The New Vineyard

Packing up the kids and moving to Maine.


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.



  1. thanks for sending this it was very interesting. I did not know Nordica had roots on Martha’s Vineyard or that she had a home there. I do remember Gram talking about her cousin tho.

  2. Great job Chris. I love the history of it all. And I added to the lure of Martha’s Vineyard.

  3. Nordica really only spent one Summer at her childhood home in Farmington. That was the Summer of 1911 when she did give a free concert for the town at what is now Nordica Auditorium at U. Maine Farmington. “Nortonwoods” had passed out of the family, but was bought back by Nordica’s sisters as a birthday present to her. Today it is the Lillian Nordica Museum. My parents were caretakers of the museum for 15 years and I lived there my senior year of high school, but it was very much our home during that time. Growing up in Farmington I knew many families with the surnames mentioned in the article.

    • Hello, Doug! Isn’t this just the best article? Here’s the weird part. A friend (whom you know) has started a vineyard on the north slope of Ick Norton Mtn. And I am to be caretaker. I’m emaiing you details. It’s been awhile, I know. But I’ve been busy packing!

  4. Thank you. This is quite interesting. Actually, New Vineyard is in Franklin County. We live in Vienna. our house is in Kennebec county right on the county line. I’ve seen Cape Cod hill road in Franklin county and seen New Vineyard and wondered how it was named such here in central Maine.

  5. My mother (Lillian Hardy) was born (1921) in New Vineyard and was named after Lillian Nordica. I also enjoyed reading this.

  6. I’m not a native Mainer although I love reading histories of the local towns. I never knew of this “Vineyard” connection before and it was very interesting to read. Daggett Rock certainly is the biggest boulder I’ve ever seen and worth the short hike to get there. A photo op for sure!

    • Hi Claire! 🙂

      SUCH a great article about our community history! I can’t wait to send this to my Mum! Hope all is well. 💛

    • That’s interesting with the name Vining. That name is connected to Burnham. My great grandfather was from Maine. I have a cousin whose daughter’s middle name is Vining and it definitely comes from the Maine MV connection.

  7. Thanks Chris for sharing this! I had never heard about this part of our island history. Sounds like a road trip is in order.

  8. Good read. Our family owns the house at the top of Norton Mountain overlooking Clearwater Lake. I enjoyed reading about some of the history.

  9. We loved reading this story, which also answers our question about the genesis of the town’s name in Maine…We owned a home on Sugarloaf Mtn. for many years, and always passed through New Vineyard on our long drive up there. How wonderful to realize that, as 25yr. seasonal MV residents, we found such an interesting, and ironic, connection! We must somehow be drawn in by those old ghosts!!!

  10. I grew up a New Vineyard!

    Pretty rare we see our little town mentioned anywhere. Very cool to read some of the history.

  11. I am interested in the last paragraph, can you tell me more about this story of Daggett Rock

  12. Nice story as usual Chris. It surprises me that so few people realize the strong connection between Maine and Martha’s Vineyard.

  13. I often have thought about my Norton relatives as they packed up their belongings and headed up on their journey to New Vineyard. At the time of their departure, it was actually still Massachusetts. How did they get up there, steamboat to Boston, then by oxen? Were their roads? How long did it take them to travel, as I believe there was about 30 of them and their families. The Norton’s were farmers and as they signed off their title and rights to their Vineyard relatives and headed off thus establishing their new life, each of them were able to have large acreage for their own farms. Thus the names New Vineyard and Farmington.

  14. For anybody wondering why so many islanders went to Maine. Here’s an excerpt from another of Chris’s articles.

    The decades after the American Revolution were difficult ones on Martha’s Vineyard. The local economy had collapsed, whaling was at a lull, political feuds were roiling, and the threat of another war with England arriving upon the shores of our Island was taken seriously. So a great exodus began to the frontier lands of Maine — at that time, still part of Massachusetts.

    In 1790, two of Sally’s uncles, together with three other Islanders, purchased nearly 1,600 acres of land in western Maine for 45 pounds sterling. They named it “New Vineyard.” The next year, five of Sally’s Norton uncles and their families moved to the wilds of Maine. A few years passed, and then Sally, her parents, and her eight surviving siblings packed their bags and followed them to Maine. It was a broad migration; Island families of Daggett, Merry, Manter, Butler, and Luce settled in the towns of New Vineyard, Farmington, Strong, Industry, Avons, Phillips, and beyond. Sally’s father, Eliakim, built Farmington’s meetinghouse in 1803.

  15. I can add to it a little if your interested. In the late 1970’s I was hired by Emery’s and Smith’s to reestablish interior property lines on some 12,000 acres of land mostly located in New Vineyard and with parcels also in Salem, Industry, Mercer and New Portland. Harry and Author Smith had inherited much of the land from their father Fed Smith the first but both brothers had also bought land as did the mill and interior lines had been ignored. Now the descendants of both brothers wanted the land separated. With my background in real estate, forestry and the Registry of Deeds it was a good fit.
    The people from Martha’s Vineyard settled on the South side of the New Vineyard mountains. Where the town of New Vineyard is located today is on the North Side of the mountains. The North side of the mountains was settled by people from Marlboro, Mass.
    The North side was bought sight unseen and the people did not realize it was the side of a mountain. The original settlement was on the old Talcut Corner road that commenced just before the Notch Cemetery, ran behind the Notch Cemetery across the top of current Highstreet in New Vineyard and strait on Past Shady Lane farm located on the Brahmer Rd. and strait onto the Anson Valley Rd. The section of road from The Notch Cemetery to another cemetery located on the South end of What is now called the Parlin Hill Rd. was abandoned early on as evidenced by the stone walls that were built across this section of the road. While the settlers made a valiant effort to settle on the side of the mountain it did not last and the area was abandoned with some of the homes being moved down into what is now New Vineyard village.
    Here’s something that happened while I was working in this area I was following an old property line I saw a flat stone laying on the ground to the left of my line I brushed the leaves off it and could make out AE 43. I also noticed a bunch of depressions in the ground about the size of graves. That night I called the old cemetery asso. And talked to someone who said they had been looking for this cemetery for years. She told me there was a woman of the coast that had a lot of information about it and had been looking for it. I called her and she said after they closed the road a doctor who had grown up in New Vineyard had moved back after he retired, found they had closed the road so hired someone to move all his relatives buried there to Notch Cemetery. She said all the impressions I had seen were probably empty graves.
    The next day I went back up to the cemetery and located several more stones. I then jumped into one of the shallow depressions and stomped down. Oddly it sounded kind of hollow so I started cuffing leaves to the side to see why it sounded hollow. The next thing I know I’m staring at a bone sticking out of the ground about 4 inches from my nose. As you can imagine I was out of that hole in a split second. After my heart slowed a bit and I calmed down a bit I took another look and the bone was a stub end of a deer antler. On further investigation I found that the holes were filled with rubbish like old shoes, cream separator’s etc. Apparently some old farmer had decided those holes were a great place to dump his rubbish. Needless to say I don’t jump in grave depressions any more.
    While the settlement on the South side of the mountains had better farmland it also did not survive and I have read several explanations why this happened. First the area had but one small stream running through it so there was very little water power. With the combination of mills hiring workers many young men left for work and with the West opening many who went off to fight in the civil war never returned.
    While these areas have reverted to forestland they are a very interesting to explore with a lot of history.

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