Keeping up with the DAR

It’s not just about honoring the past.

So what image pops to mind when you hear the name Daughters of the American Revolution? A longtime member of the Martha’s Vineyard DAR chapter, Susan Brown, believes, “A lot of people have a very stuffy view of the DAR. They just think we’re old ladies with corsages on our chests and mink stoles around our necks. But like other patriot lineage societies, DAR has evolved into an organization that still respects our heritage but tries to do good for the world.” The DAR is based on three tenants that are part of all their various endeavors: patriotism, education, and historical preservation.

The DAR as a national body began in 1894, and between 1896 and ’97 there was so much interest here on the Island that there was a chapter in Vineyard Haven and a separate one in Edgartown, which was, as Brown explains, “founded by Caroline Osborn Warren. She gave the land for the old Edgartown library on Water Street, with the understanding that DAR would always be able to meet there.” Eventually, the chapter opened a museum, which is now the Dukes County Savings Bank. The Vineyard Haven chapter’s museum was the old School House in town on Main Street. Neither museum exists anymore. The two chapters merged in 1986, and became the Martha’s Vineyard Seacoast Defence Chapter in Edgartown.

The DAR’s support of education began over a century ago. According to Brown, one of the Edgartown chapter’s earliest members, Fannie Allen Deane, was the assistant principal in the Edgartown high school, and when she died in 1908, a scholarship was established for a selected Edgartown high school senior for $200 to $250, which was a great deal of money at the time.

The DAR continues to fund the scholarship today for $2,000, and established a second one for the same amount to go to a high school senior from any school on the Island. This one is called the Liberty Pole scholarship, after the legend that three girls blew up the original pole in front of the School House in order to thwart the captain of the British ship in the harbor who had plans to use it to replace his broken mast. Whether that’s true or not, you can see still see the DAR plaque on the pole that marks the event.

As part of its historic preservation work, the DAR has put up markers around the Island, including Place by the Wayside, Vineyard Gazette building, the Liberty Pole outside Nathan Mayhew Schoolhouse, the Edgartown Inn, and a tablet at Christiantown Chapel. The women also place flags on the graves of Revolutionary and Civil War patriots in the Edgartown cemetery, Veterans Memorial Park, and Thaxter Monument, and, of course, they also participate in the Fourth of July parade.

The M.V. chapter isn’t all about venerating the past. Like many others in the meeting I attended, Grace Sullivan told me, “I really enjoy the Vineyard Veterans Vacation. It’s really been meaningful. It helps us do something in the here and now instead of what came before.” Separately, Irene Resendes explained how it works: “A veteran is chosen from Fort Bragg, and they are invited to come to the Vineyard with their family or friends. People volunteer a place for them to stay, solicit donations for a car rental, restaurants, and activities like boat excursions. Essentially, we present the veteran with a free ride for a week’s vacation. We have chapter members who have very generously donated their house, which is a rental property, so they take it off the market and do this. It’s one of our crowning glories.”

Doris Clark, chapter regent, who brought the initial idea to the group, reflected on the program, “The Vineyard Veteran’s Vacation has been very, very successful and heartwarming. We have the fire department, the police department, the veterans on the Island greet them. It’s like a brotherhood. When they meet these soldiers, there is immediately a bond. That comradery just brings tears to your eyes, realizing that there are people doing what our ancestors did.”

The DAR also selects someone for the Community Service Award who has gone above and beyond in helping the Island. Likewise, for youth, the Good Citizen’s Award goes to a selected high school student. In fact, DAR member Patricia Tyra shared, “I was introduced to the DAR in 1959 when I was awarded the Good Citizenship Award. So I have a long history. I joined to be with my mother, who was a member here in Edgartown, and I continue to enjoy the history.”

Mary Ellen Hill showed me her 50-year pin, and said, “One of the things I like is helping foreigners become citizens; that they are valuable to our country as well as others. I also like the DAR because we concentrate on children.” Many of the women at the meeting mentioned the importance of the comradery with others linked by a similar heritage. Bonnie Belmonte shared, “I’m just so proud I found when doing my genealogy that one of my ancestors was a Minuteman.” Doris Clark also expresses how glad she is that she has a group of DAR friends to be with whose ancestors also served in the Revolutionary War.

Genealogy is the all-important factor in becoming a DAR member. Donna Honig explained that while doing some research, she “happened to find out I had family who came with Thomas Mayhew Jr. from Watertown. Then I started getting involved in genealogy, and I was the first member of my family who joined the DAR. It’s been over 25 years now.”

Kay Mayhew, who is the chapter’s registrar, aids prospective members with their questions and inquiries. She reported that you could piggyback on any member in your family line who was or is already in the DAR, such as “if your mother, grandmother, or any other female relative has belonged, it’s really easy. You don’t have to do any research, and I can connect you very quickly.”

Clark has 12 ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War, and additional relatives who fought in the all-black Civil War regiment out of Massachusetts. She smiles, saying, “It’s really a lot of pride to know that really my family was somebody.” But most important, hoping to attract newcomers, Clark wants women to know that “the patriot could be man or woman from anywhere in the country, and patriotic service could be hiding guns in their barn, feeding troops either personally or providing food from their farm.”

 

The group is aware of the challenges it faces getting newcomers. Women are busy with their families, and as Joanne Resendes points out, “If you’re working a job, it can be hard to carve out time. But there are only six meetings a year. It’s not that overwhelming; it’s not anything that you’re spending five hours a week on.”

Her sister Irene added, “It’s a great organization. You can choose how participatory you are in the organization. So, it becomes a community.” As we finished the interview, her parting thought was, “It’s remarkable that we’ve been able to maintain this thing for over a hundred and how many years. It’s important to keep it going.”