From the January 31, 1964 edition of the Vineyard Gazette by Joseph Chase Allen:

Webster says that a “bee” was a gathering of neighbors and friends engaged in a concerted effort originally to render assistance, later for sport and competition, and he adds that the expression originated in the United States.

Perhaps he is right. Certainly no one of today is likely to argue the contrary. At the same time it is noted in Webster that anciently the word “bee” was defined as “to bend” as a bow is bent. Pondering this, and also the fact that there used to be a more vigorous bending of wood, one wonders whether the expression may have arisen from the need of many hands and arms to bend the timbers used in ships, or even the rafters used in the long halls of the Scandinavians. Not that it matters, but the word had to originate from some custom, and the early Americans brought words and methods with them from Europe where they had been known for centuries.

Yet the “bee” as American history and tradition describe it, fits the definition of Webster perfectly. Men and women congregated in groups to render assistance, in a practice that became known as an “exchange of work.” There were many tasks confronting the early American and his descendants for generations which required more than one pair of hands if the work was to be efficiently done.

Although the quilting bee is probably best known of all, bees were organized for many other purposes: wall-building bees, husking-bees, and the “raising” of buildings, a variety of bee. In any case where the effort was made in the public interest, a bee took place with all able-bodied participants in the work.

The bee became an institution, easily and quickly organized and planned, with but the single requirement that ample food and drink be prepared for those engaged, since no wages were paid.

The first mention of anything resembling a bee on the Island is found in the record of building an early meeting-house before 1700. A vote was taken to build the structure, and a committee was appointed to take charge of the operation. It may be assumed that the committee was expected to find and purchase the materials although they were to be paid for from public funds. But the sole specific order given to this committee was to “supply good wheaten bread, rum and sugar,” to be furnished to the workmen.

These items constituted the refreshments and apparently, they were sufficient to bring out as much manpower as was required. That this combination of food and drink, odd as it may seem, was in fact old and well-recognized, is clear enough.

The story comes out of Gay Head, where memories are longer, than in other places, of wall building bees. Many persons have looked upon the miles and miles of Island walls and have wondered how and when they were built and by whom. In the light of Gay Head traditions, the greater part of such walls may well have been built at bees.

The Gay Head tradition relates how long stretches of stone wall were built in that town, and one glimpse of this wall is sufficient to see that only master wallbuilders had a hand in its construction.

It would be interesting to know whether those old Indians learned how to build walls from the whites, or whether they taught the whites something of the craft themselves. For Indians had built walls of a sort before the white settlers appeared, and knew without doubt, what sort of wall would stand through Island winters. On the other hand, stone walls had been built in Europe for thousands of years, and thus there were wallbuilders in both camps.

It seems to have been the custom for a man who wished to build a wall, to haul rocks to the site, and place them in a rough line along the route the wall was to take. Here and there may be seen deposits of rocks left long ago by some farmer who planned to build a wall but never got around to it for some reason.

When the rocks were all at hand the master-builders, their helpers, the ox teams and stone-drags were assembled, and it must have been a busy scene indeed.

There were women in the background, cooking the immense meal the handlers of rock would consume and that was to be their only compensation. Each man knew that when he required help that the neighbor for whom he had built the wall would be first to offer his assistance, the use of his oxen and tools and anything else that might be required.

There are many examples around the Island of what resulted from gatherings of neighbors “engaged in a concerted effort.” Most of these examples, definitely identified, are in old buildings. One look at some of the framing suffices to convince the observer that it required a full crew to handle the timbers and the bee or raising is indicated. Also the errors in measurement are evident which naturally took place when a wild group of young men were trying to outdo another. No one complained much about such things then, and today, those angles which do not follow the square are regarded as treasures indeed.

Compiled by Hilary Wall