The question on everyone’s lips was not who are you wearing, but what are you eating?
They were dressed to kill in the highest of heels and long strings of pearls; gussied up in bow ties and Ferragamo shoes. But last night, at the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust’s 23rd annual Taste of the Vineyard Gourmet Stroll outside the Dr. Daniel Fisher House in Edgartown, fashion took a back seat to the gluttonous display of food, wine and sweets.
By this morning the empty plates and wineglasses which had played starring roles just hours before would be cleared. Shoes would be in their closets and jackets and dresses hung on their hangers.
What would remain — and what will remain for years to come — were the party grounds: the stately former home of whaling ship captain Dr. Daniel Fisher.
Its location at the top of Main street leaves the 19th century Federal-style building poised to greet nearly every visitor to Edgartown. But without the diligent care and foresight of the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, an organization which since 1975 has been quietly committed to maintaining and restoring historic Island buildings, the Fisher House most certainly would be in disrepair and might not exist at all.
Daniel Fisher was a doctor who owned whale ships and sold whale oil. He built his Edgartown home in 1840 and hosted guests Nathaniel Hawthorne and Daniel Webster there. The house is reported to be the first on the Island to have a bathtub. In the 1920s, U.S. Sen. William M. Butler bought the building and expanded it, but by the 1970s, it was in a state of disrepair.
In 1974, Edgartown summer resident Fairleigh S. Dickinson Jr. donated enough money to buy and restore the aging home. The project led him, along with fellow town summer residents C. Stuart Avery and Paul R. Anderson, to create a foundation dedicated to preserving key architectural and historic buildings on Island. The following year, the foundation acquired the 1796 Ritter House in Vineyard Haven and took the name the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Preservation Society.
In the next few years, their holdings grew to include the Island’s oldest house and the grand Old Whaling Church, built in 1843. Today, the society is known as the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust and it manages 14 properties around the Island. Much as the culinary delights create a gourmet stroll at the Taste of the Vineyard, these 14 buildings create and sustain a historic stroll through the rich traditions of Island life.
The buildings and their grounds cost thousands of dollars each year to maintain and are heavily used by the community. The Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs, acquired in 2003, hosts weekly services in the summer months, and the Old West Tisbury Library on Music street, acquired in 2000, is home to the library annex. The buildings are well recognized. Five hundred thousand people rode The Flying Horses Carousel in Oak Bluffs last year and, based on an average purchase price of $5, 250,000 customers cashed out at Alley’s General Store.
But seldom do the carousel riders, or the tourists who buy a postcard at the general store, or the churchgoers in Oak Bluffs give any thought to the history worn into these old wood floors.
In 1876, a man by the name of Charles W. F. Dare began to carve 20 horses out of wood in his New York city studio. Each was unique and he arranged them in pairs. The finished carousel was sent to Coney Island where it stayed until 1884 when it was taken down; the horses, with their real horse-hair tails and manes, their leather bridles and their glass eyes with miniature figurines inside, were shipped by barge to Oak Bluffs.
A July 1885 Vineyard Gazette announced its opening day: “This season 10 cents general admission will be charged, but children under 10 years of age will be admitted free. The little steeds have been newly painted and harnessed and a live American eagle on exhibition adds a new feature to the attraction of the place.”
Originally located in a big red building overlooking the bluffs, the carousel was moved 10 years later to its present location. It soon became a harbinger of summer for which Island children anxiously awaited, sitting on the building steps and straining to hear the familiar sounds of the band organ music spilling out onto the street.
In 1979, the National Register of Historic Places added the carousel to its list of thousands of historic buildings across the country. But in 1986, the carousel, whose individual horses could have fetched $75,000 apiece, was in danger of being sold to a museum in Vermont. At the time, there were only 250 carousels left in a nation which once had up to 4,000. Of those, only two Dare carousels remained and the platform-style Flying Horses was the elder.
In a few short months, more than 1,800 community members banded together with the preservation trust to raise $418,000. It was enough for the trust to go ahead with the $750,000 purchase. The next year, the carousel was elevated to National Historic Landmark status, the highest form of recognition in the nation. It is one of only nine hand-carved carousels to receive the honor.
Eighteen years before Mr. Dare began work on his carousel, West Tisbury resident Nathan Mayhew returned from a failed trip to California in search of gold and opened what is known today as Alley’s General Store, dealers in almost everything. After his death, his sons Sanderson and Ulysses took over the operation and in 1867, gave the store its first official name, S. M. Mayhew Co. Town men young and old soon took to sitting on the store porch in the warm months and inside by the stove when the leaves began to fall from the trees. Through them, the store earned its nickname, Sanderson’s. “Around the stove at Sanderson’s/ The Past and Present meet./ The gentle shadows of the past/ Come in on quiet feet./ They sit around on stool and keg,/ Grown man and gangling kid,/ And listen to the ageless yarns/ Just as they always did,” reads a Harold L. Tinker poem about the store.
In 1914, Charles Turner bought the store. In 1927, he added the post office and became post master. In 1946, he sold to Albion Alley, who had been a clerk there for 22 years. Mr. Alley changed the name yet again (Albion Alley and Co.) and put in a laundromat and car wash out back. In 1964, he turned the store over to his three children who changed the name once and for all to simply Alley’s. In the years which followed, the store saw much turnover and for the first time was owned by washashores.
In 1992, the store, once described in this newspaper as “an institution, a meeting place, even the heart of West Tisbury, complete with veins and arteries that convey the blood and nourishment of the town,” closed for the winter. It was the first time it had done so in its 134-year history. Financial instability was the given reason.
Again, the preservation trust swooped in. In 1993, the trust bought the store for $300,000 and then put an equal amount into its renovation. A community “Save Alley’s” campaign contributed $400,000 toward the effort.
The deal marked the first time the trust bought property up-Island. It was also the first purchase under the leadership of current executive director Chris Scott. Mr. Scott had first visited the Island 10 years earlier and Alley’s was the first place his mother took him when he stepped off the boat.
A Gazette editorial at the time praised the deal: “When we think of preservation on Martha’s Vineyard, we often talk of beaches and dunes, marshland, ospreys and forest acreage. But historic preservation carries a different resonance, a suggestion that we preserve man-made things, and certainly there is much on the Island that calls for historic preservation.”
Most recently, the trust bought the Old Sculpin Gallery, which overlooks the hustle and bustle of the Chappaquiddick ferry at Memorial Wharf in Edgartown. In August 2005, the Martha’s Vineyard Art Association sold the old building to the trust for one dollar in exchange for permanent occupancy. The building, believed to be 250 years old, is a fitting home for the art collaborative, which got its start in 1934, and brings the trust back to its historical founding. Originally a candle factory and later a grain mill and sail loft, the building was first located on the whale oil dock of Dr. Daniel Fisher, the man whose home gave the trust its start.
It was later moved to its present location. In 1904, catboat builder Manuel Swartz Roberts bought the structure, where he worked for 50 years. In the early 1950s, Mr. Roberts sold the space to the art collaborative for $15,000. The artists auctioned off their work to buy it. When the trust bought the building a half century later, they restored the four-inch-thick floorboards, worn down by Mr. Roberts’ feet. A posted notice there still reads, “The floor depression at your feet was worn by Manuel as he moved along his workbench.”
Last night, 700 seasonal and year round residents filled the great lawns of the Dr. Daniel Fisher House. They danced and ate and drank the evening away. Their tickets cost $125 each, money which will go directly back into the buildings that carry with them the stories and memories, the blood, sweat and tears of Vineyarders gone by.
“The maintenance is just continuous,” Mr. Scott said as he prepared for the stroll. Just last week, the trust finished restoring the six columns of the Whaling Church, a project which carried a price tag of $2,000 per column. Pending projects include renovating a building behind Alley’s to use as a farm stand and restoring an 1840 gazebo recently donated to the Dr. Daniel Fisher House. The trust is also poised to begin renovations to the Union Chapel, the first phase of which will cost half a million dollars.
“I think there is a very conscious, Islandwide effort to preserve and maintain our quality of life here. I see it throughout the Island,” Mr. Scott said. “These properties are institutions. Each of these properties, when we got them, were sort of right on the edge. Alley’s could have closed. It could have turned into something else. The Flying Horses, each of the horses could have been sold to individual buyers. The trust is just one piece of an overall effort to keep this Island a very special place.”