The story of West Tisbury “” a parent appeals for protection

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.

April 28 is the anniversary of the 1892 official division of West Tisbury from Tisbury, or Vineyard Haven as it is often called. Vineyard historian Art Railton described the tension and events leading up to the separation in the May 2004 issue of The Dukes County Intelligencer. What follows is Mr. Railton’s account, which has been excerpted and edited by David Nathans, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

Old versus new

Soon after the successful separation of Cottage City, now Oak Bluffs, from Edgartown in 1880, another battle for secession began in the central part of the Island. The quiet village of West Tisbury started using that name sometime between 1868 and 1880. It was officially Tisbury, and its eastern part was called Vineyard Haven.

That original western village considered itself quite separate from Vineyard Haven, not only in geography but in character. The differences of growth and development had become so marked that by the mid-1880s petitions asking that the old village be separated from Vineyard Haven were circulated. Unlike the earlier Island secession movement where a young Cottage City petitioned for separation from old Edgartown, in this case, the old was asking to be separated from the new.

By mid-January 1890 a Tisbury public meeting discussed what action to take. Those favoring division were led by Henry L. Whiting. Opposing were Rodolphus Crocker and several others from Vineyard Haven. West Tisbury’s argument was a familiar one: its residents were paying higher taxes and getting little in return. Fast-growing Vineyard Haven would soon demand more fire equipment and schools, while the smaller West Tisbury would be hopelessly outvoted in town meetings.

The meeting was noisy and getting nowhere. There was rancor on both sides. Exchanges were heated, often unpleasant. At a pause in the debate, one weary citizen from Vineyard Haven stood up and offered a motion to adjourn and it carried.

Population, politics and personality

Unhappy with the lack of a decision, the West Tisbury citizens eventually sent a petition to the state legislature. In February 1892, several days of hearings took place in the State House. The Martha’s Vineyard Herald, in favor of division, reported that the lawyer for West Tisbury, former New Bedford Mayor Walter Clifford, argued that

…it is not the case of a young offshoot of an old town, grown tired of the conservatism and old-fogyishness of its parent and seeking to control its own affairs; but it is an appeal on the part of a parent for protection… [from an] offspring…laying on her expenses for development and improvement…from which she derives no appreciable benefits. It is an appeal on behalf of a farming people to be set off from a people whose tendencies are “citified,” and to be relieved from …the taxes which were perfectly proper for a seaport and summer resort, but were a heavy burden on farmers and fishers…

Witnesses pointed out that Vineyard Haven’s larger population, 1,100, twice West Tisbury’s 555, meant that the old village had little control how its tax money was spent.

Rodolphus Crocker, owner of the Island’s largest business, the harness factory, and Vineyard Haven’s political “boss,” said that the divisiveness was inspired by Edgartown politicians who saw Tisbury as threatening their control of the county. As Vineyard Haven grew, he said, Edgartown “sought to retain its prestige by securing a division of Tisbury.”

Witnesses on both sides mentioned politics so often that at one point the legislative committee chairman, Senator John R. Thayer of Worcester, interjected: “Is there anything but politics on that Island?”

Some suggested that it was as simple as Democrats were for division and Republicans were opposed. Others suggested that temperance played a major role, with West Tisbury residents “burdened with the support of a watering place.”

A more balanced and informative witness in support of division was forwarded by Professor Nathaniel Shaler (1841-1906), a Harvard paleontologist, Kentuckian, and 30-year seasonal Vineyarder. Slater testified:

A number of years ago I acquired considerable land in what is known as the North Tisbury section to use as a playground for my second childhood. It consists of 24 or 26 abandoned farms. And they were really abandoned…the houses were unoccupied and dilapidated. Of some two-score houses only eight were worth saving…

In this case, the division is one by nature…The people at the port [Vineyard Haven] are extremely prosperous, make money easily, and can afford to pay large taxes. After you leave the town… you pass through waste and desolation until you get to … North Tisbury. This section is rendered hopelessly sterile by nature. I know that, for I bought a tract at $1 an acre…but found I could make no use of it whatever…

You cannot expect to reconcile a people divided by a diversity of interests and by nature and distance. On the one hand are a people who make money easily and spend generously, and on the other a people who can only live by the exercise of the greatest thrift. In view of these facts, I have come to the conclusion that a separation is essential.

Secession success

The bill to divide the town of Tisbury passed the state legislature on April 28, 1892, and was signed by Governor William E. Russell the same day. Two days later, West Tisbury residents celebrated with “…a procession of over one hundred people….headed by a fife and drum corps…with torchlights and fish-horns…proceeded to Agricultural Hall, where a bountiful repast had been prepared by the ladies…”

The “new” village of old West Tisbury could now officially use the name it had been using for years. Vineyard Haven was now Tisbury, beginning a confusing system of names that continues to today. Road signs point to a place called Vineyard Haven, but you never enter it. When you get there, a sign says you are entering Tisbury, although you had no desire to go there. You wanted to go to Vineyard Haven, but there is no town by that name.

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.