This Was Then: Island school history

Tisbury School’s first days, and the ghost of Herbert Cottrell.

The opening of the Tisbury School, 1930.

The public school system in Tisbury has a long and rich history, with records dating back to at least 1669.

During the mid-1700s, school came to the students, rather than the other way around. For seven and a half months, classes were held in a dedicated 16- by 20-foot schoolhouse, built about 1737 in Whitten Manter’s field in West Tisbury; for 11 weeks, classes were held in Chickemmoo; and for the remainder of the year, school was held in Holmes Hole. 

A debate came up at town meeting almost annually as to whether to continue this tradition of the “moving school,” or to instead establish a “fixed” or “settled” school, but the moving school persisted for decades. In 1748, a fourth stop was added to the traveling school circuit: “Kiphigan” (Cape Higgon), near the Chilmark border. Families could send their students to any or all of these stops, totaling 12 months a year.

But the system fell apart during the Revolutionary War, evidently after the collapse of paper currency left teachers with worthless pay. It took the indictment of a grand jury in Barnstable in 1792, charging that the town of Tisbury was neglecting to keep a school, to reboot the system. As a result, Tisbury was formally divided into four school districts, and a school committee appointed for each.

By the mid-1800s, there were a total of seven school districts in Tisbury (which until 1892, included West Tisbury), each with its own schoolhouse and teachers: Holmes Hole South, Holmes Hole North, Northeast, Lambert’s Cove, Northwest, Southwest, and Southeast. 

The origin of the word “superintendent” may have roots right here on the Island. The book “The Development of the City Superintendency”‎ by Theodore Reller suggests that among the first known recorded uses of the word “superintend” in reference to a school was a 1797 Tisbury town meeting record, in which the town again agreed to “Choose Committees in the Several School districts” and “to provide masters for each district and to Superintend the Same.” (Until 1895, each town on the island had its own superintendent. The superintendent of Tisbury from the 1840s until about 1880 was Abraham Anthony, who ran a tailor shop on Main Street near the modern site of Bobby B’s.)

One of the earliest public schoolhouses within the modern bounds of Vineyard Haven was the South school, built sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century, and located across from Mansion House, about where EduComp is today. An additional schoolhouse, known as the North End school or Chapel school, was erected on the corner of Main Street and Colonial Lane about 1829, although classes lasted fewer than 30 years there. Another schoolhouse was built in 1850 at the bottom of Hatch Road, and known as the North District or Neck school.

All of these schools were eventually consolidated into a single building serving the whole town, built in 1854 on Center Street, where the town tennis courts are today. About 1895, Tisbury High School was founded and added to the lower grades. But after 75 years of use, the village schoolhouse was shut down in 1929. It was time for a new building.

Ten bids were received for the construction of a new schoolhouse, nine of them from off-Island. The contract went to the Lundberg Construction Co. of St. Louis, under the supervision of Thane Cottrell of Erie, Pa. Assisting his older brother was 21-year-old Herbert Cottrell. They were the eldest and youngest of nine children of chairmaker Horace Greeley Cottrell and Alice Robinson of Erie. Construction started immediately.

Tragedy struck on the evening of Wednesday, July 17, 1929. The brothers were inspecting the crew’s work, and as a family member recalled, a storm was coming, and the brothers needed to secure the site. While standing on a girder on the third floor of the framework, Herbert stepped backward and lost his balance. He fell through a square hole left for a stairwell or chimney, and plummeted more than 50 feet into the basement. He died almost instantly.

Many Tisbury School students claim that Herbert’s ghost (sometimes nicknamed “Scotty”) still haunts the old building, turning lights on and off at night. Former student Bonnie (Baptiste) Bassett writes, “I remember this. When the Tisbury School was being constructed, a man fell and was then buried in cement. If you were around the school at midnight, you would see the ghost or hear him screaming!”

Cottrell was rushed to the hospital with a fractured skull, but he was dead upon arrival. Contrary to the legends, his remains are not actually entombed in the basement’s cement, but instead rest peacefully nearly 500 miles away, in Evergreen Cemetery in Union City, Pa., just outside Erie. But that doesn’t stop the ghost stories. Bassett adds, “Of course, being a child I believed it. Bill King, who was the chief of police in Vineyard Haven, told us that story when we were hanging out on the school grounds at dusk. He probably wanted to make sure we would go home!”

Cottrell’s niece Gail Roberts, living today in Saint Paul, Minn., relates that the Rev. Clifton Chase of Vineyard Haven’s Christ Methodist Episcopal Church wrote a letter of consolation to Herbert’s parents following the accident, remarking on the impression Herbert left upon the community; the letter is still kept by the family. “He came to us a stranger, but his friendly smile and gentlemanly bearing won him friends from the start,” wrote Pastor Chase. A program from the funeral service lists Herbert’s fiancée as Grace Atkinson of Newburyport.

Thane went on to become a successful contractor in West Harwich, building churches, businesses, and homes, some even appearing in Better Homes and Gardens magazine. (The family construction business continues today under his grand-nephew, Robert.) Thane, who was 21 years older than Herbert, had been very close to his youngest brother. He considered him “almost as a son, since he never had any children of his own,” writes Roberts. “Thane grieved the death of his young brother for the rest of his life.” Cottrell’s 83-year-old nephew, Dr. Victor Cottrell of Lincoln, Neb., describes it as “a horrible tragedy” for the family. “It was very, very, very painful” for Thane in particular, Dr. Cottrell explains. (Dr. Cottrell’s older brother, who was born a few years after the accident, was named “Herbert” in honor of his late uncle.)

But the job was completed. On opening day in early 1930, students and staff marched up the hill from the old schoolhouse on Center Street to the new building in a joyful parade. The Tisbury High School Class of 1930 was the first to graduate from their new brick home, 90 years ago next spring.