Who was Whale Oil Gus?

Whale Oil Gus Folger next to the statue on Library Square, New Bedford, MA
Whale Oil Gus Folger next to the statue on Library Square, New Bedford, MA. 1930. Digital Commonwealth

Augustus Eliot Folger was born to whaling captain Henry B. Folger and Sarah (Swain) Folger on February 10, 1852, in their home on the corner of Main Street and Bloom Street. His mother died when he was seven, and his father remarried.  All three of his siblings and his one half-brother died young, and his father died while still in his fifties, leaving Augustus the family’s sole survivor.

Augustus left the Coffin School at age fifteen to go on the first of several whaling voyages, signing on the bark Mount Wollaston with two other boys from a Nantucket whaling family, fifteen-year-old Andrew B. Coon and his cousin, seventeen-year-old Charles W. Coon. The master of the Mount Wollaston was Captain Edward B. Coffin of Nantucket.  On this voyage, according to a story he told frequently in later life, he fell from aloft into the sea and was only found and brought back onto the vessel after spending a night in the water. Several other whaling voyages replete with adventures followed. Between voyages, Augustus earned pocket money busking in ‘Sconset and in town.

At age 28, Augustus married Harriet West of New Bedford, and they had a daughter named Sarah after Augustus’s late mother. Five years later, Harriet died, leaving Augustus a widower. Unlike his father, he did not remarry. Instead, Augustus, who had a powerful voice, turned his back on the sea and became a professional storyteller and singer under the professional name “Whale Oil Gus.” As an entertainer following the theater and lecture circuit for decades, Gus crisscrossed the USA and Canada, telling stories about his whaling experience and singing sea chanteys, hymns, and sentimental songs.  He amassed a large collection of whaling implements with which he illustrated his lectures, and late in his career he toured with an embalmed fin whale on a railroad flatcar.

Audiences replaced lost kin for Gus.  When asked from time to time when he might retire, he said that whenever he stopped entertaining, he got sick, so he had to keep on.  On his 87th birthday in 1939 he lectured to California school students, but on September 19 of that year he died in Los Angeles. His wish was that his cremated remains be returned to Nantucket and interred next to his parents.  He had maintained a regular correspondence over the years with Harry B. Turner, publisher and editor of the Inquirer and Mirror, to whom a box containing his ashes was shipped from California. Turner handed them over to the Lewis Funeral Home and was confident that they had been buried. So many years had passed since the deaths of his parents, however, that Turner himself did not know exactly which Folgers had been Gus’s, and he misstated his father’s name as Joseph B. Folger. As a result, Gus’s parents’ burial plot went unlocated, and the box of his ashes rested on a shelf for eighty-two years until, through the efforts of the office of the Town Clerk, the Nantucket Cemetery Commissioners, and the Prospect Hill Cemetery Association, the burial plot of Henry B. and Sarah Folger and two of their children who had died in childhood were located in Prospect Hill Cemetery. Whale Oil Gus was finally laid to rest on October 17, 2021.  “Rock’d in the Cradle of the Deep,” the song he had regularly used to close his performances, was sung, and Neil Paterson of NPI stone masons donated a memorial stone with his name and dates and the words Whale Oil Gus.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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