Mildred (Millie) D. Briggs of Vineyard Haven, and former winter resident of Jensen Beach, Fla., died peacefully at home on May 26 with daughter Jo by her side. She was 98.
She was born in Somerville, the daughter of the late Archie G. and Josie M. Dow LaBelle. Millie moved to the Island at the age of five. Her father was a baker at the Pawnee House, and most of her early years were spent on the Vineyard in and around the family’s restaurants, hotels and bakery. One of three sisters, Millie was fondly referred to as one of “the LaBelle girls.” She graduated and was salutatorian from Martha’s Vineyard High School class of 1931 at age 15, and was crowned Miss Martha’s Vineyard that year. Working as a waitress in the summers, Millie learned the trade well but wanted more. She enrolled in Burdett Business College, finishing the two-year course in one year and graduated from Sigma Chi Omega honor society.
Millie started her career as a secretary. She worked for the Hoover Company for five years, then the Bridgeport Brass Company. Seeing no future there, she went to Hale Dorr law firm and eventually became secretary to the president at H.P. Hood & Sons in Boston. There she ran the secretarial pool, handled income taxes, trusts and more. It was at H.P. that she learned how to be a good boss. Convincing them to give her long weekends instead of a vacation, the Vineyard waters became her favorite place. Here she sailed her 18-foot sloop and met Ralph Briggs. She was the damsel in distress and he rowed over from his boat to rescue her — for the next 45 years.
In 1946 they opened a little ice cream and sandwich shop called the Frosty Cottage on Circuit avenue in Oak Bluffs. People still fondly reminisce about the whiffle burgers they continue to make today. Ralph and Millie also bought the Island House Hotel next door from the family, and ran that, plus the Shipwrecked Troll restaurant within it, and a catering business out back. There were hundreds of cream-puff swans, elegant wedding cakes, and she did it all! They saw many an Island wedding. Because they ran a summer business, in the winter they would go to ski country. There they ran a warming hut at Intervale, N.H., and later at Mt. Cranmore in North Conway,N.H. Ahh . . . the famous cinnamon buns and hot chocolate.
During the long winter months up north, Millie began to paint with watercolors. It would become her lifelong passion. She attended the very first All Island Art Show at the Tabernacle in 1952, and never missed a show the rest of her years! She became one of the last crowned “Island treasures,” and was very proud to wear the badge.
In 1953 the Briggs family bought property on the Beach Road in Vineyard Haven and Millie had her first one-woman show. Eventually the location would house the first manufacturing business on the Island. A cottage industry unto itself, Woodchips became a place of memories and employment for many Islanders. Santa rowing out front made it a happy destination at Christmas. They started it as a gift shop, featuring Millie’s paintings, handcrafted wood items, and her homemade gingerbread houses. The hospitality table featured their famous whale ale hot orange cranberry tea and Ralph’s cheese balls. The recipe was hers but he did all the grinding! These got shipped all over. They worked as a team, Millie dreaming up and designing items for the gift trade and Ralph making it happen. Woodchips Designers grew to a wholesale gift manufacturing company making housewares, pot holders and cross-stitch embroidery kits. Millie and company traveled to six major cities twice a year to sell at gift shows. They worked hard but enjoyed being there, taking in the latest Broadway shows and experiencing the best fine dining. Selling to gift and speciality catalogs put the business on the map. Sales were great but they found they were working too hard. Florida was looking good and so they started the summer-winter trek.
They sold the business in 1975 to the Browns but kept the property. Millie retired and focused her talents completely on her art. Never happy to just have a hobby, with Millie it became a full-time business.
Together Millie and Ralph opened the Beach Road Gallerie. Ralph called it her “lemonade stand.” Whether you went for the art or the food, the openings were memorable. It was an exciting day when a large T-shirt company contracted for her designs. At one time it was estimated that around 33,000 people were walking around the U.S. wearing Millie Briggs T-shirts.
Winters were spent studying with famous watercolorists in workshops around the world. Continually evolving her style, she shared and taught all she learned with fellow members of the Martin County Art Association in Florida. Summers she showed the works and taught innumerable students conducting her own workshops in Monet’s Garden in France, as well as the Nathan Mayhew Seminars in Vineyard Haven. She also got a grant from the Tisbury Art Council to teach seniors.
In 1997 the sign changed to read “All Things Millie Briggs Gallerie, Semi-retired: open when I’m here.” She lived on the property and never turned anyone away. When her little white convertible was in the driveway, she was open. She formally closed the gallery and the space was rented to All Things Oriental. Now she could devote her time to travel and workshops. Her international painting trips were featured in 200 travel sections of newspapers across the U.S. Her travels abroad included England, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Ireland, Venice, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Puerto Vallarta, Morocco, Spain, San Miguel, Maui, Acapulco, Tahiti, Jamaica and the Bahamas. Not to mention numerous destinations in the U.S. Often referring to herself as a “workshop junkie,” these trips always involved study with top teachers, such as Caesar Cirigliano, Robert E. Wood, Irving Shapiro, Nita Engle, Charles Reid and Ray Ellis. You might also have seen her on the bleachers at Wimbledon, or having tea with the Princes Marie Blanche de Broglie at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris. Did you happen to catch the watercolor demo aboard the QE2?
With the gallery closed, she began selling out of the trunk of her car at the Grange with about six others in the parking lot. This would eventually become the Vineyard Artisans, run by Andrea Rogers. As the space grew, Jo and Glen became her right arm, setting up booths or tents there and at the Chilmark Flea Market. At one point in time, she was doing four shows a week at the age of 90-something! She always insisted on keeping her art affordable. She wanted everyone to be able to appreciate the art world and got the biggest thrill selling small paintings to the kids. She painted in watercolors, oils, pastels, and on porcelain, and fabric to make into pillows. She had many devoted fans, her Island land and seascapes gracing many a wall.
Let’s not forget to mention that in her spare time Millie wrote two illustrated cookbooks and started a third. That one she decided she probably wouldn’t have time to complete so she published it anyway as a small cook booklet.
In her early years when not doing business, Millie loved to sail and play golf. Later when she was in her 60s, Millie started playing tennis and was an avid duplicate bridge player. Millie loved to fish and would go out on deep sea charters, fish the Vineyard derby, and really enjoyed taking her grandsons out to catch baby blues off the first bridge. Millie never could sit still and just relax and she always had to be doing something.
Millie was predeceased by her husband, Ralph E. Briggs, and her sisters, Beverly Andrews and Eleanor Taylor. She is survived by her daughter, Jo Anne Briggs, and her spouse, Glen; her son, Peter Briggs, and his wife, Patricia; grandsons Knolls Ward, Jesse Ward and his fiancÃ©e, Serena Pagliuca, and Peter J. Briggs and his wife, Tracy; granddaughters Jennifer and Kimberly Briggs and Michelle Hardaway; and four great grandsons. A special thanks goes to Sarah and Patrick Nash for their exceptional love and care.
In the words of her best friend, Isabel, “She was kind, generous, loving, funny, and warm. Millie Briggs loved every single adventure that life had to offer.” A celebration of her life will be held at a later date in August, to be announced.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Vineyard Nursing Association, P.O. Box 399, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568 or Hope Hospice, 107 Beach Road, Suite 104, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.