George and Wlliiam Bray, who grew up in the Weir Village neighborhood of Yarmouth in the late 19th century and later came to own what is known today as Taylor-Bray Farm, were seen by many as town characters. That image, however, belied the brothers’ serious side as successful agriculturists and collectors of antiques and Native American artifacts.
The brothers owned the farm from 1896 to 1941, but it is likely that in the years before they purchased the property, the brothers were leasing the place from the last generation of the Taylor family who no longer lived at the farm. The brothers grew cranberries and were described in the Yarmouth Register in 1914 as “prosperous Hockanom market gardeners.” They sold strawberries and other produce from a wheelbarrow on the side of nearby King’s Highway or at the farm itself. Willie was an active member and officer of the Cape Cod Grange, an agricultural movement that reflected the Cape’s once rural character.
During those early years as farmers it appears that George and Willie supplemented their incomes by working as laborers and carpenters. This work included taking down decaying historic homes in Yarmouth and Dennis and sometimes selling salvaged items like fireplace mantels. Perhaps this was the beginning of their antiquing, an interest that complimented their activities collecting Native American artifacts many of which were reported to have been found at the farm and nearby locales.
Whenever George and Willie’s collecting and antiquing activities began, the record shows the brothers went at it with a fervor that led the Yarmouth Register to observe in 1932 that it had never seen “a larger private collection in this vicinity.” Over several decades the brothers built a successful antique business that amassed an array of exotic artifacts from the Cape and around the world.
A Yarmouth Register reporter who visited George Bray in 1938 described the farmhouse as being chock-o-block full of heirlooms and collectibles: antique furniture, old guns, original Currier & Ives lithographs, African and South Pacific weapons (“an entire kitchen wall covered with South Sea bows, arrows, spears, hatchets and so on”) and scrimshaw of every kind. The reporter was particularly taken with an intricately carved,- man-sized wooden shield from Africa that George acquired at a Nantucket auction. Although the Brays had but limited formal education, the brothers had assembled a collection of antique books that drew high praise from the president of the Hyannis Teachers College.
The farmhouse was also brimming with precolonial artifacts consisting of case after case of arrowheads and spearheads as well as chests and ancient bureaus full of axes, pestles, mortars, net weights and tools of all descriptions.
The Bray brothers reputations for unconventionality might have had some roots in this tall tale published over thirty years ago in Cape Cod Compass magazine:
When George Bray died in 1941 he left “one chest of ivory ornaments and decorations, all my Indian relics, and all my South Sea Island relics” to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA). The Bray Collection came back home to Taylor-Bray Farm in February 2019 as an unrestricted gift to the Taylor-Bray Farm Preservation Association from Historic New England (SPNEA’s successor organization).
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the brothers’ legacy has been diminished by robberies. In 1935 and 1966 a significant number of Native American artifacts and an antique gun collection were stolen. And if that’s not enough bad news to earn the Bray Collection a star-crossed moniker, another burglary in 1988 clinched that label when all but one of the Bray Collection’s whale teeth scrimshaw were stolen and have never been recovered. Moreover, the bulk of the Native American artifacts in the SPNEA bequest have been misplaced over the years or simply disappeared.
A break-in on July 21,1988 at the Historical Society of Old Yarmouth resulted in the loss of valuable art and antiques including most of the Bray Collection’s ivory ornaments and decorations. All but one of the Collection’s whale teeth, which consisted of twenty-three scrimshaw engravings and twenty-eight polished but undecorated whale teeth, were stolen. The missing items included scrimshaw objects capturing various whaling scenes, a sketch of the renowned whaler the Charles Morgan, a map of the coast from New England to Nova Scotia and an elaborate drawing of the famous 1812 sea battle between the USS Constitution vs HMS Guerriere.
The only remaining scrimshaw whale’s tooth from the original Bray Collection bequest is this 5 3/4″ tooth decorated with the image of a South Pacific warrior crouching behind a shield fending off the arrows of an unseen enemy. On the reverse side is a scroll with a sword and a Phrygian cap, a symbol of freedom and the pursuit of liberty. We do not know why it was the only scrimshaw tooth not stolen in the 1988 Bangs-Hallet House burglary.
But back to the good news. Many “ivory ornaments and decorations” remain as do most of the” relics” from the South Pacific.