From the Vineyard Gazette edition of June 30, 1961:
The tales of the grandparents of the oldest inhabitants carry the reader back into antiquity. No one knows, today, how many times these tales have been told nor how much they have been distorted in the telling and retelling. All that anyone can be certain of is this, that the Vineyard of a century ago or more, differed vastly from the Vineyard of today. So different it was, in fact, that it is only with great difficulty that anyone can visualize the scene in any portion of the Island as it was in that time.
Cleared land, with occupied farmhouses upon it, could be found in many places where today there is merely wild brushwood revealing no indication of ever having been tilled, some of this, in fact, being half-submerged swamp through which passage can be made only with the greatest of difficulty, not to say a certain amount of danger.
Sheep-flocks covered the hills and herds of cattle grazed as well, and when people congregated at any given spot, many walked, some rode horses, and a very few travelled in farm-wagons. Carriages of any kind were few indeed, a date of less than a century and a half ago being quite clearly indicated as a time when but two carriages are known to have been owned on the Island, with a possibility that there might have been a third.
The processing of wool by home methods was still in general practice, with the accompanying spinning and weaving being done by many a person, male and female. True, cloth could be purchased ready for cutting and fashioning into garments, but there were still many people who chose to weave their own, from wool taken from their own sheep.
Virtually all footwear was handmade, and the Vineyard had its own boot-makers who turned out the “brogan” for the farm and beach, the red leather boot for the fisherman, for rubber boots were unknown, and the fancy calfskin half-boot for the wealthy and fastidious.
Workshops were to be found everywhere. Neighborhood handymen were making everything from cradles to coffins, blacksmiths were located in numerous places, and were making ironwork of all kinds, and cutlery in addition. Even axes were made by blacksmiths in that day and age, although not frequently, and in any event there were many metal items which could not be obtained anywhere save at the blacksmith’s shop.
As recently as sixty years ago, there were still people living on the Island and using tools which, they said, had been made by Island smiths.
People and their methods were still very primitive. There might have been a mowing-machine on the Island, but if so, there were no more than three. This is conclusive, for the reason that following the purchase of the first one, two others were promptly purchased and brought to the Island. But in general, the hand-scythe and the grain-cradle were employed in harvesting. The sickle, which preceded the cradle, was outmoded by that time and seldom used.
The “mowing-bee” or similar contest, was well known and frequently held when a farmer had a large meadow to mow or men went down to the “low meadows” to cut salt hay on the marshes. Many tales have been told of these contests when the mowers worked until they dropped from exhaustion and on occasion suffered permanent injuries from their extreme efforts. Black Point, on Tisbury Great Pond, was the scene of such tales from tradition, and perhaps those of the most harrowing nature. One death, and one permanently injured man, were reported from one such “bee” on this particular marsh, as tradition has it.
Sheep-shearing, barn-raising, brick-making, and the mining of clay, were all community projects to a high degree, although workmen did draw wages for digging the clay and laying the bricks. But the rigging of the derrick, “sampson-post and boom”, as they were called, was usually done by volunteer labor, congregated to “help out,” as was said. But the system of “changing works” was widespread, wherein one man helped another to shear his sheep in return for the other’s labor when his own were to be shorn.
For the most part, those inhabitants of the Vineyard a century ago appeared to have been wanderers in youth but quiet-living in middle age, content to fish and farm and to obtain their living from land and sea save for the few dollars necessary to purchase items which they could not produce themselves, and to pay their taxes. They gathered at the cross-roads stores, the meeting houses and in private homes, to swap the gossip of neighborhoods, quite probably in a low breath, and somehow managed to develop a group of “characters”, the like of which each successive generation has disclaimed.
Around these characters, the traditions have been built to be handed down through the years. These will be entirely forgotten in time, but a brand-new series will appear which will be recounted in the years to come.
Compiled by Hilary Wall