This Was Then: Ole, Frank, and Manny

The road to the Cliffs of Aquinnah wasn’t always smooth.

Ole Borgen, Frank Terra, and Manuel Jesus Perry, three of the State Road building gang, about 1912. —Courtesy Chris Baer

State Road, that river of wide, smooth pavement stretching more than 18 miles from Vineyard Haven to Gay Head, wasn’t always so. Up until 1910, it was a treacherous country path, as narrow as 6 feet across in the depths of the up-Island woods, featuring soft sand, huge puddles, steep hills, and foot-deep ruts, impassable to all but the lightest and most determined travelers. From 1910 to ’14, the State Road we know today was built, making it possible for the first time for an automobile to drive from Vineyard Haven to the Gay Head Cliffs. And like many labor-extensive projects on the Island in the early 20th century, the construction of our highway relied heavily upon immigrant labor.

By 1915, nearly one in five Vineyarders was foreign-born — mostly Portuguese-speaking immigrants from the Azores and Cape Verde. A solid majority of them were unnaturalized aliens, not U.S. citizens. Oak Bluffs was central to our growing immigrant population. In 1893, the Boston Globe referred to the “Portuguese Fairyland” on the outskirts of Oak Bluffs; the “Portuguese realms in the suburbs of Cottage City” which the Globe describes as filled with barefoot boys selling blueberries, “dark-eyed senoritas” and begging urchins. In 1897, Cottage City’s newly opened Don Carlos I Hall — home to the Portuguese benevolent society — was described as flying the blue and white colors of the Portuguese monarchy “in a most generous quantity in and about the hall” as the Monte Pio band of New Bedford played the chamarrita for their many guests.

But immigration was by no means restricted to Oak Bluffs. A visitor in 1907 lauded the “Portuguese truck-farmers from the Azores” across the Vineyard, “who make abandoned fields blossom abundantly.” By 1920, almost a third of the Vineyard’s entire population consisted of first- or second-generation immigrants. (By comparison, less than 10 percent of the Island’s current population is foreign-born.)

Pictured here, State Road laborer Ole Borgen immigrated to the U.S. from Norway about 1903. He would later be remembered for the general store and gas station he operated out of the old Post Office building in North Tisbury.

Frank Terra, born Francisco Ignacio da Terra in Fayal, immigrated to the U.S. in 1907. He would later be remembered as the keeper as the Oak Bluffs town dump, but he was also self-employed for many years as a fisherman. 

There were a lot of Manuel Perrys on the Vineyard, all Azorean, so it’s difficult to confirm any definite records for the “Manuel Jesus Perry” identified in this photograph. “Perry” was a common Americanization of the Azorean surname “Pereira.”

The final improvement of the State Road, to Gay Head Light, was completed on June 8, 1914.

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 in June 2018.