Of donkeys, Equus africanus asinus, there are few early records on the Vineyard. It’s not until the late 1800s that references can be found.
In an 1881 article titled “Peculiarities of Martha’s Vineyard,” the New York Herald reported, “There is an aged cripple who rides about in a diminutive cart drawn by a comical little donkey, who goes as he pleases, much to the delight of the boys and girls who fondle and spoil him. The donkey is a character and displays an amount of sagacity which is astonishing in an animal usually believed to be the most stubborn creature that goes on four legs.”
By the early 1930s, landscape architect Stanley Leaming of Chilmark kept a pair of fondly remembered donkeys at his home on Middle Road. Leaming’s donkeys, named Tex and Otoño, were featured at the fair each year, where children could get a ride for a dime.
For a couple of summers, Leaming’s donkeys carried children up and down the Gay Head Cliffs as well. As Betty Honey told Linsey Lee of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in a 1993 interview, “[Leaming] was doing rides down the Devil’s Den at Gay Head for a certain fee. And my friend Gloria and I were crazy about these donkeys, so we made them take us to Gay Head, and we would ride these donkeys down the Devil’s Den — like going down the Grand Canyon, you know? Oh, we loved that. That was fun … Can you see us going down Gay Head Cliffs? Into the Devil’s Den on these donkeys? Fearless! Totally fearless. We were experts! And they went down this narrow, narrow path through the Devil’s Den to the beach and back up again. Probably for 10 cents or something.”
Honey visited Leaming’s donkeys off-season in North Tisbury, too, while Leaming was away. She explained to Lee, “Ellsworth Norton had a big barn, and he took the donkeys for the winter. So we made a lot of trips up there. And we would take them out, just the two of us. We didn’t have anybody with us. We were 12, something like that. Get on those donkeys and we’d ride out of that yard and go down that road onto the main road, and we went over to her grandfather’s house. We would go over there and call on them on our donkeys. And then we would turn around and come back. And as soon as those donkeys realized we were heading the other way, they would race, and we would come thundering down those roads and cross this great meadow into the barn. And we couldn’t get off! We’d have to go right into the stalls. And our heads would hit the ceiling. And then her uncle would come down there and rescue us. So we’d roll off into his arms. We did that over and over and over again.”
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released June 1.