Harthaven “” an Oak Bluffs neighborhood celebrates 100 years

The Giffords' house was a perfect spot for a party. From the lawn there's a view out over Nantucket Sound off State Beach. — Photo by Susan Safford

What we know today as Harthaven started to take shape 100 years ago, when an industrialist from Connecticut, William Henry Hart, bought up several parcels of land between the south end of Farm Pond and the north end of Sengekontacket Pond. The shore road from Oak Bluffs to Edgartown ran along the eastern edge of some of the lots, separating them from a mosquito-infested pond behind the dunes along Nantucket Sound.

W.H. Hart was born in New Britain, Conn., in 1834. When he was 19, he joined the Stanley Works, a small tool and hardware manufacturing company in New Britain. Within a few months, he became secretary-treasurer of the company, and before he turned 21 he was elected to the board of directors. Several months earlier, in September 1855, he married Martha Peck. Between 1858 and 1874, their union produced seven children — six boys and one girl.

W.H. Hart’s introduction to Martha’s Vineyard came in 1857 when he sailed with friends from New Bedford out around Gay Head. He returned in 1871, when he and a friend purchased five lots on Pennacook Avenue from the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company.

In 1911, W.H. Hart bought his first lot in what is now known as Harthaven. In the next few years, he bought 13 more lots, amassing a sizable chunk of Oak Bluffs. Over time, each of his children built summer homes there, and the fetid pond behind the beach was turned into a snug anchorage when it was opened to the Sound, and breakwaters were constructed to maintain the opening. From that time on, sailing, fishing, or just being on the water was a principal pastime for Harts of all ages.

Harts of all ages came together once again on Saturday, June 25, under and around a huge tent in the front lawn of the house now owned by Walter and Mary Lee Gifford, a house that was originally built for Jim Hart, one of the sons of old W.H. himself.

In addition to many, many Harts at the party, there were Peases, Youngs, Eddys, plenty of Moores, and dozens of others who came with names they’d taken on through marriage — all direct descendants of old man W.H. Hart, although some of them now six generations removed. Also invited were the current and former owners of homes in Harthaven with no blood connection to the Harts. To the organizers, the party was more about community — and a shared sense of place — than it was about family.

Co-chairmen of the event were E.L. Edwards and Doug Pease, who had help from dozens of people on many committees. Sam Low, a photojournalist and filmmaker who lives in Harthaven, built an impressive web site that offered the history of the community, profiles of Harts past and present, and plans for the party, of course.

As celebrants trickled in from around the neighborhood and around the country, smiles were accompanied by looks of surprised recognition and occasional puzzlement as people tried to place one another. Attendees paid for their dinner and drinks. Yes, there were bartenders and the meal was catered, but it was all done in a low-key family style, including paper plates and plastic utensils. The food was fresh, local, and wholesome — froufrou and pretense weren’t part of the deal. It all enhanced the feeling organizers had hoped for — we’re in this together.

Before dinner, the crowd was warmed up by several musicians among the guest list, including Mark Grandfield, Steve Hart, Peter Pease, Carol Abbe, Wesley Brown, and Gordon Moore.

After the meal, the Stragglers got the place hopping with some feel-good dance music they’d brought with them from up Island. The musicians were Merrily Fenner, Mark Mazer, Danny Whiting, Peter Huntington, Nancy Jephcote, Paul Thurlow, John Early, and Peter Knight.

Still later, many partygoers lingered in the Giffords’ large living room where two films were running through the night. Compendiums of old family movies, they had people reminiscing and guffawing well into the night.