Traveling to Martha’s Vineyard in the 1930s one had to go to New Bedford where The New England Steamship Company provided ferry service. The trip to the Vineyard cost $1 and took two hours. Taking a car cost $5 to $8. A trip to Nantucket cost $2.20 and took about four hours. To fly to the Vineyard, summers only, the flight from New Bedford to the Vineyard cost $5.50. Sightseeing busses were available in both ports, and “hard surfaced roads encircled [the] islands.”
On September 14, 1778 British Major-General Grey left Vineyard Haven after raiding the area. A contemporary described the raid this way (original spelling retained). “They carried off and Destryed all the corn and Roots two miles around Homse Hole Harbour; Dug up the Ground everywhere to search for goods the people hid, even so Curious were they in searching as to Disturb the ashes of the dead. Many houses were al Riffled and their Windows were all broke.”
Additionally, General Grey took with him, among other items, 1,000 pounds of sterling, 300 oxen and around 10,000 sheep. In the process, he also managed to destroy one brig and cargo, one schooner and cargo, and 23 “whaled boats.” General Grey’s destruction of the communities’ resources could have created havoc the following winter but for a fortunate turn of the wind. Luckily, a northeast blizzard drove a school of sea bass into Lagoon Pond where they were harvested, taken home, saved and eaten.
I learned of the above facts not from the usual books about Vineyard history, but from The WPA Guide to Massachusetts: The Federal Writers Project Guide to 1930s Massachusetts. On July 27, 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt established the Federal Writers’ Project to compile local and oral histories, children’s books, ethnographies and other works. The purpose of the project was to provide jobs for teachers, historians, librarians, writers and other white-collar workers. Eventually about 6,600 people were employed with the project. Of all the work produced, the best known was the American Guide Series — 48 state guides to America as well as the Alaska Territory, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.
The Massachusetts Guide included maps, illustrations and lots of general information. The Vineyard did not get a mention until page 554, when it was noted as “Tour #14 From New Bedford-Martha’s Vineyard—Nantucket.”
The reported Tour to the Vineyard was via a 35-mile ferry run from New Bedford that passed through Buzzard’s Bay and Woods Hole. However, sometimes because of intense tides, the passage was through Quick’s Hole rather than Wood’s Hole. The narration noted that Penikese Island was given to Professor Louis Agassiz in 1873, with an endowment fund $50,000, to start a school of natural history and a game sanctuary. In 1907 the state established a leper colony there that was later abandoned.
The guide provided travelers with a description of the Vineyard that speculates that Leif Ericson may have preceded Bartholomew Gosnold, who is purported to be the first white man to visit the Island back in 1602. Further reporting noted that the permanent settlement was established in 1642 and the Vineyard became a whaling center in the 18th century.
As a boy from Brooklyn, which is Kings County, I took special note that Martha’s Vineyard was part of the original New York grant but in 1692 Martha’s Vineyard was ceded to Massachusetts forming Dukes County.
The year-round resident population at the time was 5,824 as compared to today’s population of 18,783.
The first stop on the suggested car tour brought one to Oak Bluffs. The Algonquin name of Ogkeshkuppe, which means Damp thicket, was the first name for the area. Thomas Mayhew the first white landowner in 1646 named the property Easternmost Chop of Howe’s Hole and eventually gave the land to John Dagget. In the Guide’s description of Oak Bluffs, it mentions the East Chop Lighthouse and the Norton House, which is a short walk across Farm Pond; and that the Methodist Tabernacle and summer camp meetings were held since 1835. The drive also included Sengekontacket Pond, (Indian for Salty Waters).
The guide reported that Edgartown’s Indian name was Nunnepog, for fresh pond. Edgartown was settled in 1642 and incorporated in 1671. Incorporation changed the name to Edgar for the son of James II. In early elections, Edgartown ballots consisted of corn and beans.
“The freeman shall use Indian corn and Beans, the corn to manifest Election, the Beans Contrary.”
It was further noted that Edgartown was an affluent home port for Arctic whaling ships. In the 19th century women made 15,000 pairs of socks, 3,000 pairs of mittens and 600 wigs while the men refined whale oil and candles for export. Further descriptions of Edgartown included Cooke street being the oldest street on the Island, and the public library housing a collection of etchings and paintings by famous artists as well as a bronze statuary.
West Tisbury was settled in 1669 and incorporated in 1861. The area was first known as Tackhum-Min-Eyi or Takemmy (Indian for The Place where One Goes to Grind Corn). The English name of West Tisbury came from the English birthplace of Governor Thomas Mayhew. At the time West Tisbury was renowned for fishing, farming and summer tourists. Earlier, however, it was touted for smokehouses where herring was cured for market, salt works and a brickwork. Wild flowers were everywhere and over 700 varieties of flowers were found on Tea Lane. Because a family purchased a piano and others followed by buying pianos, Music street was born.
The traveler then comes to the Town of Gay Head settled in 1669 and incorporated in 1870, which was one of the two Massachusetts towns primarily occupied by those of Indian descent. Whaling, fishing and agriculture had provided the main source of income. But at that time sales of jars and bowls made from colored clay taken from the cliffs and working the cranberry bogs provided income.
Gay Head light was built in 1799 and rebuilt in 1859. The powerful light contained 1,003 prisms of cut polished crystal glass, and flashed its beams every 10 seconds.
On the cliff there were variegated vertical strata of clay ranging from blue, white, orange, tan and red.
The historic tour then visits the “old-fashioned fishing village of Menemsha” which was settled in 1671 and incorporated in 1714. Moving on down North Road one passes Peaked Hill, which at 311 feet is the Island high point. Just about opposite Peaked Hill was an older house, gray with age, which was once the home of Cap’n George Claghorne who designed and built the U.S. Frigate Constitution. Proceeding on North Road one comes to the Brandy Brown Place, a private home that took its name from the former house where the Vineyard’s supply of brandy was hidden during a Revolutionary War British raid.
Just outside of Vineyard Haven, one passes Tashmoo Lake and after 23 miles of driving, Vineyard Haven is reached — settled in 1660 and incorporated in 1671. Early industries included fishing, agriculture, whaling and salt-making. During the Revolution, many British men-of-war used the harbor as a refuge. Local residents in 1775 erected a liberty pole on Manter’s Hill that the captain of the British ship Unicorn desired but was thwarted when a selectman’s daughter, Polly Daggett, along with Maria Allen and Parnel Manter, destroyed the pole.
The tour concluded by turning off Main street to Harbor Road and passing the Marine Hospital.
It is fitting that the WPA Guide to Massachusetts ends its narrative about Martha’s Vineyard at the Marine Hospital now being resurrected as the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Since this Massachusetts guide was written by men and women originally out of work during our Great Depression, it would be fitting for Congress to present legislation to President Obama for his signature that would fund the updating, after 83 years, of all the state guides, as well as including our newest states.
Herb Foster is a trustee of the Edgartown Free Public Library. He is writing a book about Martha’s Vineyard during WW II with Tom Dresser and Jay Schofield.