From the September 25, 1964 edition of the Vineyard Gazette: From every quarter comes the question: “What is the world coming to?”; and particularly when the word comes of wholesale disaster visiting itself upon some distant town or village where progress, usually in some disguise, wipes out an industry of people literally stranded.

The history of the Island is well filled with oddities, not the least of which are traditions of disasters quite as devastating as any of the modern day: the wiping out of industries, ruining of investors and the collapse of the economy. For such things have occurred again and again, leaving scars, in some cases, which not even time has obliterated.

But where changing times wipe out an institution, the same cause is likely to replace the wreckage with something new and probably even better. But it requires time and various other things.

Within the first century of the Island’s history, the Vineyard was self-sufficient to a degree never equalled. It produced the majority of the commodities required by its inhabitants, with a substantial surplus which was sold for cash or traded for items as could not be produced here, and the entire economic system was largely based on the Island’s flocks and herds.

The care of the sheep and cattle and the processing and handling of the products of the same, furnished employment and brought revenue to the Island. Other industries there were, chiefly seasonal, which augmented the general income of the place, but the flocks and herds required year-round attention and constituted the mainstay of the economy.

As everyone knows, war caused the collapse of this economy. Not because of actual invasion and enemy occupation, but in consequence of the one great raid (Major Gray’s during the Revolution) which resulted in the loss of thousands of sheep and cattle. The raiding likewise seriously affected the Island’s transportation system through the loss of many small vessels which plied to and from the mainland with Island produce and the things for which they were exchanged.

It is impossible for people of today to realize the dire straits to which the Vineyard was reduced in consequence, and it should be pointed out that no assistance was available for these stricken people from any quarter. They were obliged to work out their own salvation, and to their credit, they did just this, but it required time.

With villages expanding, farms restored, various small industries established and flourishing, the Vineyard had arrived at a brand new peak of prosperity around 1840. Island men of means possessed of vision, held to the view that self-sufficiency should be the grand aim and directed their efforts toward that end. The herds and flocks were still highly important, but hard cash was present in greater quantity than ever and the whaling industry offered opportunity for investment.

Ships of the Vineyard and the nearby mainland were owned by various stock-holders. Farmers and fishermen purchased “a piece” of a ship, and a further stake in the industry was acquired by some of the farmers who raised the wheat which supplied the flour-mills of the Island and eventually became hardtack, carried to sea on whaleships. Then came the three great movements which brought death to whaling as it was carried on in that day.

The gold strike in California drew the adventurous from the regular industries. Civil War saw the sea-raiders burning whalers in every ocean, ruining the owners and setting officers and crews upon the beach, as they said. And along with this, the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania brought sperm-whaling to a halt almost overnight through the activities of the oil companies in hiring every cooper possible and sending them to the oil-fields to make and set up casks.

Wretched as the Vineyard had been at the end of the Revolution, its plight was far worse when the Civil War ended. The older generations had been wiped out financially, but they still possessed their lands and home, and the will to restore their livestock and to continue producing crops.

Tisbury had its salt-works, Chilmark had its brickyard, all towns had their fisheries, and the farms were still providing at least a living for those who lived upon them.

They developed their fisheries until Vineyard Sound was literally filled with net and spiles from Gay Head into Vineyard Haven harbor.

But coincident with the decline of the fisheries, and also of the sailing fleet of coasters, the Island’s resort business began to make a decided impact.

Small-boat fishing has long since been abandoned, and the number of men fishing out of vessels, is but a fraction of the number that used to sail in small craft. As for the coasters, they are no more, and vanishing with them were the anchor-draggers, the bum-boatmen, pilots’ salvage crews and many other. Yet, in some manner not easily defined, the Vineyard has continued to carry on.

Compiled by Hilary Wall