One hundred years ago, the community of Harthaven in Oak Bluffs was established when William H. Hart purchased the first parcel of land bordering Farm Pond. On Saturday, about 300 people joined to celebrate that event at the home of Walt and Mary Lee Gifford which was built by Jim Hart, one of the founder’s sons. The Harthaven centennial was much more than the normal gathering of a clan — though it certainly was that.

“It’s a time to honor our ancestors,” said centennial cochairman Doug Pease, “and to share memories of growing up in this wonderful place where important lessons were learned that shaped our lives and will continue to inspire our sense of community.” Leading up to the centennial, I created the Harthaven Memory Project — a massive Internet outreach effort that included a Facebook page, an expansive Web site, a Google map containing photographs and history and multiple You Tube audio-visual productions. As a result, Harthavenites were inspired to send in hundreds of photographs and hours of historic home movies which we projected at the centennial party on large movie screens that played all night.

“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” said television producer Dakkan Abbe, who grew up in Harthaven. “These movies brought back precious moments that I had forgotten.”

Guests stayed late watching the movies and telling stories. “I saw my mother and father looking so young, family dinner parties on the porch of the Abbe house on Farm Pond and so many other scenes,” said Mary Gifford Everett. “I could have watched the movies all night.” Displays of photographs and a massive four-by-eight-foot genealogical chart made by Al Woollacott capped the sharing of memories.

From his modest first purchase in 1911, William H. Hart eventually bought property around Farm Pond including land that is now part of the Farm Neck Golf Course and all of present-day Joseph Sylvia State Beach which the community sold for public access to the ocean in 1947. About 1914, a harbor was dredged and opened to the Vineyard Sound and soon docks sprouted and the harbor filled with boats. Harthaven harbor was to become a seminal place for those who grew up in the community. “The boathouse dock in Harthaven was a great place to hang out as a kid,” said Lisa Hart, who made the long drive from Woodstock, N.Y., with her mother, Lynn. “I remember catching everything from dogfish sharks to eels and crabs from that dock. Ate all three of them. I learned how to tie certain nautical knots on those pilings. I learned the way to help a boat dock. I got splinters from that dock. I learned about sure-footedness and balance at a young age. I can’t imagine how many experiences I would have missed if that harbor had not been a part of my life.”

I know what she means. When I grew up in Harthaven, I was constantly on the water. I vividly remember sailing with my grandfather, Walter Hart, in his catboat when I was six years old, learning to row and spear eels in the harbor from my father, coiling rope neatly under the stern gaze of my uncle Stan Hart. And today, when I come back into the harbor, I see the spirits of these long-departed relatives getting their boats ready for sea, scaling fish or waving to me from the porches of their homes.

Blessed with their beautiful harbor, Harthavenites have always spent a lot of time on the ocean. Back in the 1930s, Jim Hart, one of the founder’s five children, conducted a sailing school for Harthaven kids. He purchased a half dozen or so small sailboats and held classes and races, presiding over all with a booming voice amplified by a megaphone. “He’d yell at us — tack now! Look out, you’re going to jibe,” recalled Phronsie Conlin. “He was a stern teacher, but he was a wonderful man and he instilled in us a strong respect for the ocean.”

Most of the early residents were relatives, so the settlement took on the cohesiveness of an extended family. There was so much to do within the confines of the community — visiting, swimming, sailing, fishing — that Harthavenites tended to be a little insular, which others sometimes mistook for snobbery. “Harthaven was . . . not stuffy,” wrote Stan Hart in a Gazette memoir years ago. “The older crowd seemed to exude a way of life that was abundant in humor and action and a style that flowed from a Yankee heritage . . . They were as normal as an August northeaster or the herring run that fed through Harthaven into Farm Pond in Oak Bluffs.”

Beginning at least as early as 1913 (I have an invitation from that year) we have celebrated the end of summer with a clambake. It’s a do-it-yourself event. Everyone helps prepare the food, cook and set up and take down tables. Anthropologists (like me) call such an event a “rite of integration” because it cements the bonds of community through the common laying on of hands.

Today, Harthaven comprises about 70 homes and is becoming a year-round neighborhood. Many of the newer residents were attracted by the deep sense of belonging that abides from the earlier days. “This is a place where we felt we could be part of a real community,” said centennial cochairman E.L. Edwards, who built a house in 1998 with her companion Alan Willens. “We felt we could become part of a neighborhood of people who liked each other and shared their lives.”

The centennial party began with a jam session featuring Harthaven musicians. Mark Grandfield sang Sinatra songs, Steve Hart played guitar and native American flute, Peter Pease introduced a repertoire of politically relevant songs and Carol Abbe, accompanied on keyboard by Wesley Brown, sang jazz. The youngest to get up to perform was 14-year-old guitarist Gordon Moore, great-great-great grandson of William H. Hart. Donna Carroll catered the event and our fabulous band, The Stragglers, played numerous sets afterwards, inspiring folks to dance the night away.

The centennial party is just the beginning of a continuing effort to capture the legacy of a community that, as Howdy Eddy once put it, is “the best darn place to grow up.” Martha’s Vineyard Museum oral historian Linsey Lee taped interviews with many party-goers and it was a real memory charger, she said.


The Harthaven centennial Web site is at Anyone wishing to share memories, photographs or movies, please contact Sam Low at