection for me and Wood was Shawsheen, Massachusetts, a village on the north side of Andover (the town where I grew up). Wood based his corporate offices for the American Woolen Company in Shawsheen, building a massive office building at the main intersection. When I was a newspaper reporter I rented a one-bedroom apartment in that building which had been converted into condos in the late 1970s.

Wood purchased the bass club on Cuttyhunk for his family and sold lots around the buildings to friends so his children would have some summer friends. That club is famous for being one of the most exclusive sporting organizations in the United States, formed in the 1860s by some New York financiers who used carrier pigeons to get reports from the stock markets, and who fished for striped bass from wooden causeways built on iron scaffolds drilled into the granite rocky shore. I would argue that Wood’s choice of summer retreats has to rank as one of the best in the world.

Wood suffered a stroke in 1924, moved to Florida in 1926, and a month after retiring went for a ride with his chauffeur. He asked the driver to pull over, got out, walked into the woods, and shot himself with a revolver.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

8 thoughts on “William Madison Wood”

  1. Cuttyhunk’s a unique, funky place. No real roads, but lots of golf carts, a restaurant and a general store with a cash register that works on the honor system. I’ve sailed through the place my entire life, first time at age one. A few of the best things about Cuttyhunk:

    1) it’s hilarious to watch the seaplane try take off out of the inner harbor, because often it doesn’t make it up before the beach and has to bail at the last minute.
    2) kind of cheesy, but Cuttyhunk has a floating raw bar — a high-speed stinkpot that monitors channel 68 and darts over to cruisers in need of lobster or oysters.
    3) I’ve caught a lot of striped bass there, both on hook and spear

  2. As a kid I used to fish Cuttyhunk a lot with a variety of the charter captains. Guys like Bob Bauer, who lived on the island (ran aground with him one night coming in the harbor in a fog, and he worked all night so that none of the other guides would realize he’d had trouble. Skip Tripp, Spider Andresen, and a whole crew of truly colorful characters.

    I deleted a section about one of the other guides.

  3. I have been going to Cuttyhunk for most of my 32 years! Growing up my family would go to Cuttyhunk every weekend in the summer, much to my siblings and my dislike. We thought it was boring and dreampt of visiting the vineyard instead. Now older and wiser, I am getting married at the Cuttyhunk Fishing Club (the bass club) september 2010 and I can’t think of a more beautiful place in Massachusetts. I enjoyed your article, as I am researching history of this amazing island. Oh and Max I totally agree with your points, we would row around in the harbor in our zodiac rafts (because there was nothing left to do) and fear and dodge the sea plane!!! Unfortunately, there is no longer a sea plane….

  4. I am a decendent of William Madison Wood. He was my Great-Grandfather’s Uncle. The history is fascinating. I thank you for writing this, I will share it with my children.

  5. To Wendy,

    I my great grandfather was John Wood, brother of William. I am trying to
    do the Wood genealogy and would appreciate any info that you may have.

  6. Mr. Wood’s name was actually William Madison Wood, Sr. His father’s name was William JASON Wood. Hence the often mistaken belief that he was the Junior.

    Additionally, Mr. Wood’s first born son, William Madison Wood, Jr., died in 1922 as the result of an auto accident while racing.

    William Junior’s son, William Madison Wood, III, Billy to the family, was married to my aunt, Helen Roberts Wood. Because there were four generations of William Wood men, there quite often are confusions on their names. However, only the last three held the middle name of Madison which was taken from the textile magnate’s mother’s maiden name.

Leave a ReplyCancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Exit mobile version