The history of the Island’s main streets is written on the facades of the older buildings. The three down-Island main streets all have their stories — and their storytellers.
Main street is memory lane for those who share in the fellowship of growing up, playing and working on the pavement and along the side streets.
Richard Clark of Vineyard Haven, Dennis daRosa of Oak Bluffs and Edward (Peter) W. Vincent Jr. of Edgartown all have spent most of their lives stepping, smelling and breathing the life on the down-Island sidewalks and streets.
Dennis daRosa, 59, recalls the days when Circuit avenue in Oak Bluffs was a circus for the young. The avenue was a child’s playground.
As a youngster, he spent a lot of his time working as a printer’s devil, an apprenticed printer at Martha’s Vineyard Printing Co., the business on Circuit avenue run by his father and mother, Antonio (Tony) and Cecelia daRosa. Today, everyone simply calls the business daRosa’s.
Dennis spent a lot of time in the shop helping out. But when the time was right, he would run out of the front door of the printing shop and head for Darlings, the candy and popcorn store at the foot of Circuit avenue; then on perhaps to the Flying Horses; or to go to the steamboat wharf where youngsters in the water were calling up to the boat passengers: “How about a coin?”
His earliest memories are of chewing saltwater taffy from down the street after sneaking away from the printing shop to take a break.
To do these things and more through the years was something a lot of kids dreamed of. His parents raised their children in a family home on Nashawena Park, four blocks away from the shop.
But one of Mr. daRosa’s earliest memories isn’t a pleasant one.
“I remember my parents when they flew out of the house,” Mr. daRosa said. They had learned late at night that the building next door to the printing shop was ablaze.
“I was five years old,” he said. “My brother Tony was eight. My sister Cindy was 12. It was a big deal.”
The building was an inferno and the family was concerned that the heat of the blaze would ignite the printing shop. Fortunately, it didn’t. “The firemen did a good job,” he said.
An investigation uncovered arson.
“A man went to jail,” Mr. daRosa said, though he could not recall the name.
Mr. daRosa said his father ended up purchasing the site of the old burned building and keeping it vacant. “My father used it as a parking lot,” he said.
It wasn’t until after their father died in 1969 that the three siblings replaced the vacant lot with a new building. That building today is the store’s stationery business and reception area. The two buildings are so integrated that anyone now stepping across the threshold into the store would not have a clue about the history of the joined buildings.
At 73 years of age, Martha’s Vineyard Printing Co. is the second oldest business on Circuit avenue, as far as Mr. daRosa knows. “Oh! Giordano’s Restaurant is older,” he said. Reliable Market is up there too, with a history going back 60 years.
Mr. daRosa and his brother have photographs on the wall of Circuit avenue life that preceded them. And they can speak with authority on who occupied the shops. They can share the stories of how a slow evolution has had an impact on the vibrant community’s principal street.
Even now when he takes a walk for a snack or a meal in the middle of a printer’s long day, Mr. daRosa said he can easily reflect back to those years when as a child he and his friends met on the street. Ronald H. Rappaport, today a prominent Island lawyer, used to play as child outside the office of his father, Dr. David Rappaport.
“In those days, I would meet with Ronny and we’d go and do something,” Mr. daRosa said.
The Reliable Market, several doors down, is a building with a very different past. The grocery story was once a three-story building, the home of the Martha’s Vineyard Herald, now long gone.
To Bob Pacheco, owner of the market, it was always a one-story building, though he knows the roof over his head is the floor to the second floor to a once taller building. Only a few Islanders around will recall that the Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club used to meet upstairs. A century ago, many of the buildings on Circuit avenue were three stories high.
Mr. daRosa has a treasure chest of memories of Circuit avenue past. There was a pharmacy, not that long ago. The Secret Garden store was at one time the paper store, run by Sydney Gordon. And Circuit avenue was a street far more accommodating to pedestrian traffic than it is today.
“When I look back, I think those were innocent times,” Mr. daRosa said.
For Richard Clark, 70, of Vineyard Haven, that town’s Main street is the center of commerce not only for the town but the Island. He grew up in town and spent most of his youth and adult life on the street. He started working there at Brickman’s Inc., the clothing and sports store, at the age of 14. He spent 55 1/2 years there as an employee, and watched the fashions of the Island change.
Fires over the years have changed the town. A huge fire in downtown Vineyard Haven flattened all of Main street in 1883. So, unlike the main streets of Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, Vineyard Haven’s Main street has no buildings older than that fire.
In Mr. Clark’s years on Main street, he had a closer than most relationship with fire. From almost the beginning of his adult life, he was a fireman, and spent 45 years in service to the town. He was the fire chief from 1979 to 2002.
His earliest memory of a Main street conflagration was the burning of Renear Garage on Church street which involved at least three buildings. Mr. Clark recalls arriving at the scene with the building, a Ford garage with cars inside, fully ablaze.
A Vineyard Gazette front-page article written by Joseph Chase Allen described the April 1966 fire in this way: “The worst fire, both in effect and potentiality, that Vineyard Haven has experienced in three-quarters of a century, occurred early Saturday evening when a blaze raged for two hours, virtually destroying one building, damaged another to such an extent that it may be necessary to demolish a large part of it, damaged a third seriously, and destroyed stock in trade in all three amounting to thousands of dollars.”
Near the end of Mr. Clark’s career there was the Tisbury Inn fire, which took place on the night of Dec. 12, 2001. The Tisbury Inn (now known as the Mansion House) was at the time the second largest building in town, after the elementary school. It was a difficult fire to fight, for while flames seldom appeared outside, the fire burned within the walls and rooms of the building.
In the years between those two fires, Mr. Clark has watched Main street in Tisbury go through plenty of change.
He has fond memories, tied closely to the sidewalks under his heels and the faces of those he knew and worked with on Main street. He recalls as a youth finishing work at Brickman’s and walking a few doors down to go to Yates, a drugstore with a soda fountain.
“Main street has always had a lot of this and that,” Mr. Clark said. The Vineyard Haven street always has been a bit different from the two other down-Island main streets.
There was always more of a variety of items, of goods on a shelf, a counter, behind glass, or hanging from a clothing rack.
Mr. Clark still remembers when Main street traffic ran two ways, with parking on either side. Union street also ran two ways. “That was before there were huge trucks,” he said.
Vineyard Haven has been known over the years for having the year-round main street, he said and much of that feeling still prevails.
For example, Vineyard Haven today is the only Island town that still has a drugstore on its downtown Main street.
If Main streets were town centers years ago, drugstores were the centers of those streets. Amid busy soda fountains and comprehensive varieties of ice cream and soda, people would meet, sit down, and conduct their business at these stores.
Edward (Peter) Vincent Jr.’s father ran Edgartown Drug Co. on the corner of Main and North Water streets in Edgartown. The store included a popular soda fountain. Mr. Vincent, now a 61-year-old Edgartown lawyer, worked behind the counter, stacking sugar cones and scooping ice cream.
Today, Mr. Vincent keeps the reminders of his community on the wall of his law office. On the wall there is a picture of the foot of Main street, an aerial photograph taken after the 1944 hurricane, with boats and buildings a mishmash.
The drugstore was the center of the universe when it came to the Vincent family.
“I started working in that drugstore when I was 12 years old. I would stock the bottles, work behind the counter serving ice cream frappes. I’d order the cones and ice cream and keep track of the inventory,” Mr. Vincent said.
“That wasn’t my first job,” he said. “My first job when I was a kid doing special delivery for the post office.”
He used a Rollee bicycle to make the deliveries. The post office then was on North Water street, where today Murdick’s Fudge operates.
The face of Main street in Edgartown was changed on the night of April 3, 1961, when the Edgartown Playhouse, a movie theatre, burned down.
Mr. Vincent recalls. “I was home alone. My father and mother were at a meeting. He called me at home and said come downtown, the movie theatre is burning. I remember that night distinctly. There were fire engines there.”
In the days of the movie theatre, the drug store was set up for evening customers. Patrons of the movie theatre would stop by for ice cream at the drugstores.
“It was the days before television. People went to the movies and we had tables set up where they could come and get sundaes, frappes and sodas,” Mr. Vincent said.
After the fire, the business disappeared. The fire marked a transition for the town. Though the movie theatre was moved up the street to the second floor of town hall, television grew in popularity, and business was never the same.
“I remember how busy it was on Main street in August. People would be sitting in the drug store. I could walk to the front of the store and look outside and the street would be busy all up and down. But pick the day after Labor Day and the street was empty. If we hadn’t sold any suntan lotion by Labor Day, we put it away for the next year.
“Everything was local. I remember Main street had local grocery stores, a barbershop downtown. It was all nicely centralized. You didn’t have to drive out of town. It was all here. There were two drugstores and a couple of hardware stores. You could come downtown in the 1950s and 1960s and buy just about everything.”
After college, Mr. Vincent ended up living in an apartment on the second floor of his father’s drugstore, a building with roots in Edgartown’s past.
In that building, he could trace the history of the town back to the whaling era. The room where he lived was at one time the federal offices of customs. In those days ships that came from afar had to be checked in. “I had the original desk that came from the customs house,” he said.
Mr. Vincent recalls when someone shot a hole through the drugstore sign in February 1968, which caused quite a stir. A newspaper article in the Vineyard Gazette had the following heading: “Who shot hole in drugstore sign? Everybody knows but nobody is going to tell.”
In the end, Vineyard Main streets are neither asphalt nor cement. They are not buildings made of wood or brick. A Main street is the life of a community in the midst of daily commerce.
The wealth and health of a Main street is tied to the vibrancy of its people who are busy doing what needs to be done. But move a grocery store or post office out of town and things start to change.
These and other changes add up like raindrops in a storm, and finally the water starts to move.
On the Vineyard, Mr. Vincent, Mr. Clark and Mr. daRosa each have known the raindrops.