Trail goes cold in the case of the missing millions
The mystery surrounding the whereabouts of a Vineyard fund potentially worth millions, recently uncovered by an historian doing research at the Vineyard Haven Library, has inspired speculation, investigation, and imagination among the library staff and many patrons.
In 1928 a group of 36 Islanders, all men, dreamed of providing a glorious future for Martha's Vineyard. With their donations of $10 apiece, plus $10 from the Vineyard Gazette, and the miracle of compound interest based on a four percent annual gain, they calculated they could parlay $370 into $37 million by the year 2219. The money would be used to benefit the Island 291 years into the future, in ways that might be unimaginable in their lifetimes.
A splashy two-page advertisement promoting the fund as the "Vineyard's Greatest Gift" caught Sarah Shephard's eye several weeks ago. She was researching the history of Unitarianism in old Gazette articles on microfilm at the Vineyard Haven Library, and showed the ad to Wendy Andrews, circulation and interlibrary loan librarian. Their curiosity piqued, the two native Islanders set out to answer the first question that sprang to mind: what happened to the fund, which might now be worth $7,885, after seventy-eight years?
The hunt begins
Advertising promotions for the fund and its donors as they appeared in the Gazette in 1928.
Reference librarian Cecily Greenaway aided Ms. Andrews' sleuthing efforts, checking through several months of old Gazette issues from 1928. She found an article that reported the first announcement of the fund in early February 1928 apparently caused quite a stir, tantalizing readers with its description but withholding the donors' names.
The Island rumor mill, then as now, ran wild among the population of 5,000 as they speculated about who the donors were. Reporters from big city newspapers such as the Boston Globe, New York World and Boston Post joined in the guessing game, bringing the Gazette and the fund some notoriety on the mainland.
With publication of the donors' names in the February 17 issue, "Two weeks of letters, telegrams, arguments, investigations, and general excitement have come to an end," the Gazette stated. "Not for many years has anything aroused such widespread interest in Martha's Vineyard."
Apparently, news of the fund also aroused the timeless human traits of suspicion and greed: "In Vineyard Haven, several citizens connected with the announcement with the new schoolhouse project and declared the fund must be part of a plot to commit the town of Tisbury to an expensive school."
As a precursor of real estate madness to come, "One Islander, about to sell a piece of property, held up the transaction in the belief that the Vineyard's added resources had enhanced the value of the property overnight," the article reported.
Spending future dollars
In addition to listing the donors' names, two full-page ads in the Feb. 17 issue depicted photos of the Edgartown National Bank and Martha's Vineyard National Bank, crediting the banks' officials with fostering the idea.
Taking advantage of the public interest the fund generated, the donors offered $50 in prizes for "the best letters giving the fund a suitable name and suggesting how the millions should best be spent in the public interest in A.D. 2219." The prizes included savings bank books containing $25 for first place, $15 for second, and $10 for third.
A two-page promotional ad for the contest in the Gazette's Feb. 17, 1928, issue declared, "No event in history has been given opportunity for more speculation and exercise of the imagination as to how this $37 million should be spent," declared a two-page promotional ad for the contest in the Gazette's Feb. 17, 1928 issue. "Shall it be used for the construction of a bridge to the mainland, or shall it provide finer schools and parks? Shall it be spent to develop the Island's natural resources, or shall it establish a civic aeroplane line?"
First prize went to David Golart, a Tisbury high school senior. "I beg of you not to commercialize Martha's Vineyard," he wrote. "Reject any plan for joining the Island with the mainland, for nothing will more quickly commercialize it, and make it a money-grabbing business center, of which the country already has too many."
With words that would make today's hospital officials smile, Mr. Golart suggested, "We are trying just at present to erect a suitable hospital for the Island's needs. It is a hard task to obtain funds. When this bequest matures you will have ample funds at your disposal. A hospital will probably have been built, but at any rate use whatever part of the fund is necessary for the care of the physically unfit."
Third place winner Josephine Swift, a Tisbury High School freshman, prophesied that the future would bring radical changes, with inventions in electricity and other sources unheard of in 1928 in common usage. "Our chief occupation has long been catering to summer people," she wrote. "Has the Island's beauty got anything to do with this fact? It decidedly has and we must do all in our power to preserve it. Communities as they grow commercially are very apt to become indifferent to nature's glory."
Much to the relief of many Islanders today, no one took the advice of Miriam Tower, a Tisbury High School sophomore, who suggested building an "Island Bridge" to the mainland. Ironically, the $37 million she thought would pay for it comes close to the price tag for replacing the Lagoon Pond drawbridge, with costs projected at $7 million for a temporary bridge and $25 million for the permanent one.
Although Mr. Golart suggested naming the fund the "Martha's Vineyard Posterity Fund of 1928," the judges settled on the "Martha's Vineyard Foundation."
Gift or gimmick?
A follow-up two-page ad about the fund in the March 2, 1928, Gazette featured photos of the donors, along with praise for their foresight and thrift - and a pitch for opening a savings account.
Whether truly a philanthropic gesture or a clever banking promotional gimmick, the fund was definitely inspired by Benjamin Franklin, whose will in 1790 established similar funds to benefit his native Boston and adopted city of Philadelphia. For the first hundred years, the sum of 1,000 pounds sterling for each city and the interest was to be used as a loan fund to help young married tradesmen start their own businesses. Mr. Franklin figured that within a century, his bequests would be worth 131,000 pounds sterling. In the second century, the money was to be used for public works.
Although six other cities, including Portland, Ore., New Bedford, Lawrence, Muncie, Ind., Meriden, Conn., and New London, Conn., had established funds similar to the Vineyard's several years ahead of the Island, theirs did not receive as much publicity, according to the Gazette.
Show me the money
In doing further research, Ms. Greenaway checked Gazette issues up through April 20, 1928, but found no more mention of the fund. Ms. Andrews decided to cast her net wider, telling friends and library patrons about the mystery fund and asking anyone who was interested to join in her quest for more information. Her cousin Herbert Ward photocopied the Gazette articles, then cut and pasted them into a manageable size to give to people.
Although she was unsure whether one or both of the banks originally involved with the fund might still have the account, Ms. Andrews did learn both survived the crash of 1929. However, some people she talked to speculated many of the donors may have pulled their $10 out at that time, which would have the spending power of $118.42 in today's dollars, according to a Federal Reserve Bank web site.
Ms. Andrews decided to visit the Bank of Martha's Vineyard, now a division of Sovereign Bank, in Vineyard Haven and found no one had heard of the fund. She was told the money would have been turned over to the state if it had been put into a savings account and there had been no activity on the account for more than seven years.
A subsequent inquiry by the Times to the Edgartown National Bank also hit a dead end. Chief executive officer Fielding Moore said the bank would need an account number to research the fund, perhaps known by one of the donors' successors.
One of them is Beth Larsen, the granddaughter of donor Leland Renear and co-owner of the Net Result with her husband Louis. She knew nothing about the fund but like everyone else, thought0 it would be interesting to find out what happened to it. "If you need me to open the account, I'd be happy to," she joked.
Donald Vose, who has served as president of Edgartown National Bank since 1950, recalled reading about the fund in the Gazette in 1928, but said he did not run across it in his years as a bank officer.
Suggestions for contacting the West Tisbury branch of the Dukes County Savings Bank, which now maintains the trust department of Martha's Vineyard National Bank, and Deborah Hale, chairman of the Martha's Vineyard Permanent Endowment Fund, also proved fruitless. Ms. Andrews's call to the Gazette went unreturned. The trail ran cold.
Despite the impasse, she and Ms. Greenaway plan to keep digging, as time permits. In the meantime, if this intriguing tale of millions in the making triggers a memory of the fund or an idea for a fresh approach, feel free to give the Vineyard Haven Library staff a call.
It would be nice to know the money is still growing, with only 214 years to go.