Chappaquiddick – celebration of a sense of place

Chappy triggered ingenuity and resourcefulness in those who lived there, like Weston Meigs, who fabricated the "aqua bike" shown here. — Photo courtesy of Meigs family

Oh, who am I, Lord, who am I

That I should have the sea and sky.. .

For Thou in kindness destined me

To love my meadow by the sea.

Emma Mayhew Whiting (d. 1948)

The Chappaquiddick Island Association (CIA) in 1981 published a chronicle, edited by historian Arthur Railton, of the small island across the harbor from Edgartown. It is titled “Chappaquiddick That Sometimes Separated But Never Equalled Island.” A second edition, edited by Hatsy Potter, was printed in 2008. The project is more than a history; it is a celebration of a special place and time.

There are other parts of Martha’s Vineyard that have been or could be similarly chronicled and celebrated, having in common a particular section of Vineyard history from prehistoric times, centuries as rural farming and fishing communities, and (beginning around the turn of the last century) an incarnation as a unique neighborhood for summer homes. Aquinnah and the Oak Bluffs campgrounds come to mind. However, Chappy, because of its separation by a kind of a moat, is especially well suited to such a project.

Chappaquiddick is not always an island. When from time to time it is connected to Katama by a narrow spit of Norton Point Beach, it is properly speaking a “neck.” Island or not, it is proudly insular.

In the 21st century, many Americans have no strong connection to a particular piece of geography. Statistically, Americans today move often, seldom settling down for long in the town where they were born or anywhere else. Moreover, it is becoming more and more unusual for Americans to connect with a neighborhood, with a set of others who share a sense of belonging to a few acres of “home.” Television, social media technology, and physical mobility have isolated us from our immediate neighbors and made Americans citizens of everywhere — and of nowhere in particular. Many in New York City don’t even know the other people who live in their building.

When “That. . . Never Equalled Island” was first published in 1981, it seized a unique opportunity. There were still people alive who remembered Chappy in the early part of the 20th century, when slowly it was changing from an isolated farming and fishing community to a favorite spot for a small number of summer families.

The first vacationers began arriving in the 1890s, often men coming to stay in fishing or hunting camps. Soon wives and families were added. In an oral history piece, David Seager says that the year before his father and mother were married, his father took his fiancée to see his duck camp on Cape Pogue Bay. “She took one look and is reported to have said, ‘This is no longer your duck camp. It will be our summer home, so please start building.'”

Some of the book is about the hard life of a Chappaquiddick farmer or fisherman. “There was no problem about what to do with free time,” one old-timer remembered. “There wasn’t any.”

But the bulk of the book is devoted to Chappy summer residents reminiscing about carefree wandering of the island on foot or horseback, swimming in the harbor or Cape Poge Bay (Wasque was considered “too dangerous” for swimming), crabbing at the Dike (before there was a bridge there), rowing or sailing catboats to Edgartown for supplies and ice, or helping with farming chores. For the wealthy, summer on Chappy must have been an idyll. Families would bring servants with them and perhaps even rent a milk cow for the summer. There were no No Tresspassing signs, and children could go pretty much anywhere they chose.

The history of Chappaquiddick in the first half of the 20th century is a history of families, and the book is a kind of genealogical source book spanning several generations of a dozen or two families, year-round and summer. In the early days, children played mostly with siblings, or with cousins who lived over the hill, because Chappy in 1910 was an island of neighborhoods. People who lived at Menaca Hill didn’t see much of the folks at Tom’s Neck. North Neck folks didn’t get over to Katama Shore very often. There were, however, famous personalities that everyone knew, such as Stella Dillion, who spent winters in Spain and sold Spanish antiques from a shop built on spiles at the edge of the harbor. Or a series of famous ferrymen, including the accommodating Tony Bettencourt, who owned the “Spirit of Chappaquiddick.”

The book begins with a history of the island, starting with colonial days, when Chappy was inhabited almost exclusively by Wampanoags, and continuing through the 19th century. The book has several maps, and scores of vintage photographs, some showing Chappaquiddick as a treeless plain. But most entertaining are the first-person accounts of everyday life and fascinating stories of events that are not everyday, such as the hurricanes in 1938, 1944, and 1954, and fears about German submarines during World War II.

Jane Turnbull Knight recalled the night the ferry caught fire when she and another girl were returning from a yacht club dance in long evening gowns. The girls jumped into the harbor with three other passengers. All drifted to the town pier and were soon rescued without harm. The writer doesn’t say how the dresses fared.

Gladys Pease Vose Reid remembers Old Fred, a horse smart enough to return alone to the barn with the wagon after taking a party of children to the beach. Someone at home would unhitch him for the day, and in the late afternoon rehitch him to the wagon and send him back to the beach, alone, to pick up the childen.

While the anecdotes are entertaining, the book is not intended to be read like a collection of short stories or a work of history (though it has elements of both). Because it is a source book, there is some repetition. One encounters the same stories (or slightly different versions of the same stories) more than once. Organized by Chappy neighborhoods, “That . . . Never Equalled Island” is a memory book, like a set of college yearbooks, of most interest to folks who trace their Chappaquiddick roots back to the years covered by most of the personal reminiscences (1910 to 1954). It is also of general interest as a record of a time which is passing away and will not come again.