Old-fashioned name, strong traditions in modern times
Seventy-five years ago, a small group of strong, active Oak Bluffs women gathered together to form the Ogkeshkuppe Homemakers Club. Ogkeshkuppe, the Wampanoag name for Oak Bluffs, means, "wet or damp thicket or woods." The group's members have included a postmaster, a schoolteacher, a bank president, a guidance counselor, and many other influential community leaders on the Island. They have persevered through most of the 20th century and continue to flourish with the active involvement of strong, energetic women of all ages.
It was 1932, and the Homemakers, many of whom had full-time jobs, put emphasis on having a great time while serving their community.
"In going through the old secretary records, I noticed how much they laughed," said Barbara Murphy, a second generation Homemaker. "They always referred to how much fun they had together." Meetings, held every two weeks, usually started at 8 pm and could last as late as midnight. Each member donated ten cents per meeting, and the host supplied snacks to keep the energetic members going. Ms. Murphy and her sister, Anne Cummings, recalled how they would try to eavesdrop on the meetings hosted by their mother, Mary Thomas, who was a homemaker for 67 years. The next day at school, they would then be able to tell the other children of Homemakers what happened, in what type of food the ladies indulged, and what was discussed. Mary McCarthy, another second generation Homemaker, said, "I mostly remember a lot of laughter coming from downstairs. And they had great leftovers."
Generally, the women discussed politics and local events, planned and organized upcoming bake sales and other fundraisers, determined who in the community needed help and what type, and had outsiders come in to educate the group on many subjects. "They were so friendly," said Mabel McCarthy, a member for over 60 years. "We did things; we had people come in to talk. We didn't just sit around. We actually got things done."
The Homemakers' first major target population was children. "In the early years during the thick of the Depression, the Homemakers supplied milk, cod liver oil, and orange juice to the school children of Oak Bluffs," wrote Ms. Cummings, who is the current Homemakers president, in a brief history of the group. She also indicated that the club petitioned for a lifeguard and summer playground, as well as for better movies with lower rates for the children. They were very successful in these endeavors and they have maintained a focus that includes local youth in their projects throughout the life of the club. For the group's first 50 years, the Homemakers concentrated on giving to the town of Oak Bluffs, but now the emphasis is on helping the entire Island community.
Hildreth. Photo courtesy of the Homemakers Club. Click photo for larger version.
Today and tomorrow
These days, the Homemakers meet in the afternoon to accommodate the still active members who have been involved for over 60 years. The mandatory ten-cent donation is now gone, but the two key principles of raising money to better the Island community and individual knowledge for social responsibility remain at the heart of the group. Discussion subjects have included music, local and national politics, safety, and the history of Oak Bluffs. Or, as Ms. Cummings discovered in a secretary's report from the 1950s, "Discussions on community, state, national and international issues covering every phase of life - no subject too vast or too minute for this sage group."
In 1976, the club decided to take an enormous risk and republish Henry Franklin Norton's book, "Martha's Vineyard, History and Legends." Mr. Norton had died and the book had no copyright. With this huge undertaking and no guaranteed results, the Homemakers went into debt with the hope of making a profit to be given back to the community.
"It was an Island book, and very well done. We couldn't pass up the opportunity," said Ms. McCarthy. And an opportunity it was. The book was a great success, and has consequently gone through many printings and can still be bought at Island bookstores. According to Ms. Murphy, Estelle Surprenant, who at the spry age of 90 is a long-time Homemaker, can still be seen picking up the books from dross's Printing and transporting them to the Bunch of Grapes bookstore on her own.
"They were and still are a group of very active women," said Ms. Murphy.
The sales from the book have provided the club with a much larger budget than it ever had before. Gone are the days of member contributions, bake sales, and small-scale fundraisers. The Homemakers now support Martha's Vineyard Hospice, the Martha's Vineyard Museum, the Food Pantry, the Vineyard Nursing Association, the Red Stocking Fund, and other organizations. They also provide assistance to many Island individuals and families that need help.
The female descendents of the original Homemakers are keeping up their mothers' legacies of lending their charity, good will, and dedication to the Island of Martha's Vineyard. The women are not only dedicated to the Island, but to each other and the group itself. "We've really enjoyed the club. We had a lot in common and we've kept active," said Ms. McCarthy.
Alice Coutinho, a beloved member of the club who passed away in February of 2007, had attended the January 2007 meeting. The current members believe that the tradition of community service and personal knowledge among the Island women will continue for many more years. "It's really an institution," said Ms. Cummings. "So I think it will last a long time."
If you are interested in becoming a Homemaker or would like to purchase a copy of Henry Franklin Norton's book, email Barbara Murphy at email@example.com.
Michelle Nepton is a contributing writer to The Times.