You're either an islander or off Refuge: Martha's Vineyard is an escape for presidents, celebrities and other vacationers. But anyone who wasn't born there is an 'off-islander' for life.

Sun Journal

September 06, 1997|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

MARTHA'S VINEYARD, Mass. -- After church, the president and the first lady are at The Sweet Life for brunch, but the place to be on the Vineyard is Mel's Diner, where the blueberry pancakes can't be beat. At the window, you can see a flock of 1930s biplanes taking off and landing.

Martha's Vineyard is 100 square miles of land seven miles off the southeast shore of Massachusetts' Cape Cod and a land that geography guarantees is always apart. It is a mostly flat, gentle expanse of green with dramatic clay cliffs and a stark lighthouse at its westernmost point, and a refuge from more hurried life.

"Martha" was the daughter of Bartholomew Gosnold, the English sea captain who discovered the island in 1602. Then, as now, the island supported wild grapes -- thus the "vineyard." In winter, the "year-rounders" number about 12,000; in summer, the population swells to more than 100,000.

There are year-rounders and then there are "islanders," whose ,, claim to fame is that they were born here. In their world view, as David McCullough, the author and year-rounder, puts it, "you're either an off-islander or an islander."

Local lore, for example, offers the story of a high school student who began his report on Benito Mussolini with this sentence: "The first thing you have to understand about Mussolini is that he was an off-islander."

There are also distinctions between "up-island" and "down-island." Up-island (at, say, the chocolate shop in Chilmark) is quiet. Down-island is where visitors are deposited by ferries landing at Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven, also known as East Chop and West Chop.

From the sea, you see the colors of the gingerbread Victorian manses at Oak Bluffs, the area that historically belongs to blacks, free men in the whaling trade who owned property.

Faye Houston, a librarian at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, vividly remembers taking the ferry here in the late 1940s for summer vacations: "When I was a child, it was one of the few places blacks could go."

"The Wedding," a novel by Dorothy West (and edited by a woman who summered upland, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), evokes the Oak Bluffs community, telling the tale of three generations of a black professional family. And Methodists came to Oak Bluffs for revivals at a camp meeting ground, surrounded by cottages that at night look like lighted dollhouses.

Edgartown is also down-island, but much more prim and proper. With brick streets, white Colonial architecture and rooftop "widows walks" for women scanning the harbor for their husbands' ships, it has kept its trim and shape since becoming the first island town to be incorporated in 1671.

The geography changes up-island, where the arctic glacier left fingerprints in the ridges and boulders, still lying around near Chilmark and the fishing village of Menemsha. It's where a relic of the "Jaws" boat is sitting on the sand and where Sen. Edward M. Kennedy sailed in last month to pick up his friends the Clintons.

Each town -- from Oak Bluffs to Chilmark to Edgartown -- is a distinctly discrete society, some predominantly black, some Jewish, some WASPish, some with a strong Portuguese presence descended from crew hands on 19th-century sailing expeditions. There are also the Wampanoags, Native Americans governed by a tribal council in Gay Head.

"The point is that people who come and live here represent all aspects of American life," McCullough said.

Even if it sometimes seems exclusively a enclave of celebrities lately, McCullough says, it is a "gross misconception" to think of it as Washington North or Beverly Hills East.

McCullough has lived here since 1972, after "chasing a girl" who became his wife: "I married the Vineyard and fell in love instantly."

The main summer event is the agricultural fair, in West Tisbury, in the rural center of the island, where the earliest farms were cleared and planted. But the fair is over, as are the annual fireworks, and the crowds at the flea markets are smaller -- but the Clintons are here for another week, stirring the breeze. (The last president to come to call was Ulysses S. Grant.)

Issue of the day?

What kind of ferry the steamship authority should build next. Single-ender or double-ender?

Just how many cars the island can comfortably accommodate from the ferries is a question not yet answered. But everyone agrees that parking problems and traffic are only getting worse. And there's no place to put the garbage, so it's being shipped "off-island."

Pub Date: 9/06/97

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