Ethel Sherman, much loved for her sweet laugh and tart wit along with her jams, died on Sept. 4 at the Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Oak Bluffs. She was 91. A full-time Island resident, Ethel’s love of the simple life she shared with her husband on Martha’s Vineyard was felt by all who knew her, stopped by her stand or read her writing.

“Who says life doesn’t begin at forty? It began for me,” Ethel wrote of her marriage to Ralph Sherman in a short story titled Wedding Band. “Although I robbed the cradle, as the saying goes, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Ethel May Judge was born on May 27, 1923, the daughter of Alfred and Ethel (Burke) Judge. She graduated from Taunton High School and attended Bristol Community College for business classes. She worked at F.B. Rogers Silver Company in Taunton, and then Wirthmore Research Farm as their secretary where she met Ralph Sherman. On their first date, they went duckpin bowling.

Ethel and Ralph Sherman were married in 1965. — Courtesy Ralph Sherman

“A friend gave Ralph a verbal shove to ask me to bowl in a summer league that started in May,” she wrote. “Since it was only September, I had all winter to plan for it. Perhaps, I thought, he would ask me for a date in between. No such luck.”

After their first date she commented, “Luckily, he had a great sense of humor and he realized that he would have to expect the unexpected whenever we were together.”

She married Ralph in 1965 and they lived in Berkley on Assonet Neck. They were both avid fishermen and during the early years of their marriage they loved to come to Martha’s Vineyard to prowl the shores up-Island in search of striped bass. Ethel was employed at Wheaton College.

In 1973 David Flanders convinced Ethel, who in turn convinced Ralph, to move to the Island to take over as managers of his struggling grain store, Smith, Bodfish and Swift, then located on the Vineyard Haven harbor. “I said, ‘Ralph, this is about Martha’s Vineyard. You know you left the decision up to me when you went fishing, and we will start in two weeks,’” Ethel recalled in a memoir about the SBS years. They moved to the Vineyard and never left.

Turning the store around meant years of hard work. It wasn’t uncommon for Ethel to work past midnight, while Ralph delivered goods with his own truck after hours and weekends.

With Ethel’s meticulous attention to detail and organization, and Ralph’s knowledge of gardening and animal husbandry, they supplied generations of farmers with the tools, supplies and advice they needed to continue the Island’s agrarian traditions during an era when they could have easily disappeared. The Shermans carried out those traditions on their own two-acre plot of land in Chilmark, planting fruit and nut trees and growing a large vegetable garden.

With a farmers' market friend. — Courtesy Ralph Sherman

Ethel joined the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market in the late 1980s, a quasi-retirement, when she taught herself to make jam and sold all she could can alongside Ralph’s perfectly grown and sorted produce.

As a team, their commitment and contributions to Martha’s Vineyard’s farming community extended beyond the walls of SBS and the farmers’ market. Their knowledge can be found in almost as many fields across the Island as there are pantries that hold Ethel’s jam. This would have been their 25th year having a stand at the market, but Ethel never lost her fascination with it. “Each vendor is an exceptional human being that has an interesting, productive life,” she wrote in a self-published book about the market. “From the middle of June to the middle of October, I’m at my table every Saturday morning and Wednesday afternoon during June and July, to greet customers and to sell my products and Ralph’s vegetables and fruit. The other days of the week, I wilt over a hot stove making jams, jellies and chutney while Ralph cultivates in the garden, and picks, washes and inspects for imperfections. Children stop at my stand. They are very young to not so young, and I offer a sample. It is soul satisfying to see the look of pleasure when they taste it.

“My fascination with the market has grown each year until now. I know Iwant to be a part of it as long as physically possible.”

And she was.

Following her death this week, a moment of silence was held at the farmers’ market on Saturday morning. Vendors left their stalls and gathered in a circle as Ralph Sherman rang the bell to open the market.

Ethel self published two books: West Tisbury Farmers’ Market: Behind the Scenes (2003), and Against Tremendous Odds: SBS - The Grain Store 1973-1988 (1999), plus numerous essays and short stories. She was a member of the Howes House writing group in West Tisbury and had occasional essays published in the Gazette.

She was active in the Island community, volunteering her time at the Chilmark School to read to students in kindergarten through second grades. She was on the board of directors of the Up-Island Senior Center and was an active member of the Chilmark Methodist Church.

She absolutely loved lobster rolls.

In addition to her husband she is survived by her sister, Jeanne Perry of Taunton; her nephew, Michael Perry of Martha’s Vineyard; her niece, Andrea Pontes and her husband Kenneth of Berkley; her daughter in law Jackie Cage of Martha’s Vineyard, grandsons R.J. Cage (and children) of Martha’s Vineyard, John David and his wife Johanna (and their children) of Southboro, her son, Richard L. Bensing and his wife, Sue of Arkansas (and their children). She was predeceased by her brother in law, Francis Perry, in April of this year.

Her family wishes to thank Windemere, Hope Hospice, and the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital for their care and kindness over the years.

A graveside service will be held at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 14, at the Abel’s Hill Cemetery in Chilmark. A potluck reception to celebrate Ethel’s life will follow in the Agricultural Hall from 2 to 5 p.m.

Donations may be made in her memory to the Chilmark Methodist Church, 9 Menemsha Cross Road, Chilmark MA 02535.

Arrangements are under the care of the Chapman, Cole and Gleason Funeral Home in Oak Bluffs. Visit for the online guest book and information.