Diving for Dollars

From the Vineyard Gazette editions of August, 1983:

Every day during the summer a small band of young swimmers gathers at the beach near the Oak Bluffs Steamship Authority wharf. Wearing underwater masks, and fins in some cases, they tread water and await the arriving boats from the mainland.

“ ‘Ow about a coin! ‘Ow about a coin!” is the cry heard from the promenade linking land to the arriving ships. Tourists, commuters, Islanders and off-Islanders, they all hear the calls of the kids floating near the terminal wharf some 20 feet below.

The idea, though not always apparent to hurrying passengers, is that they should pitch a coin into the water to see how adroit the young swimmers are. Can they rescue the sinking coins before they are lost beneath the shifting bottom sands?

The answer usually is the kids are faster than the fall of fleeting money.

Muffie Camacho, 5, of Oak Bluffs, is the youngest swimmer after coins. She is in the shallower water, and is accompanied by her older brother, Billy, 8. Their mother, Susan Camacho, keeps close watch from shore. Muffie’s grandmother is high on the promenade, calling encouragement.

Carl Giordano, 10, is a second generation coin swimmer. His father is Wilfred “Buster” Giordano, owner of Giordano’s. At his son’s age, Mr. Giordano was also a coin diver.

Before the great wharf fire in July 1965, the Nobska would pull in bow toward the shore. Youngsters swam in deep water near the bow.

“We used to put the money in our mouths. Often there were no masks,” says police chief Peter Williamson. “You’d have to get the coin before it touched the bottom. It would flicker underwater in the sunlight.”

Former selectman Herbert Combra remembered, “We’d do swan dives, flips to get their attention. ‘Coins for Martha’s Vineyard coin divers. Anybody, any coins,’ was what we used to say.” Mr. Combra remembers a few swimmers: Steve, Eddy and Leo Amaral, and Matt Perry and Dennis Alley among others. “That was a way to pick up a buck.”

All across the Island are freshwater ponds that were used for the production of ice. The time is now long gone but names like Ice House Pond and Crystal Lake still tell part of the story. Ice was harvested each cold winter until the time of World War II. This was the time before the refrigerator, when ice was all that kept the icebox cold. And every few days it had to be replenished.

Ice was a necessary commodity on the Island. Fishermen needed the ice for storing their fish. It was also necessary for the keeping of fresh perishables at the local store and for the few who had a wooden or enamel icebox in the kitchen.

The time to harvest the ice was in the dead of winter. In a good ice-making winter the ice on a pond froze before Thanksgiving and stayed hard through the winter. Pond ice on a few occasions got as thick as 15 inches.

When it was cold enough to harvest, a crew of up to 20 men was rounded up. Harvesting sometimes was done twice in one winter, a first cutting around Christmas and a second in January. The perfect thickness was eight inches to a foot.

Arthur Ben David Sr. of Oak Bluffs remembers cutting ice at Crystal Lake, formerly called Ice Pond. He got out on the pond at 4 a.m. with a small band of men to cut a grid. They started early to stay ahead of the rest of the crew.

A machine called a marker, like a hybrid plow and saw, was first drawn with rope across the ice by horses. It made a light cut and also plowed the ice to remove any accumulated snow.

A machine employed by another group of men was called the cutter. A circular saw blade powered by a gasoline engine on a platform did the actual cutting.

The large sections of ice were then pulled to the ice house by men using ice picks. Once at the ice house another crew of men standing on a platform cut the ice further, and a conveyor belt brought the ice cakes into the ice house, where it was packed quickly into place, insulated with hay and sawdust.

In 1940 after several mild winters, the Island had an ice harvest. Harry Peakes filled his three ice houses at Old House Pond. But this is the last of such reportage. No such entry in newspaper files exists after that successful winter.

The grassy expanse of the Katama Plains, once home of the heath hen, is now known to be a unique habitat for six rare plants, three rare birds, two rare moths and a rare butterfly.

These rare species and the plant community which supports them may save the Katama Airport from development, say the owner of the airport and officials from Edgartown, the state and a national conservation organization.

By the end of this month the town will apply for self-help funds to purchase the 128-acre airport from Stephen C. Gentle, thereby preventing the land from being purchased and subdivided by developers.

Compiled by Cynthia Meisner