Cuttyhunkers endure and embrace winter isolation

With assistance from the Coast Guard, The Times gets a glimpse into off-season life on an even smaller island.

Cuttyhunk School, built in 1873, is the only operating one-room schoolhouse in Massachusetts. — Photo by Michael Cummo

“Temperature is -2°,” Coast Guard Senior Chief Robert Riemer said, reading the wall-mounted monitor at the new Station Menemsha boathouse early Friday morning. As his three-man crew made final adjustments on their survival suits, Chief Riemer briefed them on their eight-mile trip northwest to Cuttyhunk, the southernmost island in the chain of Elizabeth Islands that make up the town of Gosnold.

Earlier in the week, Coast Guard icebreakers had opened the islet’s only harbor, but a return blast of Arctic air warranted another inspection. Other than two private airstrips that were covered deep in under-predicted snow, the harbor was the only supply line into Cuttyhunk, winter population 19.

Chief Riemer, who took command of Station Menemsha in July, also saw the trip as an opportunity to introduce himself to the Gosnold board of selectmen and Cuttyhunk townspeople, who were scheduled to gather at 10:30 am for a special town meeting.

There’s a longstanding connection between Station Menemsha and Cuttyhunk — Station Menemsha, the actual building, was originally Coast Guard Station Cuttyhunk, until it was moved by barge in 1954 to the promontory overlooking Menemsha Pond.

Before the 47-foot motor lifeboat (MLB) could shove off, mooring ropes that were frozen solid had to be bent off their cleats. This is the first year since 1970 that a Coast Guard icebreaker was needed to open up Menemsha Harbor, according to Menemsha Harbor Master Dennis Jason, who coincidentally was a young Coastie on that icebreaker. The MLB is a nautical workhorse that can operate in 50-knot winds and towering 30-foot seas, but the aluminum hull is not made for ice breaking.

After carefully navigating around bobbing ice floes the size of SUVs, Chief Riemer reached the open water and headed due east, donning a pair of goggles to keep his eyelashes from freezing together.

Cuttyhunk welcome
The Coast Guard crew was met at the dock by Cuttyhunk school teacher/principal Nancy Dunn, and the entire student body of Cuttyhunk School—fifth grader Carter Basnight Lynch, and his sister, fourth grader Gwen MacKay Lynch. Middle names are often used on Cuttyhunk to indicate island lineage, which in the case of Carter and Gwen, goes back six generations. Their mother, Lexi Lynch, drove the welcoming committee pickup truck. Lexi and her husband Duane run the Cuttyhunk Cafe on the dock during the summer. She also runs a fishing camp that can accommodate up to 29 people, while he also works as a fishing guide and a carpenter. “If this was July, I wouldn’t have time to stop and finish my sentence,” she said.

After Carter and Gwen’s tour of the MLB, their mom drove them, Ms. Dunn, and her Yorkipoo Toby, back to school. All roads inland from the harbor are uphill on this steeply sloped island. Golf carts, covered in deep snow, sat in most driveways. Ms. Dunn pointed out the monopoly known as the Cuttyhunk store. “You can pay $7 for a box of cereal in there,” she said. “You’d starve if you depended on it.” No food suppliers, stores, or restaurants are open after Columbus Day on Cuttyhunk.

“People here have big pantries,” Ms. Lynch said. “Electricity is very expensive, but you really need a second freezer too.”

Cuttyhunkers never leave the island without coolers and storage bins. “Fresh produce is what we are shopping for the most,” Ms. Dunn said. “We’re also always running out of wine and beer and candy.”

Farther up the hill, Ms. Lynch pointed out Soprano’s pizza, a backyard with three picnic tables, where a schoolteacher sells $30 pizzas during July and August. Across the street, the federal post office, no bigger than a garden shed, is operated by postmistress and island institution Janet Burke.

The last schoolhouse
Gosnold, the smallest of the 351 towns in Massachusetts, is connected to Martha’s Vineyard politically. The town is part of the County of Dukes County, and is subject to the permitting authority of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which will assess the town $8,053 in the next fiscal year. Cuttyhunk is the most populous of the nine islands in the Elizabeth chain.

The trees on Cuttyhunk were razed in the late 17th century by lumber interests that were particularly keen on the abundant sassafras trees, thought to remedy venereal disease. To this day, tall trees remain in short supply on the wind-whipped islet.

The Cuttyhunk School was built in 1873. It’s the last functioning one-room schoolhouse in Massachusetts.
“We’re the only school in New England that didn’t have a snow day this winter,” Ms. Dunn said.

“We didn’t miss during Hurricane Sandy either,” Carter said proudly.

Music teacher Denise Berson made her biweekly trip from Seekonk to give a flute lesson to Carter and a trumpet lesson to Gwen. Ms. Berson used to walk from the ferry to school, until a recent sighting of a gamboling coyote in the village made a ride to and from the ferry mandatory for Ms. Berson.

“Coyotes show up a lot more in town in the winter, when food is short.” Ms. Dunn said. Cuttyhunk has a robust coyote population. A few days prior, an anonymous resident shot a German Shepherd–size coyote and hung it from a tree next to the post office, presumably as a message to other coyotes.

Since Cuttyhunk school qualifies as a rural school, it has a robustly subsidized budget of $200,000. A federal technology grant affords Carter and Gwen a notebook computer and a tablet, which enables Ms. Dunn to teach technology and coding. The technology subsidy also covers the cost of field trips to America, including excursions to the White Mountains, Boston, Mount Wachusett, Worcester, and next month, to Gettysburg, Pa.

Ms. Dunn also teaches more traditional disciplines that include cursive writing, which is required on all spelling tests. To get a taste of a more typical public school, Carter and Gwen recently spent a day at Rochester Memorial Elementary School. It was Gwen’s first time on a school bus. “It was really loud and it smelled like rotten eggs, and I thought I was going to throw up in my mouth,” she said, laughing.

After Gwen matriculates in four years, the Cuttyhunk school will close. It won’t be the first time, but if current demographic trends continue, it may be the last for a very long time. Like the Vineyard, Cuttyhunk’s population is rapidly aging, and few younger people have the desire, or the means, to make a go of it year-round.

“There has been a steady population decline as the winter residents age,” Ms. Dunn said. “The long-range planning committee has been trying to come up with ways to make a more viable year-round community, but unfortunately it seems to be headed for a strictly summer community with a few caretakers out here in winter.” Ms. Dunn also said the lack of police enforcement during the winter can be an issue. “One person can ruin the peace and tranquility of many others. Unfortunately that was the case this winter, and it has been an island problem more than once in the past,” she said.

Speedy special meeting
The Cuttyhunk special town meeting was held in town hall, next to the town library, and across the street from the town church. The spire of this house of worship is capped not with a cross, but with a striped bass weathervane, a visible reminder of the island’s reputation as a famed fishing spot and of the 19th century Cuttyhunk Bass Club that attracted wealthy fishermen of the era.

The three selectmen, two from Cuttyhunk and one from Naushon, the town meeting moderator, and the majority of town officials came from off-Island, so business had to be concluded in time for the 2:30 pm trip back to New Bedford. Time turned out not to be an issue. The special town meeting, moderated by seasonal resident Leo Roy, was completed in less than two minutes, after selectmen voted unanimously to pay $1,532.32, an assortment of town utility bills.

After he was recognized by the chairman Gail Blout, Chief Riemer addressed the assembled citizens. “You’re part of the area we cover, and we take that responsibility very seriously,” he said. “If there’s anything you need, or any way we can help, we’ll always do what we can.” The selectmen praised the Coast Guard for the ice breaking that opened the harbor earlier in the week, and unanimously hoped it wouldn’t be necessary again this winter.

Cuttyhunk Police Chief George Isabel, the island’s only police officer and its harbormaster, had traveled from his winter home in Fort Myers, Fla., to attend the meeting. The conspicuously tanned constable asked the selectmen to consider a bylaw that would add $300 to the $50 state fine for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana. “We can’t have people sitting around the harbor smoking weed,” he said. “It’s not a free ride.” Mr. Isabel likened the fine to an open-container law, and said he’d heard that Chilmark was looking into a similar action. Selectmen took no action.

Over the course of the meeting, town officials discussed issues that may ring familiar to a Vineyarder — wastewater management,  affordable housing, the needs of an aging population, and the need for a robust generation to follow them. The drastic drop-off in the striped bass last fishing season came up after the meeting. “My biggest fish was 22 pounds last year,” Mr. Isabel, also a fishing guide with 40 years experience, said. “I’ve never seen it so bad.”

Dr. Seymour DiMare, a retired surgeon and island eminence grise, sought out The Times to say how grateful he is to Aquinnah resident Hugh Taylor. “By letting us have an antenna on the Outermost Inn, he gave Wi-Fi to Cuttyhunk,” Dr. DiMare said. “This is an enormous help to our school, and to emergency services and to boaters.”

Also the town historian, Dr. DiMare spoke with passion about Cuttyhunk’s unsung role in American history. “Bartholomew Gosnold was the first entrepreneur in this country,” he said. “He risked his own money, not the Crown’s, on harvesting sassafrass from Cuttyhunk, and he prospered. The spirit of entrepreneurship, which is the bedrock of this country, was born on Cuttyhunk in 1602.”

After the hullabaloo died down, Cuttyhunkers went back to their routines. For Ms. Dunn it meant teaching, playing her saxophone, photographing the island, and “dining around,” breaking bread with fellow villagers. She also had to get her golf cart out of a snowbank. The night before, she tried to make it home in a blinding snowstorm, using the flashlight app on her iPhone for a headlight. “I got stuck in the snow, and I couldn’t let go of Toby because there are coyotes all over the place,” she said in an email to The Times. “It’s sometimes like Survivor out here, without the cameras and the warm weather.

After the ferry left for New Bedford on Friday, the year-round Cuttyhunk population was down to 12.