From the May 3, 1974 edition of the Vineyard Gazette by Polly Woollcott Murphy:

“May Day!” the children said to each other with palpable excitement as they gathered in the West Tisbury schoolyard on Wednesday morning. “May Day!”

It was obviously not the code word for trouble they were hailing each other with, but the acknowledgment of the first of May which has always loomed large on the calendar of West Tisbury children. There is a ritual to the day that has changed and evolved over the years since the school building was first erected for the Dukes County Academy in 1870. May Day 1974 was the last time the ritual would be acted out in that particular setting, for the next year’s first of May will find all the children at the new school on the Old County Road.

The ritual goes like this. All the children bring flowers and goodies from home and assemble them in a large decorated May basket, which they leave on the school doorstep. The teacher is “surprised” by the basket when she comes out to call the children in for school. She is also surprised by a total absence of children. They are all hiding. She must go out and find some of them, who then join her in the search for others.

Wednesday morning was soft and misty. It had been drizzling earlier, but by eight, when the first children arrived in the schoolyard, it was already starting to clear. The first to come were the children who live close by, among them Patrick and Prudence Burt. They concealed two May baskets on the side steps, one a conventional wicker affair, the other a cardboard box, painstakingly papered with Snoopy cartoons, by Patrick. They were both decorated with daffodils and there were already token flowers, fruits and candies inside. The children were taut with impatience and kept looking at the church clock. The first small bus from the Old County Road district pulled in, and the new arrivals exploded through the schoolyard and into the yard of the Agricultural Hall. Within minutes, several were dancing on the roof of the hall, while others sped for the cattle sheds at the end of the yard. Those waiting in the schoolyard were indignant.

“No fair.” “Come back, you guys.” “We gotta wait for the big bus.” “Come baaaaaaack!”

This thunderous prelude to secrecy brought back the recalcitrant ones, who reluctantly joined their impatience with that of the others as they waited for the big bus.

The big bus finally arrived at eight-thirty, and now there was no holding anybody. The May baskets themselves seemed forgotten, as they hurled their offerings in the general direction of the school steps and fled, shouting, for the hall yard. Suddenly there were no children visible, and from the cattle sheds at the end of the yard came a shrill twittering, as if a particularly large and vehement flock of starlings had alighted there.

Now the teachers emerged to be surprised. Priscilla Fischer, Janet Thifault and Elaine Harbberts were each in turn astounded. They tactfully overlooked the contents of the unassembled May baskets spread from one end of the steps to the other, and made their way through the wet grass toward the cattle shed, which had become totally silent, all twittering ended.

One by one, the children were routed out of their hiding places.

This pattern with slight variations has been going on for at least 20 years or so in the West Tisbury school, but selectman Everett Whiting says things were entirely different when he was a pupil there. In fact his May Days had nothing to do with school and were not confined to the first of May at all, but went on for the whole month, in a sort of May madness. All the neighborhood children — except for one who wasn’t told — would chip together and buy a large bag of penny candy. They would put this on the unsuspecting one’s door step, usually in the early evening and knock at the door and then run away. The summoned one would then have to chase the others, and the chases led far and wide all over the town, through the warm May twilight. “We kept right on doing this in May even after we got to be 20 and older,” says Mr. Whiting nostalgically.

Mrs. Sidney N. Riggs is also inclined to be nostalgic about the Mays of her school days in West Tisbury. “May — the whole month — was just lovely,” she says. Yes, they did hang May baskets on teachers, but not at the school — at the teacher’s house. Her mother, Mary Wilder Cleaveland, who was a student at the Dukes County Academy in the 1870s, told her that the custom in her day was to close the school entirely on May 1st, and the boys would take the girls in horses and buggies for a picnic at Gay Head.

Rituals change, and no doubt the new school on Old County Road will develop some new twists of its own for May Day. All those trees to climb should provide new hiding places. But surely even the most modern of equipment and architecture can’t surpass the enduring spirit of a West Tisbury May Day.

Compiled by Hilary Wallcox