The Martha’s Vineyard Museum will focus on Prohibition in an exhibit beginning June 17 titled Island Spirits. A Prohibition-era still will be on display along with other artifacts, documents, pictures and oral histories which Linsey Lee has curated.

Strikingly, events of the 1920 to 1933 period of Island rum-running could be likened to A Tale of Two Cities. In Edgartown, authorities were confiscating, catching and arresting perpetrators, while in Oak Bluffs we were partying like it was 1929 (I couldn’t resist).

Boaters, rum-runners and Coast Guard enforcers were dying in efforts to foment or thwart the results of fermentation. Long before the Volstead Act, distilled beverages were addressed in Oak Bluffs. Chapter 26 of Henry Beetle Hough’s Martha’s Vineyard Summer Resort 1835-1935 titled “Liquor Is a Problem” told the story. The early Camp Meeting had issues suppressing the sale and use of intoxicants to the extent that when the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company developed the new resort, they lined Circuit avenue with a fence to keep the sinners out and the reverent in.

Not satisfied with the results, camp leader Reverend E.H. Hatfield embarked upon a plan to engage spies, who by 1887 were able to purchase liquor just about everywhere, including at the luxurious Sea View Hotel. The Sea View was managed by Bullock and Brownell, the team that managed the famed Parker House Hotel of New Bedford, home of the Parker House Rolls. Holder Milk Brownell, managing partner and the hotel’s host, was described as being on the portly side with rubicund cheeks, genial eyes and a face framed “in plentiful black side whiskers.”

The deliciously-named Mr. Brownell who “fitted into the art of good living” found himself the defendant on charges of the unlawful sale of liquor. Fortuitously, Mr. Brownell, a trustee of the new Episcopal Church, was an intimate friend of social leaders of Oak Bluffs, several of whom intervened at the trial with a document that indicated “the best interests of the town do not require this proceeding and that the best public sentiment had not demanded it.”

The surprised judge declared that the only question was the guilt or innocence of Mr. Brownell. The trial proceeded with two detectives testifying and seven other witnesses procured to disclaim their integrity. Without Mr. Brownell’s testimony, the jury, who were all known to have imbibed liquor at the Sea View, were forced to return a guilty verdict.

Mr. Hatfield, condemning the town leaders who had supported Mr. Brownell, said “Liquor selling in Cottage City is the same evil, ruinous and devilish business that it is everywhere it is allowed to exist.”

The verdict, however, lacking Mr. Brownell’s testimony, was overturned by the Supreme Court. At the next town meeting a vote was held that resulted in licensing the sale of intoxicating beverages. Rev. E.H. Hatfield was defeated and the Volstead Act, over 30 years later, never stood a chance. It merely created financial opportunities for hardy Eastville fishermen who made money smuggling rum covered with ice and fish to esteemed Circuit avenue hotels and bars for consumption by willing consumers. In Oak Bluffs, different than in Edgartown, Prohibition was a suggestion rather than a law.

Martha’s Vineyard Community Services is sponsoring its popular Electronics Disposal Day on Saturday, May 21 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. for the public to revel in ridding itself of all that plugs in or requires a battery but no longer works. The fees range from $2 to $30, and are far less costly than taking them to the dump. The location is across from the high school. Just think, it won’t be long before we’re saying goodbye to flat screen TVs, no longer smart phones and who knows what else that we take for granted today.

The Oak Bluffs Public Library is having an Armed Forces Day veterans’ meetup on Saturday, May 21 from 1 to 3 p.m. featuring the authors of Martha’s Vineyard in World War II, who will speak about the book. Refreshments will be served. Island military veterans of all ages and branches are invited.

Ben and Bill’s is open, the Beetlebung Restaurant and Bar opens Wednesday and Giordano’s Restaurant opens for the season on Thursday. Oak Bluffs is open for business and the early view is that business will be good in 2016. Thank you Holder Milk Brownell for the part you played.

Keep your foot on a rock.

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