Edgartown's secret wild side
Elizabeth Villard likes her Vineyard history mixed with a healthy dose of drama. That's why the long-time Island resident, historian, and former theater professor decided to create her own walking tour of Edgartown more than 15 years ago.
This Saturday, Dec. 13, as part of the Christmas in Edgartown festivities, people can experience Ms. Villard's "Bah Humbug Ghosts, Gossip & Downright Scandal," an offbeat exploration of Edgartown's historic district. At 11 am, she will guide participants on a one-hour walk that could change the way they look at the staid and pristine-seeming Edgartown.
Starting at The Pease House at the Martha's Vineyard Museum on School Street, Ms. Villard will introduce her tour-goers to noteworthy sights on Cooke, South Summer, South Water, Winter and Main streets, ending at The Whaling Church. Along the way, they'll learn what should prove to be surprising facts about the history of Christmas on the Vineyard: what the traditional holiday colors really are and why; all about Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors; religious persecution on our Island; and about the branding of "witches."
Photo by Sam Decker
"I love history, and became especially interested in the history of women on the Vineyard," Ms. Villard says. "It turns out that during the mid-17th century, if women owned property on Martha's Vineyard they would be accused of witchcraft. That's why two women in that era transferred more property than any others in history. One woman's husband left her quite a bit of land that she transferred to her son to avoid scandal."
Ms. Villard, a Chappaquiddick resident, combines her love of drama with a mastery of Island lore. "The tour is two-thirds theater," she admits. "History is killed in most schools. I try to use the tour to make history come alive. I want people to understand that our past is all about real people, ordinary people. Above all, I want to make it fun to learn."
In 1992, Ms. Villard shared her concept of starting a walking tour business in Edgartown with a friend. She believed it would be a great way to commemorate Martha's Vineyard's 350th anniversary. Her friend replied vehemently, "People don't want history. They want ghosts, gossip, and downright scandal!" An idea was born.
Gathering Island history, according to Ms. Villard, is a combination of "slogging through primary sources" at the Martha's Vineyard Museum and reading books published on the subject. She enjoys tossing out fascinating tidbits about people who once made their home here. In the mid-19th century, for example, a woman whose husband made his living at sea had been gone for three years when she gave birth to his baby. When questioned by the deacon of her church, the woman offered this creative explanation: although she hadn't seen her husband in years, she'd heard from him every six moths and the baby just came.
Photo by Ralph Stewart
Although Ms. Villard says that her "Bah Humbug" tour may captivate very precocious children, the outing is designed more for adult interests and cautions parents against bringing the family. "Even though the name mentions ghosts, the tour is not scary and is not primarily a ghost tour," she says. "It's fun, light, and informative. When people's cell phones ring during the hour they typically don't answer them. I take that as a compliment - they're really with me."
Although Ms. Villard points out that the tour doesn't focus heavily on ghosts, she can't resist mentioning those who reportedly haunted Edgartown's Victorian Inn in the past. According to legend, a guest at the inn was awakened some 20 years ago by a hand, as the victim allegedly put it, "tweaking her bosom." When she objected, the male visitor walked out on the balcony to join a group of fellow officers. "This has gone far enough!" the woman exclaimed, at which point all of her uninvited callers disappeared.
While the previous owner of The Victorian Inn claimed to have a significant problem with unexplained phenomena, the current owner "pooh-poohs the notion," Ms. Villard reports. Then, in a mischievous tone, she mentions that she'll divulge her theory about the male visitor's identity during the Saturday walking tour.
Ms. Villard's passion for history, boating, and Martha's Vineyard has led her in unexpected directions. She acquired her commercial driver's license and has worked as Vineyard tour bus driver. And, somehow, she ended up earning her U.S. Coast Guard Captain's license. She now spends part-time as a winter deckhand and summer captain on the Chappy ferry. A former resident of New York City, Ms. Villard began summering on Martha's Vineyard in 1949. A single parent, she decided to try one winter on the Vineyard in 1990 and has been here ever since.
And, while she is still active in professional theater as a writer, director, and lighting designer, she says she feels incredibly fortunate to have found a way to combine all of her interests in her work on Martha's Vineyard.
And, although she recounts that Thomas Mayhew bought Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Elizabeth Islands for just 40 pounds and a beaver hat, it's obvious that Ms. Villard treasures her life on Martha's Vineyard as well as her opportunity to share her love of its extraordinary history with anyone willing to walk the walk with her.
Bah Humbug Ghosts Gossip & Downright Scandal walking tour, 11 am, Saturday, Dec. 13, at The Pease House at the Martha's Vineyard Museum on School Street. $12; children under 12 are free (parental discretion is advised). For more information, call 508-627-2529.
Karla Araujo divides her time between the Vineyard and Washington, D.C., and is a regular contributor to The Martha's Vineyard Times.