There is a first time for everything. There was a time when Martha’s Vineyard’s gravel roads gave away to paved streets and gas streetlamps were replaced by electric lights. In the early 1900s, after centuries of horse-driven conveyances upon these same roads, the popularity of the automobile was a slow death knell for the soon to be outmoded means of transportation.
Eugene E. Kirby, a Foxboro native and businessman, is credited as the first individual to drive an automobile over the 20 miles of then unpaved road from Oak Bluffs to Gay Head, present-day Aquinnah.
Eugene ran one of the largest horse livery stables in New England in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th Century. Each summer he took 27 of his horses from his Foxboro livery aboard a Woods Hole ferry for the trip to Oak Bluffs where he operated a livery business for transportation by summer residents.
In 1915 he sold the livery enterprise and turned his attention to the then new automobile industry in Oak Bluffs. His automobile garage was located in the building on Oak Bluffs Avenue now occupied by the Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Company and Dreamland.
Eugene E. Kirby was born in Foxboro on December 25, 1865, the son of Jeremiah and Mary (McFarland) who were natives of Ireland. In November, 1888, Eugene married Ann C. Barton, a daughter of Andrew and Julia Barton, who were also natives of Ireland. Eugene and Ann became the parents of three children, Mildred, Eugene E. Kirby Jr., and Sumner B. Kirby.
Eugene E. Kirby belonged to several fraternal organizations, having membership with the Ancient Order of United Workmen, the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks, and the Loyal Order of Moose as well as with the Knights of Columbus. His religious faith was Catholic and he was a loyal and unfaltering member of the Democrat Party.
A June 16, 1917, letter to the editor, published in Foxboro’s local paper, provides insight into the character of Eugene.
“In these days of selfishness and trouble, it does one’s heart good to see a real charitable act performed. On Sunday last, after services at the Foxboro Catholic Church, many people stood on the Church steps waiting for a letup in the storm. Mr. Kirby, townsman and member of the church, was there with one of his machines. He kindly offered his services to see all reached home safely, making several trips to different parts of the town and refused utterly any reimbursement for his trouble.”
The familiar, cheerful, and portly man with white hair, who drove the first automobile from Oak Bluffs to Gay Head and provided decades of transportation to Martha’s Vineyard’s summer visitors, renewed his auto license every year for another half century. He surrendered his license at the age of 96. Eugene E. Kirby passed away on September 23, 1965, at the age of 99 years and nine months.
As time moves forward and generations live and die, there will always be innovations and inventions to better the quality of daily living. But the character traits of entrepreneurship and human kindness are shared by all who discover and live it.
William Milhomme, the former Massachusetts Archives Field Archivist and Deputy Historical Records Coordinator, is presently the Director of Volunteer Services for the Massachusetts Department of Correction. He lives in Foxborough.