A story exists for everyone who stays at the Lillian Manter Memorial Hostel.
For Lillian Manter it was a love of serving others. For Tom Thatcher it was a business and home. For Arlo Guthrie it was the beginning of a song. For Amanda Cohen it was a home and playground. And for Monroe Sheppard it is one more stop in his years of involvement with hostels.
This past weekend on the 50th anniversary of the building's opening, many former hostellers, staff and family returned to celebrate and share memories. Since its current inception the hostel has welcomed more than 100,000 guests. Hostelling International USA hoped to use the weekend celebration as a way to acknowledge the Island's hospitality.
There were several occasions to hear Dr. John Francis speak. Dr. Francis, a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador and author of Planet Walker: How to Change the World One Step at a Time, spoke Friday night, Saturday morning and evening and on Sunday afternoon.
But the highlight of the weekend for many was when people gathered on Friday night and Saturday afternoon, filling up on snacks, birthday cake and stories. Sitting around the common room scattered with furniture, books and photographs, it could have been any day at the hostel except everyone in the room had an attachment with the hostel that went deeper than a one-night stay.
It was the first time in many years Mr. Thatcher had been in the building. He not only visited as a hosteller, but also owned the hostel for 15 years and guided thousands of guests through their stays. In 1948 Mr. Thatcher arrived on Martha's Vineyard with nothing but a bike and a backpack. A student at Ohio State University, he found his way to the Vineyard on a bike trip that started in New Haven. He fell in love with the Island and stayed longer than he expected. In the fall he had to leave, but was determined to return. He came back in 1950 and started his own pottery shop. Then in 1964 he bought the hostel.
"I wanted for the hostel to continue which is why I took it over," Mr. Thatcher said. "We had sometimes 80 people in the hostel. I made a lot of friends there and the number of people who came to the Island as hostellers and then stayed is high."
The hostel on Martha's Vineyard is unique in many ways but famous because it is the first purpose built hostel in the United States. In fact, to date it is one of only three hostels built specifically as a hostel. Most are converted from homes, fire houses, school buildings or hotels.
Hostelling itself began in Germany in the 1930s and came to the United States in 1933 with the help of Isabel and Monroe Smith. The couple opened the first youth hostel in Northfield that year.
Nine years later Martha's Vineyard had its first experience with hostelling when 12 young people arrived with bicycles and kits from New York in 1942, only to discover there was no hostel on the Island. Through the kindness of the Red Cross and the Wesley House, the three boys and nine girls were housed for the night.
By 1947 a hostel had been set up in the West Tisbury School, and then in 1948 the hostel took over the former bachelor officer quarters of the Navy at the Martha's Vineyard Airport.
All of this would never have happened without the work of Lillian Manter. An early advocate of hostelling on the Island Mrs. Manter was able to negotiate the use of the BOQ. In 1955 she raised the money for a hostel to be built in West Tisbury and donated her own land for the project. In 1998 the building was officially dedicated as the Lillian Manter Memorial Hostel.
"She was a big person," said Whit Manter, Mrs. Manter's grandson. "She was an extremely active woman in this place. She sunk her roots into it from day one."
Mr. Thatcher knew Mrs. Manter from his first visit to the hostel and said that while there wasn't much money involved in the place, Mrs. Manter put all her emotion into it.
"Lillian was a strong character, but generous," he said. "She was there a lot. Even in the off season she ran it and would be at the hostel for hours."
The memories of Mrs. Manter were just a few of the thoughts shared during the reception and birthday party.
Mr. Thatcher recalled the year Arlo Guthrie came to stay at the hostel. In 1963 Mr. Guthrie arrived with Ray and Alice Brock as part of a group from Stockbridge. Mr. Guthrie stayed for the summer. The Brocks were the house parents during that summer and were later made famous in Mr. Guthrie's 18-minute song Alice's Restaurant.
Amanda Cohen's grew up in the hostel. She was conceived in the hostel's loft in 1970 when her parents Richard and Toni Cohen were the house parents. For her, living in the hostel was normal.
"It was like a huge family," she said. "People for years and years were coming back."
All her memories until the age of seven are from the hostel and even later she lived right next door when her parents built a house on adjacent property. Tom Tate, a house manager, built Ms. Cohen a lemonade stand that looked like a palm tree. She sold lemonade to the hostellers that summer. And the hotel has inspired Ms. Cohen in her dream to one day open a hotel.
"There is something about opening your home to someone, sharing a meal with someone," she said.
Things have changed a little since Ms. Cohen lived in the hostel. Certainly Mr. Thatcher saw changes when he visited the building last weekend.
"I'm so proud of the hostel," he said. "It's really become part of the Vineyard. I can still remember it when it was an empty field."
Hostels have changed quite a bit over the years. In the United States especially there has been a sharp decline in the number of guests staying at hostels. In 1979 more than 9,000 guests stayed at the Manter hostel during the season. In 2002 the hostel saw 7,363 people, and this year house manager Monroe Sheppard expects only 6,600. The hostel can accommodate 74 guests on any given night and the longest anyone can stay is 21 days.
Part of the problem is people don't think about hostels when traveling in the United States, Mr. Sheppard said.
"It's a huge problem," he said. "People think, ‘I need them when I'm traveling in Europe, but why do I need them in the U.S.?'.
"We are the land of the motor hotel, the Motel 6. The price there was $6. For Americans there has always been that option."
It costs between $16 and $27 to stay at the hostel depending on the night. Some visitors would not be able to come to Martha's Vineyard if it wasn't for the hostel, according to Deborah Ruhe, executive director of the Eastern New England Council of Hostelling International USA.
But low revenues also often result in deferred maintenance, and this has been the case at the Manter hostel. In the next couple of years the hostel needs to raise an estimated $200,000 for basic repairs, Ms. Ruhe said.
For now, however, the hostel will continue to operate at full throttle, hosting visitors who will have the opportunity to explore the different Island communities and patronize local businesses.
"It's good to know in a place that people view as a playground for multimillionaires there is still a place for every person," Mr. Manter concluded.