Martha’s Vineyard: A New England Haven

December 5, 2006
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on email
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on email

Martha’s Vineyard was always a summer place. For those who lived on the island year-round, winter was a time to be alone, to hibernate, to endure until the warmth of July and August washed over the island like a wave of renewal. Years ago the summer visitors who came to the Vineyard came often as not to their own second homes and stayed for the entire season; eventually these visitors came to be accepted as “summer people.” Not islanders, of course, but accepted like any other longtime residents of the island, this steadfast slice of New England less than an hour’s ferry ride off southern Massachusetts.

It was just that paradoxical combination of prox-imity and distance that gave Martha’s Vineyard much of its appeal. Yes, it was only hours away from Boston and New York, but you couldn’t exactly drive there. If, following the signs on highways leading to Cape Cod, you turned off onto roads leading to “The Islands” – Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard – sooner or later you came to the shore of the Atlantic. You could go no farther, except by ferry.

And if the ferry ride to Martha’s Vineyard was shorter than the one to Nantucket, it was certainly long enough to mark the passage between the workaday world of the city and the summer island, that quiet haven of farms, woods, beaches, and villages.


It was the ferry that made the difference, visitors said again and again. From the moment you stepped onto it, cares seemed to drop away, so that by the time you arrived at the ferry landing at Oak Bluffs or so aptly named Vineyard Haven, you were someone else. Maybe even, in your own mind, an islander.

the day is clear, sky blue, and, for may, unseasonably warm. Colorful splashes of tulips and daffodils are in full bloom in the gardens of Edgartown, lawns are resplendently green, and along North Water Street the sounds of hammers, saws, and power sanders fill the air. After a long and particularly snow-laden winter, little time remains to spruce up the handsome, 19th-century white-clapboard mansions before the start of the summer season; one worker says it is as if there’d been no spring at all this year.

Many of Edgartown’s fine homes were built by whaling captains, and whaling nostalgia runs full fathom five here. Old iron anchors are a common decor motif (sometimes with a fluke buried into a brick walkway), and sperm whale weather vanes point into the sea breeze on top ofscores of homes. At a new waterfront park, where a memorial plaque salutes, somewhat incongruously, both “the whales and the whalers who pursued them,” a massive, sculpted tail of a whale sounds forever into the grass.


In a shop on Main Street, Thomas DeMont Jr. carries on the traditional whalers’ art of scrimshaw. DeMont remembers a time from childhood 40 years or so ago, when a barrel of sperm whale teeth sat outside a local hardware store with a sign offering these souvenirs of the whaling past for a couple of dollars.

“And they couldn’t give them away,” he says.

Today those same teeth might fetch $500 each, and a piece of 19th-century sailor’s scrimshaw can bring $25,000 at auction. DeMont was born on the island but left for a career as an art teacher; it was only after he returned (“It took a good ten years before people started accepting me as an islander again,” he notes) that he became interested in scrimshaw. In 1977 he went to Nantucket and found boxes of ivory whale teeth still stashed away in old attics; he bought 450 of them, for perhaps a tenth of their current value.


The price of nostalgia aside, DeMont concedes that Martha’s Vineyard was never the whaling island that Nantucket was. The wild ride in a boat after a whale was harpooned was not, after all, called a Martha’s Vineyard sleigh ride. No, DeMont says, the Vineyard was more in the service business. Recalling stories that “if the wind was right you could smell the return of a whaling ship when it was still 20 miles at sea,” DeMont says the whaling captains who built their homes in Edgartown were no fools.

“They chose a site with a limited harbor,” he says, “for the very reason that it would never become a whaling port. In that way they could live near Nantucket and their ships but raise their families away from the grime and the grit and the smells.”

The same observation might be made these days about the celebrities who flee New York for homes on the island. Walk into the A&P supermarket near Edgartown, and in a prime location near the checkout lines, along with a display of Martha’s Vineyard posters, and Martha’s Vineyard jigsaw puzzles, and a Martha’s Vineyard knockoff of Monopoly (instead of going to jail, you go directly to the ferry standby lane), is a monitor continuously showing Memories of Martha’s Vineyard: The Video.


It is difficult to imagine another island that, in producing a home-grown promotional video (“4 Years in the Making!”), could count on the participation of the likes of Mike Wallace, Art Buchwald, William Styron, Alan Dershowitz, and Carly Simon, for its interviews.

At one point in the video, Wallace vividly recalls his first ferry ride to the Vineyard some 60 years ago, then notes that he, Buchwald, and Styron have all bought plots in the Vineyard Haven cemetery. In Wallace’s case, at least, that funereal decision seems to reflect less a desire, once and for all, not to leave the island at the end of summer than the wish to be accepted, finally, as an islander: He recounts being chided by Buchwald, his longtime tennis partner, who once said that if Wallace was buried in the island cemetery, he would put on his tombstone: “Here lies Mike Wallace. He was always a renter.” The threat, however, no longer applies; Wallace, too, now owns a home in Vineyard Haven.

Martha’s Vineyard is, in many ways, not just one island. Locals here will tell you that while Nantucket is an island with a single community, the Vineyard has six very different townships, a virtual archipelago of idiosyncrasies.

Think of the Vineyard as a rumpled triangle. At the apex is Tisbury, with the island’s only truly year-round community, Vineyard Haven. It’s a family town, and the one place that seems to try, rather successfully, to remain untainted by the ferry loads of visitors disembarking at its doorstep.

Moving clockwise around the island, a summer visitor might go no farther than Oak Bluffs, where honky-tonk meets the sea in a New England summer version of spring break; nightly, when the bars on the main drag all close at the same hour, traffic is blocked off so the sudden exodus of mostly younger partygoers on foot can be safely herded off into the night.

At Edgartown (“New England hoity-toity,” jibes one islander), the touring sightseer can look over to Chappaquiddick Island, linked to Edgartown by a ferry ride. An island within an island, Chappy is a place for people who really don’t want to be bothered by other people.

The rest of Martha’s Vineyard is “up island,” a demarcation that appears on no map but one that is clear to any Vineyard resident. This is grassroots-granola country, a place of farms, stone walls, and woods, home to West Tisbury (the rural Athens, because of the literary lions who have made their homes there), Chilmark, whose residents have a reputation for being independent and private (and, some would say, cranky), and remote Gay Head, an Indian township at the far western corner of the island, where Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis once built a hideaway on nearly 400 secluded acres.

In maintaining an essentially private life on Martha’s Vineyard, Jacqueline Onassis continued a tradition begun decades ago by the handful of notables who first summered here, Katherine Cornell and James Cagney among them; they tended to keep low profiles on the island, earning respect and affection in the process.

However, in the wake of summer visits by President Clinton and family, the island been rediscovered by celebrities who, to the dismay of most islanders, seem afflicted with an epidemic of “tabloid syndrome.” Rumors now fly about possible new neighbors, from Sharon Stone to Oprah to – gasp – Princess Di, who vacationed here a couple of years ago.

While some islanders seem rather anxious that the Vineyard attract only the “right kind” of celebrity (race, religion, and sexual preference are apparently inconsequential factors), most are more concerned with the day-to-day stream of less-than-famous summer arrivals that has reached flood stage, creating gridlock on an island without a single stoplight.

Which may explain why a visitor would be hard-pressed to spot a single welcoming sign to any of the island’s townships, to say nothing of any “Thank You, Come Again” messages. Based on signage alone, one does not get the impression this is the friendliest of islands.

Indeed, interdictions abound: The most common sign on the island would seem to be a toss-up between “No Parking This Side” and “No Parking Either Side,” closely followed by “Private Property” and “Tow Away Zone.” Some of the island’s nicest beaches are off-limits to all but residents of the nearest township, and because Massachusetts is one of only two states in the union where private property extends offshore, guards can – and do – prevent unwelcome guests from even strolling along some beaches.

The vexations of traffic, lack of parking, and crowds have led to a curious phenomenon: Many longtime residents of the island no longer venture to the beach at all during summer.

These frustrations seem to spill over in other ways. On this day, for example, in an upscale Edgartown shop, an islander not yet in his 30s is bemoaning to a friend the changes that have infected the mentality of the residents themselves: “I was out for a bike ride, and a pickup went zipping by me – and about took my knuckles off. When I looked up, I saw that it had a ¿Slow Down, You’re Not Off-Island Anymore’ sticker on it.”

And in a bookstore on the outskirts of Oak Bluffs, a woman is offering her own take on change on the island. “I don’t want to sound like a Republican, but it used to be more family oriented…Maybe pastoral isn’t the right word, but it was gentler.”

Summer on the Vineyard, too, it seems, has become a time, like winter, to be endured.

Martha’s Vineyard is not a huge island – only about twenty miles long and perhaps ten miles from top to bottom as the seagull flies from West Chop to South Beach. But it is an island on which it is impossible for a first-time visitor to get a quick fix.

At first glance, it is not a postcard-perfect place. The landscape is mostly flat and monochromatic; the grays of the salt marshes interweave with the grays of the pine barrens and scrub oak. The woods here are not lovely, dark, or deep.

Along the back roads up island, where new houses unexpectedly loom through the trees like huge ships in a dense fog, the woods occasionally give way to green pastures and farms (some with new owners, one Chilmark man quipped, who wouldn’t know the difference between a John Deere and a reindeer). But much of the best of the island, including the many private beaches, is invisible. For someone arriving for an extended stay, who settles down in a comfortable home and can join longtime friends on some private shore for a clambake, the Vineyard is one place; for a summer visitor on a moped, the island is quite another.

The real Vineyard, for many, lies down some unmarked yellow-dirt driveway that leads into the woods, sometimes to a beach. At the end of one such path in Chilmark, the trees give way to a handsomely landscaped clearing, complete with pool and tennis court, and the home of Peter Simon and family. Sitting on his sunporch, Simon recalls coming to the island for the first time when he was four or five years old, his father meeting him at the ferry and taking him swimming at Windy Gates Beach.

“It was six o’clock in the evening on an August afternoon, and I thought I was in heaven,” Simon remembers.

That first visit lasted a month, and it made a lasting impact on him. (“Everyone seemed so happy,” he says. “We were here as a family.”) From the time he was 12, Simon spent almost every summer on Martha’s Vineyard. In 1973 he bought what he describes as a “marginal” house at Gay Head and enjoyed a succession of barefoot, hippie summers. A dozen years later, working in Manhattan as a photographer, with a young son in tow, he decided to make his summer island his year-round home.

“I didn’t have the personality to make it in New York,” says Simon, who has published two books about Martha’s Vineyard, produces an island calendar, occasionally works as a summer deejay at the liveliest island nightclub, and has started producing recordings that feature the island’s musicians, including his sister, Carly.

“Here I can think of myself as a big fish in a little pond,” he says, “and whether it amounts to anything or not, I love what I’ve done.”

There are dozens of ponds on Martha’s Vineyard, some with names (Uncle Seth’s Pond, Old Mill Pond) that recall a recent pastoral past, others with names odd-sounding to the modern ear (Squibnocket, Nashaquitsa, Occooch) that echo a time when Indians were the only inhabitants of the island.

Wampanoag Indians still live at Gay Head, although today they are more likely to be found behind the counters of souvenir shops at this remote end of the island than, as in days past, behind a plow or at the helm of a fishing boat.

For generations of islanders, a trip to Gay Head meant an all-day affair – a picnic and a chance to get “clayed” in the rainbowlike colors of clay that swirled through the sedimentary layers of the cliffs, washing into the sea at high tides. But as a new Gay Head postcard shows – juxtaposing a recent photograph of the cliffs with one from 1960 – the cliffs now resemble a monochrome lunar landscape, as if the life in them had been drained away.

Along with the geological changes have come sociological ones. In the dirt parking lot at Gay Head (where the tariff is $20 a day), a sign notes that a township bylaw “prohibits the taking of CLAY or the wearing of CLAY on your person,” adding that “clay-bathing is an unacceptable behavior and will be treated as such.”

About three miles from Gay Head lies the island’s quintessential fishing village, Menemsha, where much of the filming took place for a movie about a great white shark that spends its summer vacation at an East Coast

island. Islanders are quick to note that there has never been a Jaws incident on the Vineyard, but perhaps it’s not surprising to find signs that reflect Yankee enterprise and instant nostalgia, like the ubiquitous flier that advertises: “Ride in the taxi you saw in Jaws!”

In Menemsha, on Dutcher Dock, where the commercial fishing boats tie up, Larsen’s Fish Market offers a special on the catch of the day. Inside, on a wall, hangs a reproduction of a Saturday Evening Post cover from August 1950. It’s not a Norman Rockwell cover, but it has that look – a nostalgic, congenial, small-town portrait of the Menemsha post office, a red gas pump, and some fishing boats. Step outside and look around at the lobster buoys on the sides of some homes and at the swordfish tails nailed on others, and you get the feeling that not much has really changed here in the last 40-plus years. But it has.

Betsy Larsen, cheery and straightforward behind the counter, tells me about the time, just two or three decades ago, when swordfishing was the main summer industry in Menemsha, which was the home of one of the largest fleets of swordfishing boats on the East Coast. Her father (one of three brothers known as the “Lucky Larsens” for the fish they brought back to port) once harpooned 50 swordfish in a single day. Harpooning then was a respected skill, the legacy of real-life counterparts of Tashtego, the Gay Head Indian harpooner in Moby Dick. These days, in the wake of long-line fleets in southern waters, overfishing, and new laws, swordfishing is a way of life that’s largely gone from the Vineyard. On this day, for example, local shark fillets are on ice in the Larsen’s Fish Market display case, but the swordfish steaks are from North Carolina.

It is a measure of the island that the filming of Jaws remains one of the two big events in recent Vineyard history. The other was the late-night drowning of a young woman who was riding in a car that plunged off a Chappaquiddick bridge in 1969, a tragedy that still draws the curious to the site because the driver of the car was a senator named Kennedy.

Chappaquiddick itself has a certain, almost quirky undertone. Now an island in name only, it is connected by a narrow ribbon of sand to South Beach, one of the Vineyard’s most popular summer playgrounds. When the bluefish are running, fishermen in their four-wheel-drives motor along that stretch of sand to Chappy’s distant shores, but most visitors take the two-minute ferry ride from Edgartown.

The resentment among some Vineyard residents that the Dike Bridge, off one of Chappaquiddick’s back roads, continues to be a tourist attraction is sometimes palpable. No sign marks the turnoff to the ill-fated bridge, and there is no memorial marker there. A new kiosk, empty in the off-season, now stands guard at the bridge, but a sign there offers only environmental information, not history lessons.

The bridge, which leads to the beaches of the Cape Pogue Wildlife Refuge, is also new; the old one fell into disrepair, perhaps out of benign neglect, and for more than a quarter of a century after the Kennedy affair it was impassable, as if being out of sight it would be out of mind.

On this cool, breezy spring day, the remote beach beyond the bridge is nearly deserted. There are no fishermen, no four-wheel-drives, just a young couple near a dune, curled up together for warmth on a beach blanket. It is a pleasant sight, yet one that can’t help but evoke images from the past. Meanwhile, back at the bridge, on the side of the toll booth, is something that would have been of use on that night nearly 30 years ago – a pay telephone.

On an island where change is, by and large, resisted, the old and the new sometimes rest uneasily side by side. Near Chilmark Pond a large boulder with a bronze plaque marks the site where a band of Indians gathered in 1657 to hear a Christian sermon. Not far away, just inside the entrance of a Chilmark cemetery, in a grave surrounded by a simple wooden fence, lies John Belushi, who once and for all is no longer just a summer resident.

In Vineyard Haven the waterfront Black Dog Tavern, which began life in 1971 as a place where locals could eat in winter, has now become, in a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, home to a million-dollar mail-order business sired by its logo of a silhouetted canine.

On the roads from Edgartown (where a summer rental can run a rather pricy $60,000 a month) to South Beach, old New England homes in full regalia – wicker chairs, sunporches, American flags – contrast with newer, sometimes massive manses, including one with a lawn the size of two polo fields on which several llamas cavort.

In Alley’s General Store, the West Tisbury landmark that is the Vineyard’s oldest business (established 1858), a bumper sticker quotes both Albert Einstein (“How I wish that somewhere there existed an island for those that are wise and of good will”) and an optimistic turn on a recent catchphrase: “Grace Happens.”

And in Oak Bluffs the longest lines each summer stretch outside the Flying Horses, the nation’s oldest platform carousel, which arrived via Coney Island in 1884. One room in the small wooden building has been given over to video games and other amusements, but the sound that spills outside is a carousel tune from the music roll of a 1901 Wur-litzer, as young and old alike climb aboard the tiny horses for a four-minute ride and one of the few chances in America to actually grab the brass ring – and another free ride.

On a wall in the front office of the vineyard Gazette hangs a portrait of the newspaper’s legendary editor, Henry Beetle Hough. By all accounts, Hough was a low-key, soft-voiced, very proper, polite man. In other words, a gentleman. Hough received the Gazette as a wedding present from his father in 1920, and in addition to putting out a paper every week for more than half a century, he managed to write 26 books, including the classic Country Editor. He walked at least ten miles a day well into his 70s and was still writing editorials at 87.

In a small, back room at the Gazette, a display that outlines the history of the newspaper includes a front page from April 21, 1933, a black-bordered memorial to the passing of the island’s – and the world’s – last heath hen. The event led Hough to take a closer look at the cause of conservation on the island, a cause the newspaper would defend in battles with developers decades later.

Those were battles that the newspaper and the islanders won more often than they lost, according to Richard Reston, who is now the editor of the Gazette. Reston, whose family purchased the newspaper in 1968, came to Martha’s Vineyard after big-time journalistic tours of duty that included the White House and Moscow, and he wasn’t really sure whether he wanted to settle down in a small town. He’s now been at the job more than 20 years and has no plans to move on.

His office is upstairs, just off the newsroom’s odd mix of old wooden desks and new computers. When he talks about the Vineyard, Reston often employs military metaphors, of campaigns won and lost, as if the island has been under siege. Which, he suggests, is exactly how many islanders feel.

“This is a community that is willing to fight,” he says, “and what it is fighting for is the soul of the island.”

Martha’s Vineyard, Reston says, was basically a quiet, undiscovered place until the 1980s. “That was a time when things ran out of control on the Vineyard.” He’s talking about development, battles over housing tracts, condos, malls, even a McDonald’s. If the 1980s were the decade of development, he says, the 1990s are the decade of transition, as the island searches for ways to deal with its own popularity without destroying the very thing that brings people here.

“You hear people despair about the changes,” Reston says, “but what’s remarkable is that a place like this wasn’t destroyed like Cape Cod a long time ago.” There is still a lot of unspoiled rural quality left on the island, he adds. “There are great stretches I’ve still never seen. Even as long as I’ve been here, I’ll go down a road, and it will open up a perspective – a shoreline, an interior I never knew was there.”

If you want to see what the island must have looked like 300 years ago, a longtime islander suggests, go to Cedar Tree Neck. “When I’m there,” she says, “I can imagine what it was like when Gosnold was sailing these waters.”

Bartholomew Gosnold was the English explorer who, in 1602, named the island in honor of his daughter or his mother-in-law (accounts vary) and for its abundant grapes. Gosnold wouldn’t find as many grapes today, but he might well recognize the landscape on the northwest coast.

Preservation is a watchword on Martha’s Vineyard, and it wouldn’t be Martha’s Vineyard without signs: At the tiny parking lot at Cedar Tree Neck, a sign notes that the 300-acre sanctuary is maintained by a conservation group as “a living museum for the enjoyment of all who love the outdoors and wish to follow trails through the woods.” The sign, and others nearby, also include restrictions against picnicking, swimming, and other recreational activities. But by Vineyard standards some of the signs are downright affable, such as the one posted near trees carved with initials: “Please do not carve into the bark of living trees. Thank you.”

Walking down to the water past one last sign (a caution against entering the dunes under restoration), I begin to wonder whether the islanders themselves have developed, through constant exposure, some sort of immunity to the plethora of prohibitions, restrictions, and warnings. I find myself looking, on this cool, overcast, windswept day, for warnings – “No Lifeguard on Duty” and “Swim at Your Own Risk,” maybe even a “Seashell Collecting Prohibited.”

Actually, here the seashells are, like most New England shells, a rather uninteresting lot, but they are nonetheless the same shells that Gosnold himself might have picked up. And then I notice the rocks at the water’s edge.

Surf-smoothed, their myriad subtle colors evident only when washed by the sea, they are a fitting metaphor for this island, which does not easily give up its secrets. Gazing out across the gray-green sea to the Elizabeth Islands on the horizon, I turn back toward land and try to see the island as the first islanders saw it. And here, on this empty stretch of shoreline, where woods meet the sea, that requires little effort. From this perspective, at least, there are no signs of change, in fact, no signs at all.


More Uncategorized