This Was Then: MacNeill’s Grocery

And a tale of two libraries.


At the edge of downtown Oak Bluffs, on the corner of Pennacook and Circuit Avenues, stands a building with a long and colorful history: 82 Pennacook Ave., owned by the town of Oak Bluffs and currently undergoing renovations to become residential apartments.

Modern records state that this structure was built in 1895, but fire insurance maps from the 1880s show that the building was probably here at least eight years earlier. It is believed to have been built by Eli Leighton (1843–1914), an Oak Bluffs house carpenter who was perhaps better known for his career with the Cottage City Police, eventually becoming Oak Bluffs Chief of Police. (“Officer Eli Leighton finally managed to persuade the combatants to call the affair off by a judicious use of his official club,” read one report of an incident at the Pawnee House in 1899.) The building Leighton is best known for erecting, however, is undoubtedly the one now referred to as the “Corbin-Norton house” on Ocean Park, destroyed by fire in 2001 and subsequently reconstructed.

The original owner of the Pennacook Avenue building was Thomas Dunham Crowell (1858–1919), a local grocer. The T.D. Crowell grocery store evidently operated here from the 1880s until the early 1910s. He advertised “Fancy Groceries — orders solicited and delivered promptly” on the corner of Circuit and Pennacook. The second floor was used by the Henry Clay Wade post of the Grand Army of the Republic, of whom builder Leighton was a member, having served as a musician in Maine’s 22nd Infantry during the Civil War.

A former Cottage City constable himself, grocer Crowell was enmeshed in local politics. He served as a selectman of Cottage City in the 1880s, and ran unsuccessfully for state office as a Republican in 1905. He wound up embroiled in controversy when he defended a town treasurer who was accused of embezzling taxpayer funds. In the early 1900s, perhaps distracted by politics, legal issues, and a new express business, Crowell turned management of his grocery store over to Horatio Pease (1836–1919), who for many years had been the lightkeeper of Gay Head.

In 1914, the building was purchased by Emery Noyes (1861–1947), who turned it into a general store. Noyes advertised “Furniture, House Furnishings, Hardware, etc., also 5¢ and 10¢ Department.” The business apparently lasted only about six years at this location, but the structure is still referred to, even today, as “the Noyes Building.”

In 1920, Noyes sold the property to William C. (“Bill”) MacNeill, a “provisions dealer” and 54-year-old widower from Amesbury. MacNeill transformed the store once again into a grocery and butcher shop, advertising ”Choice Meats and Groceries.”

Bill’s brother George MacNeill followed him to the Island, and became the proprietor of the White Front Lunch and Restaurant in Oak Bluffs, before opening a second restaurant in Vineyard Haven in 1924 named Mac’s, which stood behind Cronig’s downtown market on Church Street. (This restaurant building was eventually moved to Lagoon Pond Road, where it is occupied by Island Color Center today.)

In 1921, Bill married Helena (“Lena”_ Athearn (1876–1967) of West Tisbury. Lena had been employed as a clerk at the Cottage City/Oak Bluffs Post Office since the 1890s, and was serving as assistant postmaster of Oak Bluffs at the time of her marriage. Unfortunately, the U.S. Post Office had long instituted a “marriage bar,” which required women to resign upon marriage, and forbade the employment of married women in “established” positions. So Lena had to relinquish her position.

Then the Great Depression arrived on the Island. By the mid-’30s, more than a third of the Island’s residents were supported by public welfare; by 1935, Oak Bluffs had a higher proportion of its citizens on relief than any other town in southeast Massachusetts, with more than 68 percent of its population on the dole. One of the early casualties of the local financial collapse was MacNeill’s Grocery — MacNeill declared bankruptcy in 1931, and lost the property to foreclosure the same year. It was soon acquired by the town of Oak Bluffs, perhaps for nonpayment of taxes.

About 1936, the building became the new Oak Bluffs Public Library. The first librarian at its new location was Mildred Penney, formerly a fourth-grade teacher at the Oak Bluffs School, who checked out 15,224 books and magazines in her first year at the new location on Pennacook. Her husband, Joseph, was an Italian-born barber as well as a member of the Oak Bluffs Library Trustees. He was presumably an early champion of the new library. “Our new location, corner Circuit and Penacook avenues, is a great improvement over the old one, and has met with the hearty approval of the townspeople,” he co-wrote in this position in the 1936 Town Report. (Mr. Penney would later manage the Pequot Hotel in Oak Bluffs, and open Penney’s Restaurant in Vineyard Haven at the former location of Mac’s.)

Forced out of the grocery business, the MacNeills moved to Lena’s ancestral hometown of West Tisbury. Dionis Coffin Riggs mentions Mr. MacNeill in her 1973 book “People to Remember,” under the category “People of the Arts”: “William MacNeill was a painter of primitives. His small shop on the South Road near Look’s Brook was a healthy gathering place for teenagers of the day.” One of his paintings appeared at a 2003 auction in Maine in which two Vineyard heath hens are depicted on a 15- by 19-inch canvas in an obvious homage to a well-known Alexander Pope Jr. painting of two pinnated grouse. Bill MacNeill died in 1937.

Lena outlived him by 30 years, and is remembered with fondness as an eccentric West Tisbury widow. Riggs wrote about her, “During the week, in summer, Mrs. MacNeill was postmistress at West Chop, and on Saturday afternoons was librarian at West Tisbury. Later the library became her full-time occupation. This position she took very seriously, reading every book and crossing out words she considered improper before she permitted them to leave the library.”

The neighborhood boys still remember her well. “When I was a kid,” writes Tom Hodgson of West Tisbury, “she lived in the little yellow house across from the town office, next to the Mill Pond. That old well out front in the yard? That’s where she got her water. She might have been the last West Tisbury resident to use an open well.”

“She often took books home from the library that she felt were inappropriate for people to read. Several were found in her home after her death,” writes Charlie Kernick of West Tisbury about his great-aunt Lena. “For years on Halloween, neighborhood kids would push her car down the driveway to the edge of the marsh. They thought it was funny, but to me it sounds a lot like the harassment that Nancy Luce used to suffer.”
Her portrait, somewhat of a caricature painted by Tom Maley, currently hangs downstairs in the conference room at the West Tisbury Public Library.

The Oak Bluffs Public Library moved out of MacNeill’s old grocery and into its current building in 2005. After a full renovation, a branch of Conroy’s Apothecary occupied the downstairs of the town-owned structure until 2019. The building is currently under renovation, once again, to add two affordable housing units on the first floor.

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 2018.