Just about 50 years ago the Vineyard experienced what could be best described as a bubble. For decades the Island’s population was relatively stable. In 1970, 6,000 people lived here. By 1974, it had swelled by more than a third to over 8,000.
This was largely due to an influx of some 2,000 free-spirited 20somethings seeking a refuge on a tranquil Island from turbulent times on the mainland. And since many of these young people were living off the grid, and uncountable, the influx was likely even greater.
The Island was a pretty conservative, albeit open-minded, place in those days, and this invasion made for an interesting cocktail of young and old, liberals and conservatives.
In the following months we’ll be taking a look at life back in those early days, particularly through the eyes of a group we call “the Settlers.” These were not settlers in the way we think about the Wampanoags — we consider the tribe to be the Vineyard’s original native population. Nor were they settlers in the sense of ancestral families like the Mayhews, the Tiltons, or the Vincents, but rather young people who came here 50 years ago, who influenced life on the Vineyard over the years, and who today make up the backbone of our Island.
People like Toni and Richard Cohen, and Peggy and Bob Schwier.
In 1972, Richard Cohen had just gotten out of grad school at B.U. after having received his undergraduate degree at Penn and spending a hitch in the Navy. “I looked around for a job, but I didn’t find the kind of job I thought I deserved,” Richard joked during a recent Saturday night conversation.
“I remember seeing a bedraggled hawker selling the Boston Phoenix on the Common back in 1972,” Toni Cohen said. “There was an ad looking for a married couple to be house parents at the M.V. Youth Hostel. ‘Busy summers, quiet winters, modest salary.’”
Richard and Toni Cohen, who’d married in 1967, were in their early 20s and had never been to the Vineyard, but they decided to take a look.
“The salary was $250 a month,” Toni said. “We held out for $300 — but the lodging was free. That’s how we ended up here.”
Peggy Schwier, née Koski, grew up in Fitchburg with her friend Jill Bouck, née Drinkwine. Jill’s parents had a house in Oak Bluffs. Peggy didn’t know anything about the Vineyard, but came down to visit Jill during her junior year of high school. Jill, wearing an eagle feather in her braided hair, met Peggy at the ferry. “I felt like I was in Sgt. Pepper land,” Peggy said. She would move to the Island for good in 1972 after graduating from MassArt.
Bob Schwier was from Detroit, and graduated from Western Michigan University in 1971. He bounced around a bit after school, but remembers offering a ride to a hitchhiker in the Florida Keys — the guy had a rhesus monkey on his shoulder — who offered Bob a place to stay in the Keys and a job raising shrimp. Which didn’t set him up immediately for a move to Martha’s Vineyard, but gives you an idea of the kind of people and places Bob was drawn to. A few months later an old girlfriend of Bob’s convinced him to move up to the Vineyard, where she had a job working at the hospital.
For the most part, life at the hostel agreed with Toni and Richard. They had their winters to themselves, and even during the summer they got some privacy, because everyone had to be out during the day. “At 9 am, speakers would blast ‘Hit the Road, Jack,’” Richard said, “and people couldn’t come back until 5.”
And while many of the Cohen’s generation could be categorized as counterculture at the time, as managers of the Hostel, Richard and Toni were welcomed as part of the community, part of the establishment. What is now the Edgartown Yacht Club Christmas party was held at the Hostel during those years. After 12 years, Richard and Toni would get a mortgage for their first house from Bill Honey, the legendary president of Martha’s Vineyard National Bank — the deal was sealed with a handshake.
Peggy and Bob were perhaps more typical of the influx of young people on the Island. For years, Peggy rented a variety of rooms around the Island, always with roomates. “You could always find someplace to stay,” Peggy said, and while never cheap, “the cost of the rooms was nothing like it is today.” And to earn money, she worked at a variety of jobs: at the A&P, at a jewelry shop and a women’s clothing store, painting houses. For many years she worked for Everett Poole at the Menemsha Fish Market. Bob mainly made ends meet by pounding nails and painting houses.
Bob said he went up to the Fish Market around 1979 and first saw Peggy working behind the counter. He asked her out on a date … a bouquet of flowers, the works. He later confided in Toni, who knew both Bob and Peggy, “I’m not sure if she’s my type.”
“I’ll remind you of this on your wedding day,” Toni said.
Peggy and Bob were married in 1983.
“Back in the early seventies we were told, ‘You’ll never find a place to live unless you’re married,’” Bob said, “and if you tell people you are and you’re not, they’ll find out.’”
Life back in the day
Sitting around Toni and Richard’s living room, the Cohens and the Schwiers did a bit of free association on what life was like back when they first arrived.
“In the winter of ’72,” Toni said, “there was a movie theater over the town hall in Edgartown. The next winter it was gone, and I went crazy. Someone told me I should knit.”
“Remember the Divine Light Mission?” Richard asked. “There were so many people our age who got involved with the 14-year-old guru, Maharaji Ji.”
“Mostly the stuff we did was homegrown,” Peggy said. She described the Beer Hunt that was held out at the Spaulding’s place at Tiah’s Cove in West Tisbury. It was sort of like an Easter egg hunt but with, well … beer. The late Jimmy Hoe would hide beers in the woods and as Peggy said, “Lots of yucks.”
“How about the horse race?” Toni asked.
For several years in the early ’70s, on the first Saturday after Thanksgiving, a horse race was held at John and Cappy Hall’s farm in West Tisbury. Local horses, local riders, everyone was there. After a few years it got to be a bit too much of an insurance risk, and it was moved to Scrubby Neck, where a group tried to actually organize the event, but it never really caught on after that.
“Or the Columbus Day Crunch,” Richard said. “It was a demo-derby. Hughie Taylor organized it out by the Outermost Inn.”
“They had all these terminally hip car names — I just remember Toxic Shock,” Peggy said. “Jackie Clason was such a good driver.”
“Speaking of Hughie,” Bob said, “he had Dogfish Bar out at Lobsterville.” Dogfish Bar was a tiki bar back in the dunes that was run strictly on the sly. “I think I went to a wedding out there once,” Bob said. “There was a piano that was out in the elements all summer long, and on the last night it was open, they would drag the piano into the fire and had a huge bonfire.”
Peggy and Toni recalled the Vineyard Dance Co. Both being dancers, it’s how they got to know one another; it was one of the few social events at the time. “There were a lot of young women in leotards,” said Toni. “And as a result, a lot of men would come to the performances. It was winter.”
Hitchhiking was more than a means of transportation in those days — it could be a form of entertainment. Peggy said, “A lot of people didn’t have a car; everybody hitched. I got picked up by Jimmy Dean, the pork sausage guy, one time. He had white loafers and a white belt. I remember getting picked up by [the legendary] Craig Kingsbury. He drove so slow, it took about an hour to get down-Island from Gay Head. And I met someone else who had grown up on Nomans [Island] in the old days. There was a wealth of old people and old knowledge given on slow rides down-Island.”
And even 50 years ago, there was fake news. “I remember I was working at the West Tisbury library,” Toni said. “Nancy Whiting was the librarian, and Polly Murphy wrote the West Tisbury town column. The running joke was that nothing ever happened in town, so Nancy and Polly invented an imaginary family, the Smyths, whose lives were much grander than anyone else’s, and they were always off doing fabulous things.” People lived vicariously through the Smyths.
When worlds collide
So make no mistake, what happened to the Vineyard in the ’70s was nothing short of an invasion. We were curious to find out how all the respective parties, old-time Islanders and thousands of young people got along.
Dave and Doug Seward grew up in Menemsha and were right out of college in the early ’70s. Their parents ran the Menemsha Post Office and what is now the Menemsha Market, plus they were part-time cops during the summer, so they grew up knowing just about everyone.
“There were a lot of hippies in those days,” Dave said. “They were living out in the woods, in abandoned buildings everywhere. Chilmark was a very conservative town back then. There was a huge ‘I like Ike’ canvas painting hanging on the Bliss Pond Farm windmill that you could see from everywhere. But the thing is they [the hippies] were accepted, they weren’t a problem.”
People seemed to be more understanding in those days. Dave and Doug were involved in a little squatting themselves. They discovered an old foundation out in the Chilmark woods when they were growing up. They built a shack out of old building materials and used it to camp out. One day they got a call from the woman who owned the land where the foundation was located. They immediately panicked, knowing they shouldn’t have have been on her land, and offered to take the shack down.
This is where the understanding part comes in. “No, no,” the woman said, “I have a proposition for you. Do you each have a $20 bill?”
“We said we did,” Doug said, “and she gave us a quit-claim deed for one quarter-acre for 40 bucks. We were 15 years old at the time.”
The times they were a-changin’
Looking back over the years, I asked the Cohens and the Schwiers, what were the biggest changes they saw? Everyone agreed: The sheer volume of people here today is the big thing.
“Even in August you could go down Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs,” Peggy said, “and it’s astounding how little traffic there was. And so many fewer houses. The houses pretty much stopped after the cemetery across from Barnes’ [moving company] on State Road.”
That and the money — or at least the display of wealth. “Back when we first came,” Bob said, “you had some very wealthy people summering on the Island, but they drove old Island cars, didn’t dress up, and probably lived in a little box out at Quansoo.” Today — well, just look around.
“You know,” said Toni, “there’s always going to be change here. Every few years people say, oh, the Island is going to be ruined … the jets came … the Clintons came … then we got discovered by Hollywood …”
“And yet,” said Peggy, “when my clients come here for the first time from off-Island, they’re blown away by how beautiful it is here. They’re still attracted to the same things that brought us here — I needed to be around natural beauty to find my creativity.”
“We saw so much of the world that was out of balance,” said Bob, “It was more important for for us to stay here and find something we liked to do than to go off-Island and ‘be directed.’”
So where do we go from here?
Where does this all leave us? What’s the future hold? You could argue that Toni, Richard, Peggy, and Bob all came here for the right reasons. They came at a time when housing was available, rents were affordable, and if you wanted to work, you could earn a living. They were drawn to the Island, cared about it, and then found ways to earn a living to stay around.
As Bob said, “It’s not like I thought I’d be painting houses for the rest of my life.” Today he’s a painting contractor. Peggy has a landscaping company. Richard is a former real estate broker, and Toni worked in social services, and now teaches Pilates. The Cohens’ daughter, Amanda, and her husband, Times reporter Rich Saltzberg, and daughter Electra, have moved back to the Island.
For 20somethings today, living on the Vineyard can prove far more challenging. Affordable housing alone can make living here prohibitive. But like the Cohens, the Schwiers and so many others, when the Island casts its spell, it’s hard to resist.
And those who choose to give it a try, for the most part, are also doing it for the right reasons. They’re here because their heart is here. And when you follow your heart, good things happen.
Are you a Settler? Did you arrive between 1967 and 1987, and mostly stuck around to grow older here? We’d love to hear your story and see your pictures. Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org and put “Settlers” in the subject line.
Having worked at the Poole’s Fish Market for most of the ’70s, Peggy saw firsthand how our natural resources have been stressed over the years. “Back before we had the 200-mile offshore limit, there was just a 12-mile limit,” Peggy said. “You could look out from Menemsha at night and see the lights from the Russian factory boats. They cleaned out our fish stocks.
“When I first started working up there,” she said, “I was filleting lots of cod. But as time went by, we began dealing with all sorts of underutilized species like tilefish, monkfish, dogfish, and conch.
“The crews from German, Japanese, and Russian ships would come in and buy stuff like placemats of Martha’s Vineyard to take back home. It was the one chance they had to be here.”