Where are all the grapes?
Martha’s Vineyard is a glacial moraine, created approximately 20,000 years ago, near the end of the Quaternary glacial epochs, when the Laurentide ice sheet deposited the boulders, gravel, and sand that it carried along on its slow journey southward from Canada. As the ice sheet receded, the southernmost deposits became the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. The oceans began to rise with the melting ice, thus forming Nantucket Sound and the peninsula to the north known as Cape Cod.
As the climate warmed, American Indians began to migrate to the island, settling here more than 5,000 years ago. Martha’s Vineyard was originally known by the Wampanoag Indians in their language as Noepe, or “land amid the streams”.
In March 1602, English explorer and privateer Bartholomew Gosnold set off in his vessel Concord across the Atlantic to arrive months later along the coast of Maine. As he traveled farther south he came upon Cape Cod and, on May 22 of that year, he arrived at Martha’s Vineyard. He found the island quite large, well wooded, and with a profusion of wild grapes; thus, he called it Martha’s Vineyard after his daughter Martha, who passed away in infancy.
Non-Wampanoag settlement started in Edgartown, with people making a living through farming and fishing. Later, as the whaling industry took hold during the early 19th century, more than 100 whaling captains called the island their home. You can still see many of the stately properties built during this prosperous time along North Water Street in Edgartown. Note the “widow’s walk” atop many of the homes, and imagine, as folklore has it, the captains wives staring out to sea, awaiting the return of their loved ones.
The town of Oak Bluffs, incorporated in 1907, was once part of Edgartown. Its development as a seasonal community began in 1835 when an Edgartown man, Jeremiah Pease, selected the area of Oak Bluffs to hold a Methodist camp meeting. The idea caught on, and each summer the “Martha’s Vineyard Campmeeting Association” grounds were visited by religious adherents who pitched tents to spend time worshiping and relaxing beneath the oaks. Very soon, the tents were replaced by cottages and, when Oak Bluffs broke away from the town of Edgartown in 1880, it was initially named Cottage Town (until 1907 when it was renamed Oak Bluffs). Residents decorated these cottages with ornate woodwork (often known as Campground Gothic Revival) and, subsequently, they became referred to as the “Gingerbread Cottages”.
Tourists traveling by steamer from the mainland to Oak Bluffs in the early 1900’s could choose from a wide range of attractions, including retail shops, restaurants, ice cream parlors, dance halls, band concerts, walks along the seaside promenade, or swimming in the waters of Nantucket Sound. Resort hotels, of which the Wesley House is the sole surviving example, lined the waterfront and the bluffs. For a time, a narrow-gauge railway carried curious travelers from the steamship wharf in Oak Bluffs to Edgartown, running along tracks laid on what is now Joseph Sylvia State Beach. In 1884, the Flying Horses Carousel was brought to Oak Bluffs from Coney Island and was installed a few blocks inland from the ocean, where it remains in operation today. Built in 1876, it is the oldest platform carousel still in operation in the US. The grounds and buildings of the Campmeeting Association, as well as the Flying Horses Carousel, have been designated National Historic Landmarks by the US Secretary of the Interior.
Today, Oak Bluffs and Tisbury are the two towns where ferries dock on Martha’s Vineyard. Ferries arrive from Woods Hole, Falmouth, New Bedford, and Hyannis Massachusetts, as well as from New York City. Oak Bluffs is a town known for its laid back attitude and diverse community, welcoming visitors from across New England and around the world. During the summer months the Campgrounds and Ocean Park, in particular, host a multitude of activities and summer events, including the annual fireworks display, weekly band concerts, the jazz fest, Tivoli Day, and the penultimate summertime celebration called “The Grand Illumination”, held in late August at the Tabernacle in the Campgrounds. On Illumination Night, which was originally a celebration of the end of the “camp meeting”, residents of the Campgrounds hang ornate lighted Chinese lanterns (mostly electric, but some still lit by candle) from the porch eaves of their cottages. The lanterns remain dark until around 9:00 p.m., at which time the citizenry gather at the Tabernacle for a sing-along and speeches and proclamations by local officials. At the appointed moment the street lights go dark and hundreds of Chinese lanterns illuminate en masse in a brilliant explosion of colorful light throughout the Campgrounds, accompanied by the thunderous cheers of those in attendance. Visitors wander through the labyrinth of small lanes and footpaths of the Campgrounds, enjoying the sights and festivity of this truly one of a kind celebration.
Vineyard Haven, known early on as Holmes Hole, is the island’s second-oldest town, incorporated in 1671 as Tisbury. It’s excellent harbor made it an important port town where the wares of the Vineyard could be readily shipped off-island. Ocean going traffic was so busy in the area that the Nantucket and Vineyard Sounds were second only to the English Channel for the number of vessels passing through. Ocean traffic and trade played a vital role in the town’s development, as countless Vineyarders served as sailors and fishermen on local and foreign vessels, and Vineyarders of every stripe supported the many vessels that called on Vineyard haven and Oak Bluffs harbors. Today, Vineyard Haven maintains its status as an important east coast port, renowned for a thriving wooden boat building community, as well as providing a vital year round harbor which connects the island to the mainland and the rest of the world beyond..
“Up-island” (meaning upward in longitude, not elevation) lie the towns of West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah.
West Tisbury has traditionally been the heart of the agricultural community on Martha’s Vineyard,and it maintains its rural personality today. It was formerly part of the town of Tisbury, butt broke away as a separate town in 1892.
Chilmark’s citizens traditionally earned their living from both the sea and the land. Chilmark was incorporated in 1694, and includes the postcard perfect fishing village of Menemsha.
Aquinnah, which became an independent town in 1870, is a geological wonder, famous for its clay cliffs, a fingerprint of the last ice age. The area was an early Native American settlement, and today Aquinnah is home to more than 100 members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah.
Oh, and where are all the grapes? Well, they’re out there, but growing wildly and unmanaged in countless back yards, fields, and woods throughout the island. The last actual vineyard on Martha’s Vineyard ceased operations in 2008.