Celebrating the life and work of Cape Cod writer, historian and character, Noel Beyle

Cape Cod Life  /  June 2019 /

Writer: James P. Freeman

One of the Cape’s Last Characters

Celebrating the work of Noel Beyle

He sold books and bravado. He relished in humor and history. And he frequently peddled curios and curiosity. He was perhaps Cape Cod’s last true character.

Noel W. Beyle was a writer and historian. He was also husband to Sue, for 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 summer a sign warned passersby of a poison ivy yet encouraged them to “pick what you want.” In his later years, he actually drove a white delivery truck bearing the custom-made corporate logo “Viagra Oyster Company.” Seriously.

Additionally, he was a prolific collector and seller, ranging from vintage postcards (at one point he owned nearly 60,000 pieces) and eclectic 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, clad in wool tam, purple crocs, glasses, and mustache, he sold memorabilia by the boatload. 

He was featured many times on Channel 5’s “Chronicle” program. In one memorable segment he was golfing on Cape Cod Bay ice in the middle of winter. Legend has it he shot par.

He wrote columns on local historical factoids and for many years put together Cape Cod Five Cents Savings 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 for which many local charities were the beneficiaries of his quiet generosity. 

Foremost, though, he was a storyteller. For over 40 years, Beyle was a local fixture who scoured the peninsula in search of a good story. He collected stories, complied stories and composed stories too. Even when he sang, gave lectures and dove into comedy—which he did, on occasion—he was really 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 died unexpectedly in June 2017. He was the last of a lost breed: charming eccentric. 

But his eccentricities—history, a playful sense of frivolity combined with a flotsam of marketing, moxie, and mischief—produced one of the greatest collections of booklets ever written about Cape Cod.

From 1976 (“Entering Eastham”) to 1987 (“‘Fishy’ Stories of Cape Cod”) and beyond 2000 (assorted cook books 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 the islands. 

In 2011, he estimated that he sold nearly a million copies of the pamphlet-sized books that ranged from 50 to over 100 pages. Early editions from the 1980s sold originally for less than one dollar. Today, however, virtually every edition is out of print, and many are offered online for 25-50 times their initial sale price. The Beyle-conceived First Encounter Press published most of the work. The Cape Cod Times believed 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 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 years. 

There is a lyrical and luminescent quality to Beyle’s writing. Take “6A All the Way,” for instance. It is a kind of whimsical retrospective the way 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 employs 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.” A 1984 story about the grounded merchant ship Eldia (pages 24-25), it 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 doesn’t.     

Stylistically, Beyle was slightly diabolical. He wrote with a nod to the late classic Cape novelist Joseph C. Lincoln while fusing a reverential pastiche for Monty Python and Mark Twain. Where the conventional lives with the unconventional. 

Understandably, Beyle inhabited a universe of black and white images and silent history, but his unique storytelling brought a Technicolor of insight and appreciation to the subject matter. That may explain his appeal. His stories talked back. And laughed back, too.

He took some time in late 1979 to reflect on his methods. In an interview with The Register, Samuel Howe thought that, with all the demands made of people to read (imagine that, even then), “his work must be more than read.” Beyle knowingly responded, “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.

Still, given the efficiency of today’s digital world, it is hard to believe the quality and prodigious output Beyle consistently achieved in the analog world he worked in. 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 disdain for cell phones. And website? Not on your life! 

Much of his success can be attributed to an old-fashioned idea: 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 years old then and worked between 12 and 16-hour days. Back then it was customary for him to personally 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 February 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.