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.
From August 18 to 21, the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society will celebrate its 150th Agricultural Fair. Since 1858, there has been a fair every year except for two years during the Second World War. In its 1859 Constitution, the Agricultural Society expressed its goals to “improve the condition of Agriculture, horticulture, mechanics and the domestic arts, to encourage the raising and improvement of stock and the introduction of improved breeds,” but its enduring importance for the Island community runs much deeper than simply improving agriculture. The Fair has remained an annual tradition, a central meeting place for Islanders, summer residents, and tourists. Although the exhibits have changed over the years, the sense of community it fosters has remained constant.
Today, as the 150th Fair approaches, several people who have been of crucial importance to the Fair have died recently: Jane Newhall (1913-2011), an entry clerk for the Fair from 1947 until several years ago; Albert O. “Ozzie” Fischer (1914-2011), a farmer and member of the Agricultural Society; and Edwin Newhall Woods (1917-2011), who established a preserve in his mother’s memory in 1991, allowing the Agricultural Society to move to its new location several years later. The oral history curator at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, Linsey Lee, had the opportunity to interview each of these important people, and portions of their interviews are published in Vineyard Voices and More Vineyard Voices.
Jane Newhall’s strong relationship with the Fair is not surprising. Her great-grandfather, Henry Laurens Whiting, was one of the men instrumental in founding the Agricultural Society. He was sent to the Island in 1844 with the U.S. Coastal and Geodetic Survey to make a topographical map of the Island. According to Jane Newhall, “He lodged here while he was doing that and fell in love with the Island,” and he became the first secretary of the Agricultural Society as well as its president and a member of the board of trustees for many years. In 1859, Whiting wrote a letter to the newspaper saying, “In glancing back at the progress and success of our society, I think we have some reason to be proud… About eighteen months ago a few farmers met together to discuss the subject of an Agricultural Society. At length a motion, almost a single motion, was made to have a Fair, and lo we had it…We have all learned something: First, that we have got good things, and can raise good things, among ourselves and for others.”
In a 1995 interview, Jane Newhall recalled her early memories of being entry clerk, awarding ribbons and recording the winners. Throughout the course of her life, she saw the Fair grow and change in many ways. In early years, there were plowing contests, track meets for the local kids, and cigar booths, and she recalled, “The carnival stuff used to be more local.” The strong influence she had on the Fair and on the Island community is unquestionable, and, just as her great-grandfather’s, her impact will be a lasting one.
Edwin Newhall Woods, great-grandson of Henry L. Whiting and a cousin of Jane Newhall, influenced the Fair in an entirely different but equally important way. He placed a conservation restriction on 523 acres of his family’s land in his mother’s memory. The restriction prevents the land from ever being developed. He sold a portion of this land to the Agricultural Society at a reduced price, allowing the society to move the Fair to its current location on Panhandle Road, in 1994. Because of his generosity, the 134th Fair (the first one at its new home) attracted a record of 28,000 people.
Despite all of the changes that have occurred, the deeply rooted importance of the Fair to Martha’s Vineyard is evident by the way in which it has received such strong, continuous support over the years by people like Mr. Woods. In a 1995 interview, he reminisced that “The Fair was a highlight when we were here, absolutely. You practically knew everybody… It was a meeting of the crowd, showing what you raised and how you raised it.”
Ozzie Fischer, a farmer for his entire life, was connected to nature in a way that few people can claim in today’s world. He exhibited in the Fair throughout his life, always garnering ribbons for his extraordinary flowers and vegetables, and becoming an integral part of the Fair in the process. A longtime member of the Agricultural Society, he commented at the time of the move that, “It already feels like home here…It seems like it was meant to be here.”
All three of these people were connected to the Fair and the natural world. With their passing goes a way of life and almost a century of memories of the Fair. They also represent what the Fair truly means to the Island. It brought people together once a year to celebrate their relationship with the earth and with each other. Each of these individuals represented this in their own unique way, with their own contributions to the Fair and to the community.
Olga Symeonoglou, one of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s curatorial interns and a junior at Barnard College in New York, wrote this article.
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.