Even at Age 87 Grace Frye Is Madly in Love


In this pleasant living room, populated by orchids and a poinsettia and a pair of Himalayan cats, Grace Frye sits and recalls a simpler time in Oak Bluffs: of afternoons filled with hopscotch and jump rope, of five-cent ice cream cones on Circuit avenue, of the hot sounds of Louis Armstrong's band coming in at night through the ether from Chicago.

"We had a radio - it was run on car batteries," said Mrs. Frye, 87, who has lived in the town for all but six years of her life.

"I loved music. When I was a teenager, they used to have dances over in Vineyard Haven at the Cape Verdean Hall on a Thursday night. Hot diggity, boy, I loved to dance. We used to jitterbug and everything, and have a good time."

Over the past eight decades, Mrs. Frye has been in a romantic dance of her own with Oak Bluffs and the Island of Martha's Vineyard: swimming with summer friends at the Inkwell; meeting and marrying her late husband, George C. (Buster) Frye; and developing over five decades a network of deeply loyal customers for Avon beauty products.

"I love the Island," she said. "I wouldn't live anywhere else."

Her foster mother, Mabel Hughes, was a native of the town. When Grace was six, her mother, who had been working for a wealthy woman in Hingham, returned to Oak Bluffs with her daughter.

"This was her love - she was in love with Oak Bluffs," Mrs. Frye said. "Oh, she was a beautiful lady. She was very active in politics. The Women's Christian Temperance Union, she belonged to that. She was the secretary for the state, and would go off for meetings. She was a good Christian lady."

Remembering growing up in Oak Bluffs in the 1920s and 1930s, Mrs. Frye recalls a simpler and in some ways a more gracious time.

In her childhood, a quarter would finance an ice cream cone, a bag of popcorn, and at least several rides on the Flying Horses carousel. Boats coming in and out of the harbor, filled with smartly dressed travelers, gave the summer and local children a free show in elegant attire.

Mrs. Hughes worked as a cook at establishments such as The Ship's Galley on Beach Road. At 13, Grace Frye entered the work world herself, setting up trays for patients and washing dishes at the hospital in Oak Bluffs. She was on a split shift, working from 8 a.m. to after lunch, and then coming back at 5 p.m.

That gave her time in the afternoon to head for the beach, where she would swim to and from rafts near the Inkwell and the present Steamship Authority dock.

She and her mother lived in an area behind the current state police barracks, in a home that lacked electricity until Grace was a junior at Oak Bluffs high school. Hence the car battery to power the radio - and an oil lamp that she used for reading and to do her homework by. She still has the lamp, keeping it filled with oil in case of power failures.

Electricity came to their home when the owner of the Wesley Inn, a friend of Mrs. Hughes, moved several Camp Ground cottages to the area, brought in electricity, and extended the line to Mrs. Hughes's house.

Sundays in the summer were mostly taken up by services at the Bradley Memorial Church in Oak Bluffs, where the day would begin with Sunday school and a morning service, and end with a youth meeting and an evening service. At the end of the day, the youths would head for Ocean Park to hear the band playing at the band stand.

In 1936, Mrs. Frye graduated from Oak Bluffs high school. Over time, she got to know her future husband, Buster Frye, who had been widowed and had two young daughters.

"He was right there, and I said he was a good guy to grab," Mrs. Frye recalls.

Mr. Frye had been working with his father, George W. Frye, at the Cobbler Shop. The elder Mr. Frye had started the shop, which was on Circuit avenue, in 1920.

Shoes loomed larger in the popular culture at that time, especially for men. "They liked to have their shoes looking just so, and repaired and shined," Mrs. Frye said. "My husband was a perfectionist in repairing shoes."

Men also were drawn to the shop by Mr. Frye's geniality, talking with him late into the evening as he did his work.

"He was a sweetheart," Mrs. Frye said. "Everybody loved Ralph. He was kind to everybody."

Mrs. Frye raised Buster's two daughters by his earlier marriage, Grace Reeves and the late Susan Harris, as well as their own son, Vincent Frye.

In 1956, a friend suggested that Mrs. Frye try her hand at selling Avon beauty products. Mrs. Frye's friends throughout the Vineyard began to generate a burgeoning network of steady customers. Elvira Ben David delivered her entire extended family, including in-laws, in a fell swoop to Mrs. Frye.

Mrs. Frye became one of the leaders in the local Avon sales district, which extended from Provincetown to New Bedford, and in 1977 boasted the highest sales in the district. While she said her business has fallen way off - she no longer drives, unlike the days when she'd drive out to see customers in Gay Head and make a day of it - she still assembles orders for clients. She is entering her 50th year of selling the company's products.

Son Vincent went on to join his father in the Cobbler Shop in the 1960s, making sandals and belts. She said he proved himself to be a perfectionist like his father, carefully measuring the feet of his customers before making their sandals.

Buster Frye died in 1968. Nearly 40 years later, she still deeply misses him.

"He was so kind and loving," she said. "Sixty two years old is too young to die."

Mrs. Frye stayed on the go in the ensuing decades, visiting her children, who had moved out to California. A gambling aficionado, she would call ahead to book a three-day stay in Las Vegas, where she played the slot machines and thrilled to see singers such as Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett in person.

"So I lived my life," Mrs. Frye said. "If you get a chance to go, go! Go while you can."

These days, Mrs. Frye stays fairly close to home.

"I don't do too much," she said. "I'm passe. I get tired."

She welcomes the attention and visits by her family, especially her son Vincent, who lives nearby and checks in on her.

"I've had a wonderful life," she said. "I've had so much to be thankful for."