Raising the rafters
Standing inside the West Tisbury Agricultural Hall, it is always impressive to look up. The intricate interdependence of the broad wooden rafters and the columns and beams that support them remind one of the collaborative effort of many Islanders to assemble the handsome barn. Built 15 years ago as a community barn-raising project, the barn seems an even greater success when the hall is brimming with people, as was the case Saturday night at the 15th annual Barn Raisers' Ball.
"The mood that first year was similar to the post-election mood of this year's ball," said Abigail Higgins, who has been on the Ag Society's board of trustees for over 30 years. And Jeremy Berlin, keyboard player for Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish who provided the music, added, "I expected this kind of euphoria. I think people are still celebrating." Referring to their set, he hinted at an emerging genre of music: "Barack and roll."
Hosted by the Agricultural Society, the ball celebrates not only the building, but also those who volunteered their energy, time, and skill, to its construction.
Photo by Susan Safford
"It's sort of like a town party in a lot of ways," said Ms. Higgins. "A lot was done with free labor and it went off without a hitch. People were so exhilarated by it. I've always wanted to keep a little bit of that going."
Based on Saturday night's elated crowd, the sense of camaraderie among community members that was so integral to the building's inception, has grown significantly as a result of its existence.
In ever-shifting combinations, flushed-faced children, clutching their last crumbling bites of desserts, burrowed through the packed hall. Their parents and grandparents danced and held reunions with friends and neighbors. The excitement that pervaded the crowd, reminiscent of the first Barn Raisers' Ball, was attributed by some to be in celebration of the 2008 presidential election.
Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish, who with only one exception have performed at every Barn Raisers' Ball, seemed to capture the enthusiasm of the gathering, and played as if they were having as much fun as the crowd. Emblematic of the night's rare energy, the band performed with two drummers, who pounded out nearly identical rhythms on full drum kits arranged side by side.
"The first Barn Raisers' Ball took place in the sand," remembers Ms. Higgins, referring to a perimeter foundation of sand that surrounded the still unfinished structure. "Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish were still finding sand in their instruments a year later." Ms. Higgins also recalls extension cords running everywhere to power the makeshift light fixtures set up for the occasion.
After much deliberation and planning, the Agricultural Hall was raised in about four days - the last weekend in October and the first weekend in November of 1994. A few days later, the Ag Society threw a party.
Many of the people who attended the first ball attended this past Saturday night's 15th edition.
Paul Garcia, owner of Garcia's Deli, was passionate not only about event, but also about the building it celebrated. "It's one of the best nights of the year in any of the towns," he shouted over the din of the crowd. "This is our community center. Now we just need to push back the noise curfew to 1 am."
Former West Tisbury resident Sam Greene, who now lives in Carver, stood at the edge of the dance floor, talking animatedly with her daughter, Eliza, a senior at the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School. Ms. Greene planned her Island visit with the ball. "I had the weekend free and it's a great way to see everyone I haven't seen in a while - it makes me miss the Vineyard," she said, smiling.
The desserts brought by guests outlasted the keg of beer provided by the Agricultural Society. "We were not trying to fill up anyone's tank," said Ms. Higgins, underscoring the Society's challenge to create an environment that is fun, but also safe. "It's very much a trust sort of situation," she added.
There were noticeably more children than in past years. This, according to Ms. Higgins, was a good thing. It prompted her to consider offering discounted lifetime Ag Society memberships to children under a certain age in order to encourage early involvement.
Said Ms. Higgins, "It's really time for the younger generation to take the society in a new direction or to appreciate it in their own way so that the same kind of feeling will continue to live on."