Chilmark turns 325

Community comes together, like it has since the beginning.

Chilmark was founded on Sept. 14, 1694, 325 years ago, but it took Chilmarker Susan Murphy and her gang less than a month to arrange a birthday party to celebrate it.

“Timmy Carroll [Chilmark town administrator] put a sign up at town hall earlier in the year asking for volunteers to plan the 325th birthday event, so I signed up to help,” Murphy said Saturday night from a (mostly in motion) command post between the large hall and the kitchen in the Chilmark Community Center. 

As often happens when you volunteer early, you are put in charge, and Murphy assembled a phalanx of volunteers who decided, as the birthday drew nigh, “that we’d have a potluck,” Murphy said on Saturday.

And before you could say “Thomas Mayhew,” she had a potluck cornucopia in the ample entry room, with a 20-foot table groaning under dishes ranging literally from soup to nuts. The entire counter of the adjacent kitchen pass-through window had desserts, from cakes, cookies, and puddings to pies, oh my, all to serve the 250 to 300 townspeople and friends who gathered for the birthday bash.

And what’s a potluck gathering without music, a time-honored Chilmark tradition? Many in the Community Center remembered as tots 60 or 70 years ago, when artist and musician Thomas Hart Benton and his townie pals would gather on the steps of Seward’s store and Post Office in Menemsha for some singing, playing, and foot-stomping.

So selectman Warren Doty, longtime town committeeman Andy Goldman, and town accountant

Ellen Biskis put together a (mostly) Chilmark ensemble for the evening. Delightfully they chose to open the event with several choruses of Jane Slater’s “Aphrodite,” or the “Warren Cannonball,” a song Slater wrote while at Queens College more than a few decades ago.

Slater, 87, a columnist for the Vineyard Gazette, looked on as the group and the audience drove a rousing version of her lyrics, set to the tune of “The Wabash Cannonball.” The chorus went like this:

“Listen to the jingle, the rumble and the roar,

As she glides along by Nomans land, the Head and by the shore,

Hear the mighty rush of her engines, he(a)r the lonesome captain call,

She’s riding to Menemsha on the Warren cannonball!”

Nice touch, that, because no way could you review 325 years of community history as succinctly. It brought together the long seafaring tradition of the sea and fishing and the modern-day history of the community that folks on Saturday night could remember or had heard about.

Now, the singing of that song also represented a perfect example of Chilmark’s history of community bonds, and shared experiences over time. The Aphrodite was the prize yacht of Nelson Blount, a Warren, R.I., boatbuilder and fish broker. The largest boat in Menemsha Harbor, the Aphrodite was outfitted as a swordfisher in summer, and was tied at the front of Dutcher Dock because of her size.

When Hurricane Carol struck in 1954, the Aphrodite sank despite the best efforts of Lynn Murphy, who saved 59 people and dozens of boats, and made himself a national figure. Murphy drew a visit at Dutcher Dock by then U.S. Senator Jack Kennedy for his bravery in battling 96-mph winds in a 19-foot flat-bottomed skiff without a reverse gear.

Murphy was the husband of Susan Murphy, above, who chaired the Saturday night event. Considering the bonds between Chilmark people, with a long history going back three centuries, it occurred to this reporter that assembling a list of the oldest Chilmark family names in the room might be fun. Jane Slater listened to the idea gravely, and in a kindly voice suggested, “Well, you could do that, but you’ll end up finding that everyone in this room is related to a Mayhew at some point.”

We know that Thomas Mayhew started Chilmark in 1694 to run affairs differently than they were run in Edgartown and Tisbury, the only named towns at that point (think Rhode Island/Roger Williams lite). We checked the oldest records of an Island census we could find — 1790, about a hundred years after the up-Island diaspora by the Mayhews.

The family turfs were clear by then. The Daggetts, Luces, Peases, and Vincents were big in Edgartown, Tisbury was Athearn and Burt dominant, the Nortons, God love ’em, were everywhere. Chilmark had 25 separate Mayhew family listings to go with the Allens, Adams, Butlers, Cottles, Flanders, Tiltons, Pooles, and other household Island names. 

Slater knows her history, and these people know one another in a way members of old-time village communities knew one another. And they know how to pass the knowledge on.

Young Jacob de Keijder, 15 months, took the long journey across the hall to find out how Willy Mason was making those wondrous sounds with his guitar and mouth. His mom Hannah caught him up and sat him, transfixed, next to Mason.

Years from now Hannah, Jacob, his dad, Michael Greenberg and probably other Chilmarkers will recount Jacob’s voyage into music, That’s how it goes in Chilmark. Always has, likely always will.