Hard times on Martha's Vineyard - well, it's happened before
At his inaugural, President Barack Obama called 2009 "the winter of our hardship," but experts disagree about what the recession begun in 2008 will mean for 2009 and 2010. Optimists predict a recovery beginning as early as this fall, while pessimists warn of a long-lasting economic collapse as severe as the Great Depression of the 1930s - widespread business failures and unemployment nearing 25 percent nationally. Although Vineyarders joke about the Island's separation from the mainland, it is certain that in the 21st century, whatever happens to the economy in the rest of North America will have consequences here.
Just as the nation has successfully faced "gathering clouds and raging storms," the people of Martha's Vineyard have survived hard times throughout their history.
Photos courtesy of more Vineyard Voices
In the American Revolution, Martha's Vineyard was technically neutral. Although there were many on Martha's Vineyard who were sympathetic to the movement for independence, and a number who went to the mainland to fight in the Continental Army, the British controlled the seas, and the revolutionary leadership regretfully told Vineyarders that the Island could not be defended. In 1778, a raid led by Major General Charles Grey stripped the Island of almost all provisions, including 300 oxen and 10,000 sheep.
In "Martha's Vineyard" (1923), Henry Franklin Norton quotes Joseph Otis of Falmouth: "They caryed off and Destroyed all the corn and Roots two miles round Homses Hole Harbour; Dug up the Ground everywhere to search for goods the people hid: even so Curious were they in searching as to Disturb the ashes of the dead. Many houses were all Riffled and their Windows were all broke."
Because the Vineyard was neutral, the British were supposed to pay for what they took, but they left only IOUs, which Vineyarders struggled in vain to collect. According to Charles Banks's "History of Martha's Vineyard," the following winter was the most severe on record, with snow up to the second story windows and ice so thick that not even shellfish could be harvested. Islanders suffered terribly.
Tisbury historian Jim Norton told The Martha's Vineyard Times in a telephone interview that what saved the Vineyard that winter was the wreck of a ship off Gay Head. Provisions salvaged from the wreck sustained many through the winter of 1778-9, according to Mr. Norton. The Vineyarders survived.
Year without a summer
In 1815 the volcano Tambora, on Sumbawa Island in Indonesia, exploded. The cloud of materials expelled darkened the atmosphere for many months and created global climate anomalies. The year 1816 became known as the "year without a summer" because of the effect on North American and European weather. Agricultural crops failed and livestock died in much of the Northern Hemisphere, resulting in the worst famine of the 19th century. In New England, 1816 was dubbed "eighteen-hundred-and-froze-to-death."
A search by Martha's Vineyard Museum assistant librarian Linda Wilson did not turn up a diary from 1816, but she found a copy of a weather record by an unnamed Nantucketer: "1816. Frost every month this year. June 7, 22 degrees. June 16, froze water in pails. July 4, 16 degrees. August 17, 38 degrees. September 12, 32 degrees." Although it is surely an exaggeration, the account ends with the chilling phrase, "All vegetation on the island destroyed." Martha's Vineyard must have had similar weather.
A diary by Joshua Allen of the Vineyard, which begins in 1817, recorded January 19: "as cold a day as ever was known. Much frozen in cellars." The effects of Tambora's dust cloud apparently still continued into that spring. Mr. Allen recorded "an abundance of snow" on April 1, and the next day commented, "Very backward spring. Scarcely any ploughing done yet." By May 20, he bemoaned, "Corn comes up very miserably in consequence of the seed being poor."
But the entries for 1818 show that it appears to have been a normal year. The Vineyarders survived.
There were a series of financial panics throughout the 19th century (1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, and 1893). A panic occurs when public confidence in financial institutions abruptly disappears, causing so many depositors to demand their money that banks fail, businesses close, and there is high unemployment. The most serious was the Panic of 1893, which many historians consider a depression. Unemployment exceeded 10 percent for more than a decade.
However, for most of the 19th century, the Vineyard was an isolated and self-sufficient fishing and farming community. There were economic hard times, as there had been in the century before, but they do not seem to have stemmed from troubles in financial institutions in New York or Boston.
The decline of the whaling industry, a source of great wealth on the Vineyard, was definitely bad news, but it occurred gradually over many decades. As whales slowly became scarcer, and coal oil and then petroleum replaced whale oil, whalemen and investors had time to turn to other things.
Even in the last decades of the century, when the Vineyard economy began to include tourism, downturns on the mainland were not catastrophes here. There was a panic in the 1890s, but it was not a run on the banks. It was fear of fire. A mysterious arsonist was setting fire to the new hotels catering to the tourist trade. In his book "Martha's Vineyard: Summer Resort" Henry Beetle Hough reports that one of the fires was set by the hotel owner himself, hoping to collect the insurance and build a bigger one. The real firebug was eventually caught.
Mr. Hough, in the same book, reports on the business failure of the railway which ran between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown in the 1880s. The failure was not caused by mainland economics but by storms that washed out the tracks along the Oak Bluffs-Edgartown beach one winter and the brand-new tracks to Katama in the next.
The Great Depression
Linsey Lee, oral historian at the Martha's Vineyard Museum, has collected dozens of interviews from folks who lived through the Great Depression in the 1930s. Some of them are published in her books, "Vineyard Voices" and "More Vineyard Voices," and can be found in the Museum's oral history archives.
By 1929, the Vineyard economy was much more connected to the mainland than in the previous century, and the Great Depression was felt strongly here. Anne Cronig of Tisbury remembered, "Life was not good here on the Island. There was a good deal of poverty. Unemployment."
Many Islanders had to leave school or college because of the Depression. Preston Averill of Edgartown reported that when his father lost everything in the stock market crash, he asked Preston if he would consider leaving school and going to work in the family business. Preston remembers that he was delighted. "So I worked 10 hours a day, and then it got up to 12 hours a day, six days a week. No pay. I was happy. I didn't have to go to school!"
Stuart Bangs reported that his father, the owner of Bangs' Market in Vineyard Haven, put together Saturday Night Specials, bargain combinations to make a family dinner. One might contain a piece of corned beef or a big chicken and potatoes, vegetables, and staples. Depression families might stretch the leftovers into many meals. "The frugal house mother would make that thing go the week.... They all kept filled up," Mr. Bangs said.
Ms. Lee told The Martha's Vineyard Times it is her impression that in general the worst suffering was among residents of down-Island towns, where people were more connected to the mainland world. Self-reliant Vineyarders were affected too, but things were not so bad.
Farming, hunting, and fishing provided many up-Islanders with food. Basil Welch of Chilmark recalled that hunting provided most of his family's diet. Colson Mitchell, also of Chilmark, said that although she had to put cardboard in her worn-out shoes, "We had plenty of food to eat."
Ozzie Fischer, then of Vineyard Haven, told Ms. Lee, "The Depression didn't affect you at all, because you took things as they came, and we always had plenty to eat."
Chilmarker Eric Cottle carried the idea a step further: "There was always a Depression as far as I was concerned. I didn't notice much difference." In another interview, Mr. Cottle commented, "I didn't know I was poor until they came from the mainland and told me. Some of these summer people come, said, "'My God, you folks are some poor.' I didn't know it. I was happy."
Mr. Fischer reported that a shortage of cash money didn't cripple folks who had things to trade. "During the Depression, everything was barter. Brickman's would want ducks, chickens, and eggs. Howard Andrews's father had a barber shop, and we'd go and get a haircut on the barter system."
The federal government of Franklin Roosevelt supplied an influx of cash to the Vineyard through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps. Dean Denniston Sr. of Oak Bluffs worked for the WPA. "Many, many of the men on the Island worked on that. All the men in Oak Bluffs did. Fifty cents an hour we got. We would go out in the woods and cut brush, clear paths. But 50 cents an hour was good money."
Mr. Hough in an interview told Ms. Lee that during the Depression he was a member of the Edgartown Unemployment Commission. The commission was responsible for hiring men to do WPA projects. One that he remembered was opening Katama Bay to the ocean, in hopes of improving fishing in the bay. The project was completed by men using only shovels and horses.
And so the people of Martha's Vineyard survived even the Great Depression.
The winter of our hardship
No one knows what the next few months will bring. Selectmen and town committees are hoping for the best but trying to prepare for the worst, freezing salaries and proposing to cut services. Many towns are trying to prepare "shovel-ready" projects for the economic stimulus package passed by the Congress last week.
Will there be a 21st century WPA? Will there be town unemployment commissions again? Will farmers, gardeners, hunters, and fishermen feed the Island? Will we hope for a shipwreck to get us through the winter? Or will the economy right itself and sail on as before? Whatever happens, Vineyarders will find a way to survive.