Old Mill, ca. 1886
West Tisbury, the youngest town on the Island, was created on April 28, 1892. But it was almost 300 years earlier, when Takemmy, the Algonquian word meaning “where one goes to grind corn,” was founded. Here along the up-Island streams the early settlers built mills to harness water power.
“For generations thereafter,” said A Centenary Guide to West Tisbury, published by the West Tisbury Historical Commission in 1992, “Tisbury, the ‘middle town’ between Edgartown and Chilmark, with its Tiasquam and Old Mill Rivers, its mills, the Great Pond, cranberry bogs and fertile fields, was the Island center for milling grain, weaving, tanning, shellfishing and many of the trades and crafts that supported whaling. A courthouse and jail, as well as stocks and a whipping post, once stood at the corner of Old County Road and Takemmy Trail (the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road.)”
As the port of Tisbury developed and grew, the section now called West Tisbury remained rural, agricultural. In what amounted to a tax revolt, roughly 400 inhabitants decided to form a new town so as to have more control over costs and services.
One hundred years ago the town was new, but the community had deep roots. Residents identified themselves as living in Lambert’s Cove, North Tisbury or the center. Each of these sections had separate columns in the Vineyard Gazette. Indians still lived in Christiantown. Many churches and organizations brought people together; the old agricultural hall was in place and the annual agricultural fair had been held for almost 50 years. The roads were not paved and though many familiar houses and buildings are now gone, the town hall, Alley’s General Store (known formally as S.M. Mayhew Co. but called Sanderson’s by just about everyone), the churches were established. The library building still stands but the library itself thrives in its new location on the State Road.
Leonard Athearn, a farmer whose land lies along Tisbury Great Pond, has played a leading role in the preservation of our town records, and so we can look at the start of the last century and the start of this one to see how we have grown:
The tax rate was $6 per thousand a century ago, with a $2 poll tax collected from each of the 148 white males in town. West Tisbury had approximately 400 to 450 residents in 1900 — there was no census in the town report for women, native American residents of Christiantown or preschoolers — and today the year-round population is 2,442, with a tax rate of $8.10.  The total property valuation has risen from $390,667 to $731,947,622. The town budget then was $3,351 and now is almost $8 million. 
Educating our children has always been a West Tisbury priority. In 1900, just as today, a large part of our tax dollars support our schools. In 1900 we had two pupils attending the Tisbury High School (at a cost of $39). In 1900 the town supported three grade schools at a cost of  $2,100; there were 66 students in those three schools, some of them residents of Chilmark; the 1999 school budget, including the high school, was over $4.5 million.  
“‘What was it like when...? is a question nearly everyone has asked,” wrote Peter W. Dunwiddie in Martha’s Vineyard Landscapes: The Nature of Change, published by the Vineyard Conservation Society in 1994. “As the pace of change in society continues to accelerate, there seems to be a greater urge to step back in time, to see for ourselves what a place was like at some time in the past.”
What has changed in West Tisbury over the last 100 years? Roads are paved, trees have grown up, the remaining grade school has expanded and moved several times, the agricultural society and the library are located at new sites. Many new houses have been built. In 1900, 181 homes were assessed. Today we have approximately 1,724 residences. Few of those houses are now what they were then — without central heat, equipped with shallow wells, hand pumps and privies. Electricity was first brought up Island in the 1930s and except for a few isolated instances is now available to all. By 1900 whaling had not been a viable occupation for some time, but fishing — particularly trap fishing — was important and lucrative. There were still retired whaling and sea captains, many with small farms, living out their days in West Tisbury.
In 1900 there were 1,115 sheep, 181 horses and 154 cows. Today West Tisbury remains an important agricultural resource for the Island with many rolling fields, horses, some livestock and many truck gardens. Even so, our animal control officer now deals with domestic animal calls for the most part. 
The youngest town is now also the fastest growing year-round community on the Island. (According to recent statistics, it is also the second fastest growing town in Massachusetts.) And it is this growth that threatens our cherished way of life. The way we must have celebrated the turn of the last century was surely different than the way we will celebrate this one.
In old town reports and issues of the Vineyard Gazette there is almost no mention of the turn of the century or celebrations, neither in the local columns, news columns, advertisements nor in the editorials. (Christmas received more mention than the new century.) There was one exception. The new century was celebrated Dec. 31, 1900 and the Gazette published this poem on the front page:

The New Year

A royal welcome, baby year, 
The first of the century new.
Yet for the old we drop a tear,
Even while we are welcoming you.
In memory dear of the dead old year,
Who left us a friendship or two.
Does this lack of attention given to a new century reflect the Island’s isolation? Probably not. The Vineyard with its seafaring traditions was home to many residents who had been around the world. Newspaper articles discussed events in a Dutch village in England, news of the state of Kentucky and across Massachusetts. A world population of 1.5 billion was mentioned. (We are now at approximately 6 billion.) Perhaps life did not change much from day to day or year to year, and so 1899 or 1900 or 1901 didn’t make much difference. Perhaps a new millennium has captured the imagination of the general public in a way that the turn of an ordinary century might not. From this hundred-year vantage point, it is impossible to say. However, our contemporary publications reflect a broad interest in this singular event.
What is our state of mind? Where are we headed? What does the future look like from a West Tisbury vantage point?
Now we enjoy a large summer population — because just like the rest of the Island, our resort community has flourished and moved beyond Edgartown and Oak Bluffs. This seasonal influx affects the rhythm of West Tisbury life. Regular visitors are welcomed back each summer, gallery openings are well attended, beaches, roads and up-Island Cronig’s are crowded.
In earlier times, for summer residents and visitors, the Island was an escape from the usual way of life. People often fit into the rhythm and sparseness of the isolated existence. Modest houses fit into the landscape, the beach and natural beauty. Outdoor showers allowed people to celebrate the difference between summer and winter. There was an attempt on the part of visitors to embrace the Island, its ways and rhythms, its people. Today’s multi-million dollar house lots, expansive buildings and other excesses at the end of the century have altered the traditional Vineyard relationships between resident and visitor. Ever increasing demands are made on all our resources, including our people.
We are still a small community-centered town. Our character is defined by our fields, our sense of place, our well run government. Our visioning process two years ago highlighted these strengths, from the planning of the event by a large, representative committee, to the event itself — two days when over 200 people came together to discuss West Tisbury and our future. Governmental groups were strengthened in the process and the new committees were formed that still meet. Limits imposed on growth, and commitments made to preserve the roadsides and open space reflect the continuing work. The planning board is hard at work revising our zoning and subdivision bylaws (necessities of modern life that our forefathers probably could not anticipate). We are a town that understands that the future is up to us. And to control that future we must participate, have vision and make hard choices.
Influenced by graphic images on TV, video and movies, the world is very much with us. But it is not this wider world so much as the approach of buildout that threatens much of our Island way of life. The strain on Island resources — water, beach access, bathrooms, space on the ferry, clogged roads and the hospital are constant concerns, made even more difficult by tremendous summer demands and increasing winter needs.
Why do people come and why do people choose to live here? The virtues of our natural beauty, the fact that we are a small town and a safe community, the manageability of an island (a geographical entity that one can grasp and understand and comprehend), the rural night sky with a million stars — these attract each of us. Halogen lights, excessive paving, high fences and gates do not bring us closer either to nature or our neighbors.
No town exists in a vacuum, certainly not on Martha’s Vineyard. West Tisbury contributes many hard-working members to Island organizations and boards. Solutions to dilemmas of waste, traffic, health care and more must be found in concert with other Island communities and groups. Our six towns and one county and many overlapping organizations too often use the excuse that we cannot seem to work together, that there are too many competing interests to resolve problems regionally.
We have often spoken about the Island as “special” and “unique.” We find ourselves at the end of the 20th century with many more people and many complex problems. So what is the solution? There really is no way to shut the door and have all the people and all the problems go away. We would lose many of our treasured neighbors and friends and it isn’t practical anyway.
We need a big picture at the same time we break down this dilemma of growth into manageable parts that can be tackled individually. We’ve made tremendous strides with the new Conservation Partnership bringing together a variety of interests to preserve open land. And a revitalized transit authority is meeting the challenges of moving people all over the Island, reducing the number of vehicles on our roads.
We have many other successful models for working together — creating a regional high school, the land bank and building the new agricultural hall on the Panhandle. The legislation creating the Martha’s Vineyard Commission gives us unique tools and power to think, plan and implement goals Islandwide. The power and potential of this resource is not understood. It is underfunded and underutilized. As an elected body the commission and its members are accountable. We need this organization to lead the way, to help each town and the entire Island as we struggle with the problem of how to protect the character of our individual towns at the same time as we celebrate our eccentricities and define a direction for the inevitable change and growth.
As we approach the new millennium I hope we can utilize our resources in ways that honor our heritage, enhance our quality of life, provide examples for our children of problem solving and leave our Island with its natural beauty intact and its small-town community way of life available for future generations.