Almost exactly 53 years ago, in August 1963, the Mills Brothers Circus came to Martha’s Vineyard, a much-publicized milestone journey. The late-night ferry crossing of animals, performers, and equipment captivated the imaginations of Islanders of all ages. There were camels and horses and even elephants — oh my! — loaded on a ferryboat accustomed to far less exotic passengers and cargo.
Decades later, Shirley Mayhew of West Tisbury has told the story of the Vineyard’s first circus visit in a charming children’s picture book. “Islander: The Circus Comes to Martha’s Vineyard” recounts the enchanting tale of how these jungle animals got here to perform in Waban Park. And Ms. Mayhew weaves the animal adventure together with a second compelling storyline, the redemption of the Islander steamship.
She depicts that stalwart ferryboat as a little downtrodden, aging, and losing her pizzazz. But though neither as big and glitzy as the new Nantucket, nor as zippy as the little Uncatena, it was the Islander that had what it took to carry the circus animals across the Sound.
“It’s about a ferryboat that wasn’t very popular, but it made it, just like the Little Engine that Could made it,” Ms. Mayhew told the Times in a recent interview.
Now 90, Ms. Mayhew is making the rounds to give library book talks. She recently enjoyed a festive book-launch party with illustrator Linda Carnegie. It is a heady schedule for someone her age, Ms. Mayhew said, but her sunny smile and fascinating anecdotes, and the twinkle in her eye, suggest she is enjoying the excitement thoroughly.
When the first circus came to Martha’s Vineyard, Shirley Mayhew was a stay-at-home mom of three children, ages 8, 12, and 14. Abandoning her studies at Brown University at 21 to marry Islander John Mayhew in 1947, Ms. Mayhew had her family young and settled into homemaking.
The couple built their home on Look’s Pond in 1957, then rented it out summers to pay the modest mortgage. In August 1963, when circus excitement filled the Vineyard air, the family was living in a tiny camp at Lambert’s Cove Beach. Ms. Mayhew spent days driving youngsters to games and activities.
Even then she enjoyed writing, photography, and painting, though had little time to pursue them. But a few years later she wrote the story of the Mills Brothers Circus, and how the Islander saved the day.
“I didn’t think it was of much value, so it ended up on my closet shelf,” she recalled.
Ms. Mayhew studied part-time, and completed her degree through Goddard College. She published “Seasons of a Vineyard Pond,” a slim nature journal with her own illustrations, in 1973. She taught middle school in Edgartown, retiring in 1986. More writing, painting, photography, and travel filled the years, along with happy family times.
After John Mayhew passed away in 2012, Ms. Mayhew left the family homestead to move into an apartment adjoining her daughter Deborah’s home. As they were sorting through her belongings, preparing to pack and move them, the manuscript appeared. Deborah read it.
“She said, ‘Mom, this should be published!’”
Ms. Mayhew protested that she didn’t have sophisticated computer skills and couldn’t cope with the complicated process. But Deborah insisted, assuring her mother she would do it all.
The story was already written, but needed illustrations. West Tisbury children’s librarian Nelia Decker recommended Linda Carnegie, who had created murals at the library.
“The walls were covered with these gorgeous murals,” said Ms. Mayhew. The perky animal paintings convinced her Ms. Carnegie was the perfect match.
“She caught on to our excitement,” Ms. Mayhew said.
Ms. Carnegie, who has painted murals at the Massachusetts General Hospital’s pediatric unit and designed three Agricultural Fair posters, gladly accepted Ms. Mayhew’s invitation.
“When you’re sitting signing books with a 90-year-old woman who just published a book — that is inspirational!” Ms. Carnegie said. “I made a friend. She’s awesome. That’s why I did it.”
Deborah researched and chose a self-publishing program. She had illustrations scanned, prepared files, designed text and layout. Her sister Sarah used her Photoshop skills to prepare the illustrations for printing. Fellow members of Cynthia Riggs’ writing group consulted and encouraged.
“It was a team effort,” Ms. Mayhew said. ”All I did was write the story years ago.”
And a wonderful story it is, enlivened by Ms. Carnegie’s bright illustrations, which convey a sense of magic and wholesome innocence.
The Islander, we learn, is feeling forgotten and forlorn. A little slow, beginning to rust, laid up with a broken piston, she fears her useful days are gone. And then a mysterious mustachioed gentleman appears in Woods Hole, searching for just the right vessel to carry his menagerie to the Vineyard.
Like Rudolph, Cinderella, and that iconic Little Engine, the discouraged Islander is plucked from near oblivion to become the popular circus ferry.
Ms. Carnegie’s illustrations are perfect and engaging — the view of tiny Martha’s Vineyard floating in the big blue sea, the sturdy boat chugging across. But she especially excels in depicting the animals, filled with personality, endearing and curious.
Soon the animals troop on board and off they sail, to be met by a flotilla of jubilant youngsters, filling the harbor in little dinghies. The Islander, triumphantly steaming into the harbor with flags waving, is the heroine of the tale.
“I loved the ferry Islander more than any of the other ferries, and I think many Vineyarders felt the same way,” Ms. Mayhew said. “So I’m hoping that many younger people will love it through the story of the circus.”
“It’s been a wonderful thing for my old age, to keep me focused on something fun and interesting,” she said of publishing “Islander.”
“I think every old person is most depressed by feeling that their usefulness is over. It helps to be doing something useful to others. It’s hard to be a carpenter or a person who makes a living using his or her body. But writing, making music or art, can be satisfying well into old age. With, of course, luck and good health.”
Ms. Mayhew, who also published “Looking Back: My Long Life on Martha’s Vineyard” in 2014, insists this is her last book, that she lacks the energy or ideas for another. Still, she writes and attends her writing group. And she admits to waking up at night and thinking of possible stories, events from her life that just might develop into a book or two.
Book talks with Shirley Mayhew and Linda Carnegie: Thursday, July 28, 5 pm, West Tisbury library; Friday, July 29, 12 noon, Edgartown library.