Alma Benson, a Cottles fixture nearly half a century, is retired

Alma Benson watched the Island change from a window at Cottle's Lumber. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Alma Spearwater wasn’t going on vacation when she boarded the Island ferry at Woods Hole 70 years ago this summer.

She was thinking about her new job. Times were uncertain in 1942. The hangover from the Great Depression was slowly wearing off, and the U.S. had just entered a world war of epic proportion, though the newly-minted graduate of Bridgewater State Teacher’s College didn’t know that.

What the 22-year old from Norwood did know was that she had a teaching job in West Tisbury, which paid the princely sum of just over $1,600 a year, about $30 a week.

“I had never heard of Martha’s Vineyard. Didn’t know it existed. The Island school superintendent [Arthur B. Lord] came to our college before graduation to interview and said he had an opening, and I jumped at it,” she recalled one morning recently at her home off Lambert’s Cove Road in West Tisbury.

That day she had no idea either that Island fisherman Franklin Benson and she would meet and share a 55-year marriage until his death in 2000.

Alma Spearwater, now 92, would become known as Alma Benson to generations of Islander and resident customers of Cottle’s Lumberyard, just up the road from her house. Mrs. Benson has just retired after a 45-year career at Cottle’s on Lambert’s Cove Road so she and her great-niece, Ashley Medowski, were at home to talk with The Times on a sunny day in late June.

Mrs. Benson is a willing, straightforward subject for an interview. She has a gimlet eye, ready wit, and meticulous recall for detail on her Island life and times. Her story offers a period perspective on the Island’s growth from a fishing and farming backwater of fewer than 5,000 souls to one of the most desirable and glitzy summer spots in the world.

Q: What was your life like here in 1942?

A: “Well, I taught grades one through four, all subjects, in a one-room school house in West Tisbury for several years before I married. There probably weren’t a dozen kids total in all four grades. I had Otis Burt, Jimmy Bryant, and lots of Santos. There were plenty of Santos kids in those days. Eddie Cottle, who would become my boss for 45 years, was also a student at the school, but he was in the upper grades so I never taught him. I delivered milk from Robert Norton’s farm in Oak Bluffs when school was out to make some summer money to live on.

“When I got here, I had to find housing and found a room with Franklin’s aunt, who worked in the superintendent’s office. That’s how I met him. We got married a few years later and I came to live in this house.

“This house started out as a corn crib . . . that Franklin bought and moved here. I don’t know what he paid for it or whether it cost anything at all, but he had it finished by the time we married, and we added on in later years.

“I’ve always liked living here. I’m grateful I live in this beautiful place. You knew everyone. Now you don’t, of course, because the Island has grown so. You could live off the land a lot better then than you can now. We’d go berrying, whatever kind, in their season. We had permission to glean the cranberry bog down the road after harvest and make cranberry sauce. My husband was a fisherman – maybe my name, Spearwater, appealed to him [ she chuckles] – and we had eels, clams, fish of all kinds. Fish were more plentiful and cheaper. I miss having the fish, particularly swordfish, and flounder, though I’m less fond of bluefish.”

Q. How have things changed on the Island over 70 years?

A. “Well, there are a lot more people and it’s a lot busier. I’ll only drive in the country now. I stay away from the city. Winters were more severe. More snow. We’d go sliding, skating on Seth’s Pond. Now the kids go to the rink mostly.”

Q. How did you get involved in the Cottle business?

A. “I didn’t work for some years after Franklin and I married. That’s how it was in those days. Not like today where they both have to work to make enough money. Franklin fished with his dad, Norman Benson, until Norman gave up fishing when he got to be in his 80s. So Franklin became a lobsterman and a caretaker. I had helped him as I could through the years — painting buoys, repairing screens, that sort of thing — so when I understood that Cottle’s had an opening and Betty Keniston, the office head, asked if I wanted to work in their office, I went, and stayed for 45 years.”

Q. What was the business like in those days?

A. “You waited on customers, made up [sales and order] slips, answered the phones, made up bills by hand. No computers then. We had the prices of course, but you had to figure board lengths, put the footage down and do the math. You knew most all the customers. They were familiar faces and we extended credit to them if we knew them, though [new] customers usually needed a credit reference.

“The Edgartown store wasn’t going yet, This was the only store. So things have changed a lot. We mostly sold milled lumber back then, but we’ve added so many new products, lots more synthetic products that have replaced wood, and we’ve added masonry products and the hardware room. Oh, listen to me. I’m talking as if I’m still at work.”

Q. What’s it like being a new retiree?

A. “I guess the biggest change is that I can sleep in a little if I want to. But you know, it was a wonderful experience. I’ve known Eddie Cottle since he was in grade school. He’s a kind and generous man. A reliable man. The Cottle’s are a second family to me.”

Q. Any advice for the younger generation?

A.”Live each day as it comes along, with kindness and care for other people. Help when you can. You’re not as close to neighbors as we were and that makes it harder to interact with them — though not in this neighborhood. I don’t think kids are brought up as we were. Not as disciplined. Maybe that’s just my old-fashioned ideas, but parents today believe in letting them go their own way.”

Q. Any thoughts about a new career?

A. [Laughs] “Well, Ashley here has asked me to be her gallery girl. [An Island artist, Ms. Medowski operates Saltwater Gallery on Lambert’s Cove Road.] I’m not sure I cotton to that … but I suppose, if we had some railings to help my walking, I could do it.”