From the Vineyard Gazette edition of August 2, 1985:
It is difficult today to imagine a Vineyard which not only fed itself, but produced a substantial surplus which it exported to the mainland, and in that day and up to far less than a century ago, the Island’s annual shipment of wool was impressive.
It may be assumed that the early Vineyarders came to the Island with ideas and plans for maintaining themselves, founded in England, where, as it has been said: “Every rood of ground sustained man.” The Vineyard of olden days was productive under this plan, with all areas suitable for tillage or pasture, clear and available for such purposes. Woodlands were valuable in the extreme, when wood was the principal fuel and reforestation was practiced under rules and usages that had endured from old Saxon days.
Only fragmentary records, to be found in ancient ledgers, and occasional correspondence, offer a clue to the situation which prevailed here a century after the settlement of Great Harbor, but some of these are astonishing. For over 200 years water transportation on small craft was practical and inexpensive; the Island possessed those small crafts in considerable numbers and the men who sailed them thought nothing of sailing to the mainland or even to Rhode Island and New York city with cargoes which were in demand in those places.
The Island had become a most productive area within 80 years after the first settlement, because of its livestock, the flocks and herds which ranged the hills and all pasture lands. It was producing so much wool that the colony asked for a weaver to come and teach the Islanders to process the wool and make it into cloth.
But there was much more than this to be listed among the productive industries to be found here. The weaver had arrived, and there were spinning wheels in every home and looms in many of them. A fulling mill had been established to process and pre-shrink the newly woven cloth. There were two tanneries, possibly more than two, in operation and men all over the Island were rough-hewing boat timber as they chopped firewood, while the cooper’s horse was a prominent piece of equipment in many a workshop, and used for the making of wooden barrel hoops, barrel staves and shingles.
Whaleships, and there were many owned on the Island, but however many there were, such crafts were not commonly hauled out for repairs, but hove-down alongside of the whaling docks until one side of the bottom was exposed and available to be worked upon. But Holmes Hole did maintain its shipyard and marine railways large enough to handle a ship, and ship carpenters and sparmakers plied their respective trades in two towns.
Later in history, just how much later is not known, a sail loft was established and made new sails and repaired damaged ones under the proprietorship of three generations of the Holmes family of Vineyard Haven.
In all of these productive industries, there was a surplus marketed, far beyond the Island’s needs.
Saltfish, herring and cod were shipped in quantities, bog iron ore was mined from before the Revolution, likewise the various clays and the Island made bricks for local use for years before it made them for export.
Island farmers had been an ambitious group from the beginning. Winter forage for the livestock came from the marsh meadows around the Great Ponds where quantities of the wild hay were harvested and hauled home to be stacked. But while this poor fodder would keep the stock alive, the Island farmers were not satisfied with it and among the first things that caused to be shipped to them from England was meadow grass seed. From that point on, to less than 75 years ago, Island farmers and their descendants would refer to “English” hay to distinguish from the wild variety.
But all these industries mentioned and more were abandoned, one by one. It was not strange; the Vineyard had possessed no soft lumber from the beginning. Men used the native oak for framing, but the hemlock boarding for sides and roofs, likewise the white pine and cedar for interior trim, all came from the mainland. The cedar rails, and some of chestnut, also came from the mainland, and in the case of the finer grades of lumber, it may well have been planned before shipping to save space and weight, and shingle mills had been set up on the large mainland streams, also barrel stave factories, against which the Island could not compete.
So the curtain fell on Island industries and crafts giving place to manufactured items and machine-made goods until today, millwork in all its departments has outmoded the hand craftsman, and those things are forgotten arts. Admittedly, those old craftsmen could not satisfy the modern demand for speed and precision, but in their day they made and maintained an Island that was self-sustaining up to 90 per cent.
Compiled by Hilary Wall