In Print

"Country Editor: Henry Beetle Hough and the Vineyard Gazette," by Phyllis Méras

A charming biography of a Vineyard icon

By Dan Cabot - August 24, 2006

Phyllis Méras, "Country Editor: Henry Beetle Hough and the Vineyard Gazette." Illustrated with dozens of family and archival photographs. Images from the Past, Inc., 2006. Hardcover, 205 pages, including index and afterword by Richard Johnson. $35.

Phyllis Méras has written a thoroughly researched and readable biography of a man so important in the history of Martha's Vineyard in the 20th century as to be inseparable from it.

In 1920, newlyweds Henry Beetle Hough and Betty Bowie Hough took over the Vineyard Gazette, a wedding present from Henry's father. It had then a circulation of 600. During the next 45 years they together built the little country newspaper into a weekly with a national reputation for excellence. At the time of Betty's death in 1965, one Long Island editor called the Gazette "not just one of the nation's great weeklies, but one of the nation's great newspapers."

Henry and Betty Hough in a classic shot by Alfred Eisenstadt, posing at a Gazette office window. Photo copyright Alfred Eisenstadt reprinted from
Henry and Betty Hough in a classic shot by Alfred Eisenstadt, posing at a Gazette office window. Photo copyright Alfred Eisenstadt reprinted from "Country Editor."

If Ms. Méras's book were only about the Gazette, she would have included Elizabeth Bowie Hough in the title. They were a team. The biography credits Betty Hough for at least half of the Gazette's success. While Henry wrote the editorials, it was usually Betty who ran and edited the paper, especially in the early years, when much of Henry's time was spent selling ads and tending to the presses, and later on when he spent most mornings at home writing books - eventually 27 in all. Henry's second and most successful book, "Country Editor," went through several printings and was an inspiration to dozens, perhaps hundreds, of future news writers and editors.

Ms. Méras, a former managing editor of the Gazette and currently its contributing editor, tells the story of Henry's and Betty's newspaper in a series of anecdotes that touch on the important (or at least newsworthy) events: a murder in East Chop, World War II, hurricanes, the steamship wars, Ted Kennedy's Chappaquiddick tragedy. She also reports eyewitness and insider accounts of the Gazette during the Hough years: the memorable crew that first came to work for the little paper, a disastrous fire, new technologies, Betty's sharp tongue and eventual illness, and the sale of the paper to James and Sally Reston in 1968.

Henry Beetle Hough died on June 7, 1985. A newspaperman to the end, he died on a Thursday - in time to make the Friday Gazette.

The Hough family gathered on a summer day in North Tisbury during the 1890s. Photo courtesy of the Vineyard Gazette reprinted from
The Hough family gathered on a summer day in North Tisbury during the 1890s. Photo courtesy of the Vineyard Gazette reprinted from "Country Editor."

The voice of conservationism

However, the book is not only about the Gazette. On Martha's Vineyard, Henry Beetle Hough will be remembered as a conservationist even more than as a country editor. Coming in boyhood to his father's summer estate near Cedar Tree Neck, Henry fell in love with the rural Vineyard of the very early 20th century, an edenic place of farms and fishery, with remote beaches, woods, meadows, hills, and dusty dirt roads. All his life he fought a rearguard action to preserve that Martha's Vineyard.

Ms. Méras chronicles his fight in all its triumphs, failures, and (sometimes) silliness. Henry's response to almost any proposed change in the Vineyard landscape was an automatic no. He took on McDonald's restaurants when a local version was planned for Beach Road (where Winds Up is today). He fought against widening roads, paving roads, and straightening roads to make them safer. He and Betty were especially opposed to cutting trees - almost any trees. More importantly, he fought developers who threatened to cut up the Vineyard into house lots and wipe out old family estates and farms.

Henry Beetle Hough and his wife, Betty Bowie Hough, in the Gazette newsroom. Photo courtesy of the Vineyard Gazette reprinted from
Henry Beetle Hough and his wife, Betty Bowie Hough, in the Gazette newsroom. Photo courtesy of the Vineyard Gazette reprinted from "Country Editor."

Henry lost a number of his conservation battles, and Ms. Méras begins her book with his biggest disappointment, the defeat of Senator Kennedy's Nantucket Sound Island Trust. However, Henry's victories are an important part of what Martha's Vineyard is today. With some of his own money (he never made very much), some of his own land, and chiefly his powers of persuasion in Gazette editorials and in person-to-person politics, he managed to save a significant portion of the rural Vineyard he knew as a boy, including more than 2,000 acres held by Sheriff's Meadow Foundation, the conservation trust he began. In an afterword to Ms. Méras's book, Sheriff's Meadow executive director Richard Johnson writes that 20,000 acres, roughly one-third of the Island, is permanently protected public and private conservation land. More than any other individual, Henry Beetle Hough is responsible for those protections being in place today.