Tisbury: ‘Front door to the Island’

As the town turns 350, its legacy remains the working waterfront.


Tisbury turns 350 on Thursday, July 8. There will be no cake. No parade. No pomp.

Fifteen months of a pandemic took the town’s focus away from any kind of celebration. There is Beach Road Weekend “350” from July 23-25, which will recognize the historic anniversary, but no townwide celebration is scheduled.

All of which is kind of fitting for Tisbury. During a conversation with Bow Van Riper, research librarian at Martha’s Vineyard Museum, he described the town’s reaction to a historic fire in 1883 that burned most of Main Street.

“There [was] no great urban renewal project, no blue-ribbon committee saying, Let’s build a bigger, better community from the ashes,” Van Riper said. “It’s more like, Well, that sucked, but let’s rebuild. So Vineyard Haven has the least distinguished main drag of anywhere on the Island. Circuit Ave. is a Victorian fantasy, and Main Street Edgartown is incredible with its brick sidewalks and white clapboard buildings and towering churches … Vineyard Haven Main Street is just sort of there because it was built on a clean slate, but it was built by 50 different people each just trying to get their store rebuilt or their house rebuilt.”

A block to the west is William Street, the town’s historic district. “You’re like, now I’m back in planned community land,” Van Riper said. “Main Street Tisbury is this extraordinary monument for this desire to just shake it off and get on with life.”

The town took a very similar approach after the gale of 1898 wreaked havoc on the harbor and the town’s infrastructure. “Ten men drowned and 20-plus ships washed ashore and a big British schooner drives halfway through Union Wharf and nearly shish kabobs the seamen’s bethel with its bowsprit,” Van Riper said.

The pounding fury of nor’easters is nothing new for Vineyard Haven Harbor, which was known as Holmes Hole through the town’s first 200 years.

The town would rebuild the wharf around the schooner instead of waiting for it to be removed. “It was clearly going to take too long to haul the schooner out and rebuild the wharf as it was … So they built a piece of the wharf around the bow of the schooner, and connected it to the existing wharf,” Van Riper said. “And when they did finally pull the schooner out, there’s this weird kink in the wharf for a while because, well, it worked well enough, and they had other things to do, and they said get on with it.”

Tisbury’s early history is tied to the British. Settled by English colonists, it was also attractive to the British Navy during the American Revolution. “Being on the shores of the Island’s deepest harbor when the colonies decide to go to war with the world’s foremost naval power is not a comfortable place to be,” Van Riper said. He recounted a story about the captain of the British Navy’s Unicorn pulling into the harbor who claimed the town’s “liberty pole” to replace his ship’s broken spar. The selectmen at that time decided to hand it over without a fight. “You don’t want to have a pissed-off British Navy captain with a bunch of 18- and 20-pound cannon pointed at your town,” Van Riper said. However, that night three women burned the liberty pole before it could be turned over.

In 1778, Gen. Charles Grey showed up with his fleet and conducted the “great sheep heist of 1778,” Van Riper said. “He makes off with two-thirds of the Island’s flocks  — and it says something about the Vineyard of 1778 that 10,000 sheep is only two-thirds of the Island’s flock.”

Along with the sheep, he also took cows and pigs, as well as guns. Before leaving, the British sailors under Gen. Grey destroyed boats and saltworks on the Tisbury shoreline. They came ashore and camped out on Manter’s Hill. “Tisbury was then, as now, the front door of the Island, and everything that comes from the wider world comes from a significant degree through Tisbury,” Van Riper said.

That’s still true today, as Vineyard Haven is the most prominent port for the Steamship Authority’s ferries to and from Martha’s Vineyard. It’s the home of Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway, R.M. Packer’s barge operations, and several other marine-related businesses on the working waterfront.

“One of the things that sets Holmes Hole, present-day Vineyard Haven, apart is that it’s so tied to the sea and the harbor, and that’s a massive opportunity from early on. It’s a ferry port. It’s a place where there are taverns and inns, and ship chandleries, and it’s a place where people hire themselves out as pilots to passing ships,” Van Riper said. “From early days in the late 1600s and early 1700s, present-day Tisbury is intensely and intently focused economically on the water … and yet its proximity to harbor and its position relative to the rest of the Island also provides incredible opportunity, and also puts it at incredible risk because every time there is a northeast storm, Tisbury in general, and Holmes Hole specifically, gets beaten by the wind and the waves.”

While the town appears to lack a clear identity, Van Riper contends that on closer inspection, Tisbury in many ways is like the entire Island in miniature. One of the points he’ll make in his presentation scheduled for Thursday, July 8, from 4 to 5 pm (sold out, according to the museum’s website) is its immigration history.

He’ll talk about Joseph Dias, who emigrated from the Azores, and is one of the early Portuguese settlers on the Island. “He’s a sailor, so his skills are in demand. He settles here. He marries a local [Sarah Manter]. Sadly, he goes off to fight in the Revolution as a crewman on a privateer. He’s captured by the British, and dies in a prison ship in New York Harbor. But Sarah’s pregnant with his son, who’s named Joseph Jr. He becomes a harbor pilot, and his son, Joseph the third, sometimes confusingly called Joseph Jr. … becomes one of the youngest whaling captains.”

The younger Dias survived a whale ramming his ship, retired early, and led the charge to make Cottage City independent, Van Riper said. “When they hold the victory party in 1879, it’s in the meeting house at his hotel,” he said. It’s a demonstration that “the Portuguese have been here since the U.S. has been the U.S., and have been an integral part of Island culture and of Tisbury culture.”

Another immigration subset in Tisbury history is Eastern European Jews, Van Riper said. “Most know about the African American community in Oak Bluffs, most people know about Portuguese and Azorean immigration, and the Brazilian immigration of the 1980s to present day, but there is in the early decades of the 20th century a small cluster of Eastern European Jewish families who settle on the Island, overwhelmingly in Tisbury,” he said.

The presence of Israel Issokson, Judal Brickman, Sam Cronig, and David Levine is still felt. “They all came out of Eastern Europe as part of the wave of immigration fleeing the czars, tyranny and the pogroms,” Van Riper said. “They settle here, and in a different way than Joe Dias — it’s the American immigrant story. Judal Brickman buys a cobbler shop, which becomes a shoe store, which becomes a department store, and his sister marries Israel Issokson, and his daughter marries David Levine, and there’s this whole interwoven Jewish-American subculture … They’re the ones who founded the Hebrew Center, and organize high holy days when they can bring in rabbis from off-Island and continue the old ways, while at the same time walking the tightrope of being the immigrant other and being the foursquare American.”

Some of the businesses — Brickman’s and Cronig’s — remain to this day.

Along with being a draw for immigrants, Tisbury also attracted celebrities. While famous individuals can be found in nearly every community on the Island today, Tisbury is the place where the Island got its reputation as the “playground of the rich and famous,” with Katharine Cornell and James Cagney in the early part of the 21st century and later Lillian Hellman (who lived in the historic Mill House), Rose Styron, Bill Styron, Mike Wallace, Art Buchwald, and others who formed “writer’s row.” 

“In the wider world, they’re above-the-fold, top-of-the-line famous, but here they’re just … you walk down the street and say, ‘Hey Jim, how are you doing?’ They hold big parties and then invite locals,” Van Riper said. “They throw out the first pitch at the charity softball game, which Cornell did at the hospital cavalcade in ’41.”

Cornell was first introduced to the Vineyard as a child, and would later come back as a Broadway star. “She was Tisbury’s most famous wash-ashore,” Van Riper said. “The Vineyard becomes her retreat. Her place. She is first and foremost a creature of New York and Broadway, but the Vineyard is, as it becomes for so many people down to the present day, the place where she goes to leave all that behind and just relax and recharge and sit on the deck and watch the waves roll in.”

Cornell and Nancy Hamilton produced a documentary in 1971 that provides a snapshot of Vineyard history called, “This Is Our Island.” It features interviews with Joseph Chase Allen and Henry Beetle Hough. The documentary captures the shift in the Vineyard economy from a place of fishing and farming and occasional tourism to tourism with occasional fishing and farming, Van Riper said. “That’s what Arthur Railton referred to as the change,” Van Riper said. Railton was the previous editor of the museum’s historical magazine. 

Cornell is responsible for funding the renovation to the second-floor auditorium at town hall that now bears her name. She was also the person who gave artist Stan Murphy his start. Murphy would ultimately paint the iconic murals on the walls of the Katharine Cornell Theater.

“Thanks to Katharine Cornell, the auditorium is the great communal space in town and the place where town meetings, hearings, and performances are held,” Van Riper said. “It’s one of those spaces where if you show a picture of one of those murals or a picture of someone with those murals in the background — everyone who has ever had an association with that space says, I know where that is.”

While there’s no cake, no parade, and no pomp planned, Tisbury does have its lasting legacy as the Island’s “front door.”

Fun facts about Tisbury
  • What we know today as Vineyard Haven was once Holmes Hole. The name was changed to Vineyard Haven at the 200th anniversary: “I don’t think it was done explicitly for the 200th anniversary. The story Kay Mayhew, who has lived for decades gone by, and has reason to know, tells, the ladies of Holmes Hole thought that Holmes Hole wasn’t a very dignified name and living in a hole wasn’t an attractive proposition, so they petitioned the postal service to give it a more melodious name, like Vineyard Haven and the Post Office said, Yeah, sure, whatever.”
  • The town’s Indian name was Nobnocket, and the town was named Tisbury for the English parish of Gov. Thomas Mayhew.
  • The Mill House, one of the most prominent houses on Vineyard Harbor, was once owned by Gen. A.B. Carey. Prior to that it, was owned by Molly Merry, “who was a woman of repute in town.” Merry allowed British soldiers to bunk there during the American Revolution. The house was demolished in 2019 in a controversial move that prompted new rules in Tisbury and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission for identifying historic houses. The house has since been rebuilt, and the mill preserved.
  • It once encompassed the entire center of the Island. West Tisbury eventually split off into another town, largely because property owners in what was then Holmes Hole thought the church was too far away. “The beginnings of the separation between the two began when people from Holmes Hole petitioned the town fathers and said, Look, we’re all in favor of religion and the church, but we don’t want to pay taxes to support a minister preaching in what’s now West Tisbury, because that’s way too far for us to go, and why should we pay for a guy whose sermons we’re never going to hear?”
  • The split came in 1892. “Tisbury and West Tisbury, after a century or so of being nominally married, but essentially living apart, finalize the divorce in 1892. West Tisbury gets two-thirds of the land, Tisbury gets the name.”


Sources: Quotes are from Bow Van Riper; other facts from Henry Franklin Norton’s, “Martha’s Vineyard” and Linsey Lee’s “More Vineyard Voices.”


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