This is a version of an article that first appeared in Cape Cod Life.
He sold books and bravado. He relished humor and history. And he peddled curios and curiosity. He was one of Cape Cod’s most memorable characters.
Noel W. Beyle, who died on June 14, 2017 at 76, was a writer and historian. He was also husband to Sue, whom he always referred to as “my bride.” The self-proclaimed “Mayor of West Eastham” lived on a dune overlooking Cape Cod Bay in a home constructed of three one-story Army barracks during World War II and known to locals as West Eastham Town Hall; during the summer a sign warned passers-by of a poison ivy yet encouraged them to “pick what you want.” In his later years, he drove a white delivery truck bearing the custom-made corporate logo “Viagra Oyster Company.”
He was also a prolific collector and seller, ranging from vintage postcards (at one point he owned nearly 60,000)) and an eclectic collection of antiques -- not to mention calendar art, nostalgic signage and kitsch junk. Many likely knew him from his decades-long presence at the Wellfleet Flea Market, where, with a wool hat, purple crocs, glasses and mustache, he sold memorabilia by the boatload.
He was featured many times on Channel 5’s (in Boston) Chronicle program. In one memorable segment he was golfing on Cape Cod Bay ice in the middle of winter.
He wrote columns on local historical stories and for many years put together the Cape Cod Five Cent Saving Bank’s calendar of vintage photographs and commentary. He was a lover of dogs (he had one in the 1970s named -- of course! -- “Kitty Kitty,” just to see people’s reaction when they called “here, kitty, kitty…”) and a philanthropist. Many local charities benefited from his quiet generosity.
Foremost, though, he was a storyteller. For more than 40 years Beyle was a local fixture who scoured the peninsula in search of a good story. He canvassed, cultured and composed stories. Even when he sang, lectured and performed standup comedy, he was telling stories. Driving on Route 6A in the mid-1970s, he surmised once that “there is a story almost every four seconds here if you’re observant.”
Beyle seemed to many of us a member of a lost breed: a charming eccentric.
But his qualities– an intense love of history and a playfulness, combined with a strengths in marketing, moxie and mischief -- produced one of the greatest collections of publications about Cape Cod.
From 1976 (Entering Eastham) to 1987 (“Fishy” Stories of Cape Cod) and beyond 2000, (assorted cookbooks and photo-journal texts) Beyle published 40 booklets ranging from weather oddities to the old Target Ship and everything in between the Bourne Bridge and Race Point, including Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands.
In 2011, he estimated that he had sold nearly a million copies of his pamphlet-sized books, which ranged from 50 to over 100 pages. Editions from the 1980s sold originally for under $1. Today, however, virtually every edition is out of print and many are offered online for 25-50 times their initial sale price. Most of the work was published by the Beyle-conceived First Encounter Press. The Cape Cod Times believed that this was “probably (Eastham’s) first publishing firm.” Before “local sourcing’’ became synonymous with farming, Beyle was ahead of the curve. All of his booklets were printed on the Cape.
Today, reading and rummaging through the entire catalog is revealing and great fun.
The four booklets written in 1979 -- Cape Cod Off Season, 6A All The Way, The Cape Cod Lampoon and The State of Cape Cod -- are marvels of style, wit and personality. Beyle worked with a number of talented illustrators throughout the years, including James E. Owens and Kathryn M. Meyers. But the accompaniment of William Canty in Off Season (and others) is the hilarious literary equivalent of a Frank Sinatra/Nelson Riddle collaboration from their monumental concept albums during the early Capitol Records years.
There is a lyrical and luminescent quality to his writing. Take 6A All the Way, for instance. It is a kind of whimsical retrospective as Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” was a metaphorical one. Turn to page 53 and see the Brewster General Store over the course of over 150 years.
A hallmark of his work is that it reflects who we were and what we have become.
Beyle employed a trademark technique that creates a striking impression of time and space and emotion -- the recurring interaction of the silly and the serious; the flow of advertisements for local businesses that blend in seamlessly with pictures and graphics. In many ways they are part of the story itself. Evidence of this technique abounds in Cape Cod to the Rescue. This 1984 story about the grounded merchant ship Eldia (pages 24-25) showcases dramatic pictures of the crippled vessel along with recipes for shrimp scampi and ads for a dry cleaner and photography studio. Such an idiosyncratic presentation could have easily degenerated into a hopelessly tangled mashup. But it didn’t.
Stylistically, Beyle was slightly diabolical, if not contumacious. He wrote with a nod to the classic Cape novelist Joseph C. Lincoln combined with an attitude recalling Monty Python and Mark Twain. ]
He inhabited a retrospective universe of black and white images and silent history, but his unique storytelling brought Technicolor of insight and appreciation to the subject matter. That may explain his appeal. His stories talk back. And laugh back, too.
He took some time in late 1979 to reflect on his methods. In an interview of Beyle by Samuel Howe in The Register, Beyle said “the concept is simple: to make sure that some of the old and new about Cape Cod is caught and put down on high-quality paper -- whether it takes just the right typewritten word, an old scrapbook picture, or a catchy cartoon.” He didn’t have to go looking for humor. Invariably, it found him.
Given the efficiency of today’s digital world, the quality and prodigious output Beyle achieved in the analog world he worked in is hard to believe. He began writing in 1962 on a then state-of-the-art IBM Selectric typewriter and never looked back. He had an email address but rarely used it. He had a beguiling distain for cell phones. And Web site? -- not on your life!
Much of his success can be attributed to an old-fashioned idea: an indomitable work ethic.
In June 1979 he told The Cape Cod Times, “A lot of people don’t think I work… I run around trying to be funny -- I’ve been doing that all my life.” He was 38 then and worked 12-16-hour days. Back then, it was customary for him to type 150 or so personal letters to those on his “Friends” list, alerting them to new booklets and thanking them for their financial support. One letter, dated Feb. 24, 1982, wished the addressee a “much-belated new year.” That was quintessential Noel Beyle.
Pat Mikulak noted long ago in Cape Cod Life that “Beyle is zany…” and that his “forte is play on and with words, so if you’ve gotten to taking life too seriously, we’re sure he’d suggest that you go out and get a Beyle of his books.” =
Each quirky one of them is worth a reread or first read in 2019.]
James P. Freeman, a former banker, is a veteran New England-based writer, including as a former columnist with The Cape Cod Times and New Boston Post. His work has appeared in The Providence Journal, The Cape Codder, golocalprov.com, nationalreview.com and insidesources.com, as well as Cape Cod Life and New England Diary.