My son and I took a trip up to New Vineyard, Maine, a few weeks ago. New Vineyard is exactly what its name suggests: a town settled by dozens of Martha’s Vineyard families in what was the single largest mass exodus in Island history.
The history of Martha’s Vineyard is closely intertwined with this unlikely twin in the mountainous interior of Maine, a modern 4½-hour drive from Woods Hole, and less than two hours north of Portland, among a cluster of small, rural towns north of Farmington along the winding Sandy River — Industry, Norridgewock, Madison, Strong, Livermore, Phillips, Anson, Phillips, and others — all of which share significant history with our faraway Island.
We spent the night in Madison, Maine, less than 12 miles away from New Vineyard, as the raven flies. But our trip took more than half an hour along quiet, narrow back roads through the forested, snow-covered hills of rural Maine. Crossing the Kennebec River, we drove past Athearn Cemetery in the town of Anson, named after Edgartown natives Thomas and Sarah Athearn and their children, who were the first to be buried here in the first half of the 19th century.
We passed Mayhew Road and Merry Road, and then by Pease Hill, where Luce’s Saphouse stands. Owner Arnold Luce proudly traces his ancestry back eight generations to Martha’s Vineyard. The Luce family has been making maple syrup in this region since Capt. Charles Luce moved here from Holmes Hole in 1795.
Crossing into the town of Industry, we drove along the slopes of Boardman Mountain, named after Chilmark native Sylvanus Boardman. The son of Chilmark Church pastor the Rev. Andrew Boardman, Sylvanus led an aimless youth, traveling throughout the Northeast for 10 years, “in hopes that a door might open for a decent, comfortable living, without hard labor, an article to which I always had a peculiar aversion,” he later wrote. Like so many others, Boardman eventually settled here in Maine with three partners from the Island (Samuel Hillman and brothers Ransom and James Norton), and eventually became a preacher himself. He was a large man with a booming, forceful voice, and local legend attributes the roaring sounds of the winter winds around Boardman Mountain to the spirit of Sylvanus Boardman.
Dozens and dozens of Vineyard families moved to the southern end of what’s now Franklin County, Maine, in a migration that peaked during the years of 1789 to 1794. Typically sailing in a schooner as far as the mouth of the Kennebec River, families then faced the challenge of traveling into the unforgiving, roadless wilderness of Maine’s mountainous interior, often with small children in tow. Dorothy Cottle Poole of Chilmark wrote the seminal history of this migration, her 1976 book, “A New Vineyard.” It’s a genealogical study full of tales of the hardships Vineyard families faced — babies falling into swamps, bear attacks, poverty, famine, and severe weather — as they tried to make a new life for themselves in Maine.
As my son and I drove into New Vineyard, we passed more commercial maple groves on the slopes of Norton Mountain, sometimes known as New Vineyard Mountain. But don’t confuse “Norton Mountain” with nearby “Ick Norton Mountain” to the north; the namesake of the latter peak is uncertain, but it is probably named after lifelong New Vineyard farmer Ichabod Norton (1824–99), whose four grandparents were all Edgartown natives.
Poole gives a half-dozen parallel reasons for the migration from our Vineyard to west-central Maine: She cites the long-stewing grievances of families who still felt the oppression of the nepotistic, autocratic Mayhew-led government of the Island during Colonial times; an acute need for more farmland, heavily monopolized by sheep-raising; and a retreat from the hazards of whaling, which took the lives of so many Island men. Religion also had a role — most of the emigrants, not coincidentally, were Baptists.
The Revolution also played an important part. In 1776, as the war was going poorly, the Continental Army abandoned the defense of the Island as the English Navy seized control of Vineyard waters. In 1777, the Massachusetts General Court even recommended that Vineyarders remove their livestock and valuables to the mainland, “that they may be in better capacity to retreat from the enemy.” And they were right. In the 1778 invasion known as Grey’s Raid, British troops stole virtually every sheep and valuable from the Island, leaving Vineyarders to face a bleak winter with little food and no income.
Even after the war concluded, Vineyarders were wary of fresh British attacks on the Island. The whaling industry had been wiped out, and the local economy was in collapse. Meanwhile, Massachusetts was offering “free” lands to the north in the province of Maine, which was still a part of the commonwealth of Massachusetts until 1819. Poole points out that many Vineyard men had traveled through Maine, and had garrisoned with Maine men in Nova Scotia during the French and Indian War, and had brought rose-tinted tales of Maine back to the Vineyard.
And so, in just a few years, the pioneer towns of New Vineyard, Industry, Farmington, and others sprang up and became populated by Island families named Norton, Allen, Mayhew, Daggett, Athearn, and Luce.
Not everyone stayed; some returned in later generations. The Dukes County census of 1850 lists nearly 50 families on the Island with members born in southern Franklin County — folks like famed Cedar Tree Neck resident John Tobey Daggett, author of “It Began With a Whale,” who was born in New Vineyard and returned to his ancestral Island as a child.
Leaving Industry, my son and I turned up Hymie Norton Road in New Vineyard, named after legendary New Vineyard hermit Hiram Norton, who lived alone high on the slopes of Norton Mountain without car, electricity, phone, or radio until his death in 1966. It is remembered that he was so nimble that he could put his foot up to his mouth while standing up, even at the age of 75.
Hymie was the last surviving first cousin of Wagnerian opera star Lillian Norton (1857–1914) of Farmington, better known to the world as “Madame Nordica.” One of the best-paid singers on Earth during the 1890s and early 20th century, Nordica was an international sensation, a prima donna soprano known for her extravagant jewelry collection. Her paternal grandparents, James and Lydia Norton, were both Edgartown natives. James was the grandson of Major Peter Norton, namesake of Major’s Cove. Her maternal grandfather was famous Methodist evangelist preacher “Camp Meeting John” Allen, whose parents were also both Vineyarders.
Norton visited her distant cousins on Martha’s Vineyard in 1876, just before her career took off, and performed at Union Chapel. She then returned to pomp and parades at the height of her fame in 1908, performing “Weird Cry of the Valkyrie” at the Methodist Church in Vineyard Haven, in what writer Henry Franklin Norton called “the most important social event that ever happened in Vineyard Haven.” (He also described her as “the most distinguished woman of Vineyard lineage.”) Nordica spent that summer in Edgartown, together with her sister and a “medical advisor,” and even bought property on West Chop.
But her visit ended poorly. That September, she packed up and left for the steamer with eight valises, stopping in Oak Bluffs for lunch. But when she prepared to get on the boat, she found that she only had seven. The missing bag contained at least $4,000 in jewelry, or by some estimates $14,000. At first, the Nordica trio was “uncommunicative” about the robbery. One report stated, “According to the police, she refused to tell them how they had been stolen, or go into any details on the theft.” After the local police failed to find any leads, the Boston police got involved, but neither jewels nor thieves were ever reported found. At least one newspaper suggested that it was all a publicity stunt, sniping, “Rich and famous as Nordica is, yet she allows her press agent to work up for her the old device of stolen jewels.”
Nordica never returned to the Vineyard, quietly selling off her West Chop property a few years later. She summered afterward at her childhood home in Farmington (“Nortonwoods”), and performed a warmly remembered 1911 concert at what’s now called Nordica Auditorium in Farmington, escorted to the stage by her eccentric cousin Hymie. Nordica died a few years later in Batavia, Java (now Jakarta, Indonesia) of pneumonia, following a shipwreck, while on a world tour.
Tucked among rugged mountains, New Vineyard is today a quiet village of some 720 residents. In the center of town stands a modest building sporting a small plaque commemorating Nathan Daggett of Tisbury, born 1750, “chief pilot of French Fleet at Surrender of Cornwallis, Oct. 19, 1781 — Yorktown, Va.” Capt. Daggett afterward moved, together with so many other Islanders, to New Vineyard.
Nine miles west of the village center is the famed Daggett Rock, a massive boulder split in two, believed to be the largest glacial erratic in Maine. Local legend recalls a woodsman named Daggett who owned the property. According to one telling, Daggett “made and drank his own liquor and was a pronounced and offensive infidel.” During a thunderstorm, the story goes, he climbed atop the boulder half-drunk, “and with horrible oaths defied any Creator to strike him.” He was killed instantly, they say, and his body fell into the crack. A second bolt knocked a slab of stone over the hole, sealing him in forever.