Martha’s Vineyard’s history is a rich narrative of people and events. The Times has invited the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to draw on its unique cache of contemporary photos and first-person accounts to describe interesting but often unfamiliar moments in Island history, in a regularly appearing series called to mind sometimes, but not always, by present dates.
Today, February 17, is the anniversary of Cottage City’s political divorce from Edgartown. Vineyard historian Art Railton described the events leading up to the birth of the new town, the one we now know as Oak Bluffs, in the February 2004 issue of The Dukes County Intelligencer. What follows is Mr. Railton’s account, which has been exerpted by Bonnie Stacy, chief curator of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
Back in 1878, Cottage City was part of Edgartown, and that’s the way the residents of the old town liked it. With only 500 persons living there year-round, Cottage City had a weak voice in town meetings. It was powerless to prevent the taxes paid by its wealthy summer residents from being used on projects it didn’t want. A new beach road, a railroad to Katama — what good were they to Cottage City? In August, the Island Review editorialized against these “taps.” The newspaper favored separation, declaring: “Let us depart in Peace.”
The battle for secession had begun. It wasn’t the first time it had been proposed. Cottage City had been trying for years to get the state legislature to make it a separate town, but the state had done nothing. The Island’s representative, Beriah T. Hillman, although from Chilmark, was safely in the pocket of the Edgartown establishment, having been elected with its support… When the Cottage City petition to secede was brought up in the state house, Representative Hillman opposed it and so no vote was taken. The following year, another petition was sent. Once again it died, as did a third petition the next year.
Two newspaper town
After three failures, Cottage City had had enough. A meeting was called of those “Non Resident and Resident Tax Payers in favor of a division
… and an incorporation of the Town of Cottage City [made up of] Oak Bluffs, Vineyard Grove, Vineyard Highlands, Eastville, Lagoon Heights and vicinity…” Twenty-five major taxpayers signed the advertisement, mostly off-Islanders. Only three were year-round residents: Howes Norris of Eastville; Joseph Dias of Vineyard Grove; and Ichabod N. Luce of Eastville.
Men in favor of secession bought the Island Review’s print shop and started The Cottage City Star, with the Rev. Edward W. Hartfield as editor … the real purpose of the newspaper was to make Cottage City a separate town, no longer a satellite of Edgartown. Hatfield, with the help of Howes Norris, created a newspaper that was far superior to Edgartown’s Vineyard Gazette.
The secessionists knew that they would need the support of the whole Island and so they published news from everywhere: Lambert’s Cove, Gay Head, Squibnocket, and even Nomans Land had regular news columns. Only Edgartown was missing; for a year, the Star was unable to find anyone living there who was willing to be its correspondent. The political pressure was too great. Soon the Star was outselling the Gazette everywhere except in Edgartown.
Coincidence or plot?
Around the same time, Edgartown appointed its first board of health, which immediately questioned sanitary conditions in the densely populated campground areas. Cause for concern indeed, but Cottage City cried foul when the Vineyard Grove House, run by secession leader Joseph Dias, was selected as one of the first hotels to be tested.
The test was done in a most casual manner. A water sample was pumped into a jug with no tight seal on it and taken to Edgartown where it was held overnight before being sent to Boston for testing. There, a Professor Nichols tested the sample and declared the water contaminated, unfit for human consumption. Notices were printed and handed out to passengers on arriving steamboats to warn of contaminated water in the campground, where most were planning to visit…
Convinced that this was retribution, Cottage City decided that there had to be a major change. It must elect a state representative who would support its petition to secede.
Unsuccessful in the primaries, the secessionists fielded their candidates on the “People’s Ticket.” Stephen Flanders of Chilmark ran for state representative with the endorsement of the Cottage City Star:
“The people of Edgartown… believe that Edgartown is the world, and they are the inhabitants thereof, and that all outsiders are from the moon or some unknown corner of space and are not entitled to any consideration at their hands either by right or by courtesy… Voters, break the yoke placed about your neck by this grasping old town… Vote the People’s Ticket.”
Victory at the polls
Flanders won the election of 1879 by 40 votes and, after the state dismissed Edgartown’s protests of “improprieties,” he was declared the winner.
With a friend now in the state house, the secessionists quickly sent a fourth petition to the legislature. With the support of Representative Flanders, it passed both houses quickly. At 4 p.m., February 17, 1880, the governor signed it.
Cottage City was no longer merely a hopeful name on a newspaper, it was the name of a real town.
The Martha’s Vineyard Museum is on School Street in Edgartown. It is open Monday through Saturday. For more information go to mvmuseum.org or call 508-627-4441.