Chappy before Kennedy

There were some nice beaches, but mostly people just didn’t bother to go there.

The Jones, Knight, and Phinney first cousins on the beach. Courtesy Margaret Knight.

Last week the trailer for the movie “Chappaquiddick” was released. On July 18, 1969, Sen. Ted Kennedy drove his car off the Dike Bridge, killing young Mary Jo Kopechne. It proved to be a pivotal event on the Vineyard, drawing national attention to what was up until then a somewhat sleepy resort.

Margaret Knight grew up on Chappaquiddick in the ’50s and ’60s, and saw the changes firsthand — from a time when Chappy locals hunted, fished, and gathered from the land till what Margaret describes as the “fake rural” world that exists today.

Before Kennedy’s accident at the Dike Bridge, Chappaquiddick was a world away from the big white houses, picket fences, yacht club, and pink and green shops of Edgartown. It was more like the backyard of Edgartown. On Chappy, we summer kids went barefoot all the time, and went to town once or twice a week for church and the penny candy store. Some Chappy summer residents would complain about the lack of services for their tax dollars, but most everyone took full advantage of living out of sight of town hall — unregistered vehicles, underage drivers, building whatever you wanted back in the woods. I think the town’s attitude was that if we were crazy enough to want to live over here, it was best to just leave us alone. We were free to live life amidst the poison ivy and mosquitoes, without the prying eyes of officialdom.

In 1969, Chappy was still the idyllic home of my summertime dreams. It held all the sense of freedom to be had for a kid in the 1950s and 60s: out of the house all day, a pony to get around on, swimming and sailing, playing with cousins with no one worrying about you. I’d go blueberry picking with my mother and aunt, sisters and cousins. We clammed and crabbed, and ate once a week at the Jeffers’ homestyle restaurant on the shores of Cape Poge Pond. We made our own fun — it was a pretty simple life.

We all knew each other, at least by sight. If you were walking along the road, someone would always stop and offer you a ride. There were few year-round residents, and not very many summer families, and most of those were related to several other households. I remember someone in my family counting 50 relatives. We mostly kept to our own little circles as a result of relatedness or geography, except for weekly baseball games and the once-a-summer horse show in the fields at Pimpneymouse Farm, and the sailing races on Cape Poge Pond. The ferry was the social center of the island.

The most immediate change after the Kennedy accident was that tourists started coming to Chappy. We’d never had tourists before — no one had heard of Chappaquiddick, and there was nothing really to see over here. Tourists went to see Edgartown’s big whaling captains’ houses with their pink and red rose-covered fences, the quaint narrow streets and flower gardens, the fishing boats tied up along the wharf. Locally Chappy was known for its poison ivy, briars, mosquitoes, and ticks. There were nice beaches, but mostly people didn’t bother coming so far.

Starting in 1969, tourists started coming over on the ferry and asking where the bridge was — or why was there a ferry, what had happened to the bridge — people still ask that! You’d see them a mile or two up the road, walking along looking very hot, wondering where the stores were. Being young and feeling invaded, when people would ask where the bridge was, we’d send them to the end of the road at Wasque, or down some other long dirt road. Or we’d tell them where some other accident happened, since they were so interested in accident sites. This interest in our little Dike Bridge all seemed very morbid to me, and I was surprised at how many people were interested in seeing the site of a death.

From the point of view of 2017, it’s hard to fathom how inexpensive land was Before Kennedy. Land all around the Vineyard was way less expensive, but especially in out-of-the-way places like Chappy. A 1954 map shows 74 houses. Many summer houses were former hunting shacks. My family bought land to build a summer house in 1954 for $1,000. A tax bill from just a decade earlier shows seven acres of Chappy land was valued at $70, with a yearly tax bill of $1.75. In the 1960s, Chappy was still not a place many people wanted to visit, much less live.

Back then there was still a remembrance of traditions connecting us to a time of hunting, fishing, gathering from the land, and bartering and sharing, a time when people needed to rely more on each other. There were more people who had a long association to the island and each other. People weren’t generally so protective of their private property. There were paths everywhere, left over from the time when the land had all been open from grazing, and you took the shortest route to where you wanted to go. This was before people had real lawns, before landscaping, before big houses.

Back then the Chappaquiddick Beach Club was a bathing beach open to anyone. There were bathhouses to change in that you could rent for the day, or you could pay a fee just to come and swim. Two open-air solariums, a men’s and a women’s, allowed for sunbathing in the nude, and provided diversion for kids as we tried to peek under the walls. The Bathing Beach’s launch, Charlesbank, brought people back and forth from town for a dime. We’d sometimes take that to town instead of the ferry.

By the 1970s, in reaction to the number of young people moving to the Vineyard, Edgartown passed a bylaw that prohibited tents, even on your own property. In 1973, my illegal tent was spotted from a plane, probably while police were out looking for illegal plants. Foster Silva, who was the first Trustees of Reservation superintendent and the closest thing we had to a town official, came up to me in the ferry line to let me know my tent had been seen. I was living with a friend that summer, way back in the woods with no real road in. I’d just started work on my house, a 20-foot by 20-foot cabin. My friend and I shared a plastic-shrouded kitchen structure with my sister and her boyfriend, who lived nearby in a wigwam they’d built from tree branches and an old parachute. The parachute had a camouflage print, which hid their wigwam nicely in the leaves. My friend and I picked up our tent and moved it a little further back under the trees.

In the 1970s, land prices were still relatively inexpensive, and young people were buying land on Chappy, building their own houses, and having kids. By about 1985, there were seven or eight year-round families, some former summer kids who never wanted to leave at the end of summer. It was still a small enough community that we did things like take all the kids trick-or-treating in the back of a couple of pickup trucks, have a babysitting co-op, and get all the year-rounders together at Joe and Mary Cressy’s house for a Christmas Eve dinner they cooked.

Chappy used to be a rural community, complete with farm animals, old farmhouses and fields, and a junkyard. As more and more people built summer houses here in the ’80s and ’90s, they started bringing more expectations of convenience and services, of manicured gardens and green lawns, of bigger houses and better roads, of privacy. It’s a trend that continues to expand still. Now it costs incredible amounts of money to keep Chappy what I call ”fake rural.” Even still, I find it hard to believe that some people view Chappy as an exclusive place to live, that the ferry creates a sort of gated community, not just an impediment to getting back home. Now that Chappy’s last Wampanoag resident, Jerry Jeffers, has died, I have grave doubts about the future direction of the island. He grew up here long before Kennedy, and may be the last moral compass to hold steady to the old ways of Chappaquiddick.