From the Vineyard Gazette edition of November 6, 1942:
Old-timers speak of the days of their youth and childhood; how the Island picture has changed since they can first remember, and how people and things seem like those of another country entirely, so complete has the transition been in the span of a single lifetime. They do not exaggerate in the least, but it is truly amazing to consider how very different the present picture of Vineyard life is compared with that of a half-century ago. And especially is that difference noticeable when the autumn descends upon the Vineyard in all its glory of green, scarlet and gold.
In those days which are recalled by so few, there was a glow in the Island landscape which is not seen today — the glow of harvest, which attracted all the senses. The many fields of corn-shocks standing like wigwams, with heaps of the husked corn lying between, and dotted with yellow pumpkins. The yellowish-gray of stubble-fields where the quail fed on the grain that had dropped when the oats gathered. And the sheep feeding on the rowen and late clover in the old meadows.
There was a continual rumbling of carts along the roads and wood trails, as the winter supply of firewood was brought home. Chopped during the winter before, it had seasoned in its cord and half-cord piles all through the hot weather and now was in prime condition for fuel. Everyone burned more or less wood, and the prosperity and forehandedness of a man judged by the size of his wood pile, more than anything else, and some of them were noble indeed.
And around every farm, however small, the preparations for winter were apparent. Roofs of small buildings were covered with drying corn, selected for seed, or with masses of peeled and sliced apples, drying in the sun. The stacks of firewood, as yet uncut, were balanced by the stacks of seaweed, brought from the beaches, for litter in the cow barns or for the banking up of buildings to keep out the cold.
The window sills of the houses were lined with tomatoes and hung with peppers. There were rows of jelly jars and glasses on display as well, for somehow, the older housewives did not think that jelly could be exactly right unless it had been properly sunned. The housewife displayed with pride her stock of canned and preserved fruits and vegetables, even as her husband displayed his cellar filled with potatoes and other produce, his barn filled with hay, and the fatted animals which he would later convert into beef, mutton, or pork, with which to nourish his family.
The degree of self-sustenance which existed even then, among the Vineyard farmers, was really surprising, because the stores and markets of the Island were numerous and well supplied with all necessities of life. Yet a peep into one single cellar of no more than forty years ago served to show how little the real Vineyarder depended upon others to supply his needs.
The cellar was crowded, crowded to capacity, and it smelled of many of the good things that had been stored against the needs of a long, cold winter. But there was room for a couple of old kitchen chairs, from which the backs had long since fallen. They were tucked into odd corners, close together, and near the low doorway.
Here, the old proprietor loved to entertain a guest. Leading the way into his cellar as a man might show a visitor into the display room of a store or museum, he would seat his guest and offer him refreshment from the store around him. He would urge him to sample cider and wine. He would open oysters for him and serve them on a half-shell. He would offer him portions of the cured fish, and of the ripe fruit. He would not open the preserves, but would invite attention to the entire display with a pride that was unmistakable.
This was the typical cellar scene on the farm of the forehanded man of the time, and is selected because of familiarity. It was pleasant to visit “Uncle” Asa, and eat his oysters with him in the depths of the murkey cellar. It was puzzling, too, in repeating these visits, month after month, throughout the year, to observe how he kept his supply of provisions replenished.
Times have changed and Island men no longer go to such lengths in preparing for winter. For generations, the coming of cold weather has brought no fear to Islanders, nor apprehension regarding ways and means of keeping themselves supplied with food and other necessities. Yet there is something to admire in the habits of the old folk, who may, indeed, have prepared for an eventuality that never came, but who, in their very act of preparedness, adhered to the Great American principle upon which the country was originally builded, “a spare shot in the locker”, “a kedge anchor to windward”, which gave them a feeling of security that cannot be known in the same sense by their descendants.
Such was the Vineyard fall of yesterday. And such the fall preparations of Vineyarders.
Compiled by Hilary Wall