Elisha R. Smith of Vineyard Haven, a senior statesmen among Island farmers and former longtime president of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, died Friday, March 22, 2013 at his home surrounded by his family. He was 90 years old.
Often described as the last of the old-time Vineyard farmers, Mr. Smith began tending to Island fields and farm animals when he was just six years old. He was born in one of the oldest houses on the Vineyard, near Featherstone Farm, and raised by his great-uncle George Smith — whom he called Grandpa — on Red Hill Farm in Oak Bluffs. That land, which had been in the Smith family for more than 300 years, at one time spanned 600 acres from the intersection of Barnes Road and Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road to beyond NStar Electric, and stretched as far inland as Thimble Farm.
By the age of eight, Grandpa George had taught him to drive a team of horses and milk cows, and the pair would travel the Island together in the family’s Model T selling milk. As a young student he would depart for school with a wicker basket full of eggs, which he would sell at lunchtime at Camp Ground houses and stores along Circuit avenue.
Following Grandpa George’s death in 1937, much of the expansive Red Hill Farm was sold under what Mr. Smith would later describe as questionable circumstances. Mr. Smith took on a variety of farming jobs throughout the Island to make ends meet, and in the 1960s purchased additional land in Katama, where he operated a successful dairy farm. He continued to live on and farm the remaining six acres of his family's land for the rest of his life.
Undeterred by his advancing age, Mr. Smith rose each morning before the sun to feed the hundreds of chickens, geese and cows that resided on Red Hill Farm. He leased additional land throughout the Island for haying, and last year was photographed atop his tractor cutting bales at Sweetened Water Farm.
He served as president of the Agricultural Society for more than two decades, and was responsible for acquiring the West Tisbury Panhandle Road property on which the agricultural fair now takes place. In a 2010 interview with Martha’s Vineyard Magazine, Mr. Smith described that acquisition as one of three high points in his farming career. The other two, he said, were that, in its heyday, his dairy farm cows produced more milk than those of any other Vineyard farm; and that members of the Agricultural Society had to ask him to stop entering his Grand Champion Ayrshire cow in the fair after it had won for too many years.
In addition to his post with the Agricultural Society, he also served as master of the West Tisbury Grange and president of the Vineyard conservation district and the state association of conservation districts.
“Did I ever want to do anything besides being a farmer in this life? Not at all. I love and always have loved what I’m doing,” he told Martha’s Vineyard Magazine.
He is survived by his wife, Denise M. Smith; his son, E. Ralph Smith and Ralph's wife, Tammy; and two daughters, Carol Pearson and her husband, Ray, and Jody Battistini and her husband, Paul. He is also survived by his sister, Leona White and her husband, Lester, and by seven grandchildren, three great grandchildren and several nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by previous wife Phyllis Clark, and by his daughter Rosemary Donnelly.
A graveside service officiated by the Rev. Roger Spinney will be held in the Smith Cemetery located on Barnes Road near the blinker on Tuesday, March 26 at 11 a.m. A Masonic service will be provided by the Oriental-MV Masonic Lodge. A reception will follow at the agricultural hall, please bring a dish to share.
Donations may be made in his memory to the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society: P.O. Box 73, West Tisbury, MA 02575.
Arrangements are under the care of the Chapman, Cole and Gleason Funeral Home in Oak Bluffs. An online guest book is available at ccgfuneralhome.com.
A full obituary will follow.