Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas and Cy Young made headlines 150 years ago, and last week those headlines were uncovered when the shingles came off the front of the Littlefield house in West Tisbury.
Newspapers dating to the mid 19th century were discovered on the State Road home by Island builder Tucker Hubbell when he and his crew removed the front porch of the house for a renovation project. Mr. Hubbell estimated the last time the 1844 house had been shingled was around 1910, when newspapers were commonly used to help insulate and prevent wind from blowing through the walls.
The oldest newspaper Mr. Hubbell and his crew discovered was a Vineyard Gazette from May 26, 1848. The Gazette was founded in 1846.
“People probably find these things all the time but it was neat because the Gazette was so old,” Mr. Hubbell said looking at a wall covered in faded newsprint.
Cartoons, advertisements and intricate woodblock carvings decorated old editions of the New York Times, Boston Post, Christian Era and American Messenger. The Gazette’s masthead peeked out from one corner of the wall.
“I’ve discovered the smaller the print the older the newspaper,” Mr. Hubbell said running his fingers beneath the rules.
Early editions included one from August 31, 1860, where a story detailed debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas during their U.S. Senate race. Another story in the Christian Era centered around Jefferson Davis, president of the confederacy. Block prints from 1861 depict Civil War battles with the U.S. Calvary at the Battle of Dug Spring in Missouri and the Battle of Bull Run.
“Red Sox and Cubs Game, Comedy of Errors” reads one headline in a 1909 edition of the American Messenger, with later mention of Cy Young set to take the mound in the next game.
“I spent a lot of time reading the wall and not getting work done,” Mr. Hubbell laughed.
He said he assumed the Littlefield family kept a stack of old newspapers and used them for insulation when they reshingled the house.
“If this had been shingled a lot of times we’d see a lot of series of nail holes but you’re only seeing the nails for one course,” the seasoned builder explained.
The small house was part of the 450-acre Littlefield-Smith family farm, purchased by Albert Littlefield and Benjamin Bartlett Smith between 1870 and 1888. In 1926, the Littlefields sold 40 acres to Polly Barnard’s parents, including the house, farm buildings and homestead. Polly Barnard later became Polly Hill when she married. The land and buildings would eventually become part of the Polly Hill Arboretum.
The Littlefield house abuts the arboretum and is the home for grounds manager Tom Clark and his family. Mr. Hubbell said the farmer’s porch that was removed will not be replaced; instead the front of the house will be reshingled and kept as is, allowing more light to come into the house.
Back to the headlines.“I found one headline that said Tucker the Executioner,” Mr. Hubbell laughed.
In an American Messenger dated August 1856, a “letter from a slave” was anonymously penned, along with a story about a new device called the telegraph. A notice reported that the first attempt to lay cable across 2,400 miles under the Atlantic Ocean was unsuccessful and another attempt was about to be made. There also was an account of the electoral college. Only 31 states in the Union were listed.
The 1848 Gazette was half the width of today’s wide broadsheet. Mr. Hubbell turned the brittle, browned edges with care.
“This is the neatest and the oddest phrasing,” he said as he read a subscription advertisement. “Only one dollar per year, inflexibly in advance or $1.50 will be charged. Who writes like that?”
In the same edition, a feature called By Last Night’s Mail reported that at press time no nomination had been made by the Democratic Convention in Baltimore. (Days later, Sen. Lewis Cass of Michigan and Gen. William O. Butler of Kentucky were chosen as the presidential and vice presidential nominees for the Democratic ticket respectively. Whig Party candidate Zachary Taylor would go on to win the election that year.)
The lead story in the Gazette detailed a trip from Edgartown to Gay Head via horseback.
“Being disappointed in not getting a sight of this interesting cliff on my passage from New Bedford to Edgartown, I embraced the earliest opportunity of going thither by land,” the story reported.
“My intention was to examine the cliff before sunset, when its variegated straights appear most brilliant and on the morrow to worship with the remnant of the Indian tribe, which once possessed the Island, but which has gradually withdrawn to the small peninsula, which forms the western shore of Martha’s Vineyard, and includes the curious geological cliff of Gay Head.”
In the same account the “village of Tisbury” appeared to be “very pleasant, all of the houses having an appearance of comfort and the fields . . . exhibiting signs of fertility.” In Chilmark there was “no considerable village” but the scattered farm houses indicated thrift” and “absence of abject poverty.”
“It was not until we reached the edge of the water, which breaks at the foot of the cliff, that we had a full conception of the peculiar beauties of the post.”
Mr. Hubbell gave the old newspaper to the Gazette for its archives.