This Was Then: The joys of Oak Bluffs

The swill tub becomes a moneymaker.


The area we know today as downtown Oak Bluffs was known as “Squash Meadow” for longer than it has been called “Oak Bluffs.” The large body of brackish water at its center — today our harbor and Sunset Lake — was a single body called “Squash Meadow Pond” since at least 1684, when it was still the dominion of the sachem Wampamog. “On the fertile ground surrounding this pond the Indians doubtless had fields of squash growing here when the [English] came,” wrote historian Charles Banks in his book, “The History of Martha’s Vineyard.” (The English word “squash” is derived from the Algonquian word “askutasquash,” and they were grown here long before the settlers arrived.)

In 1870, when the Methodists began to expand their annual camp meetings out of the grove beyond the pond, they built a 15-foot-wide bridge across the water. The bridge was soon replaced by a causeway that divided it into two bodies, Sunset Lake and Lake Anthony. By 1876, a plank walkway extended from downtown Cottage City all the way to the Highland Wharf near East Chop. The waters symbolically divided the Methodists from the Baptists; traversing the Lake Anthony causeway was referred to as “crossing over Jordan.”

By 1886, Lake Anthony had become ground zero for the Grand Illumination, which marked the end of summer in Cottage City. Huge floats were prepared, together with “large pieces of scenery such as are used in a theater,” an 1886 Boston Globe article titled “Flames from Fairyland” reported. Using “phosphorescent fire,” over-the-top pyrotechnics, and theatrical wizardry, the lake became a stage for serpents, fairies, ice kings, monsters, swans, whales, and phantom ships, together with a 500-foot multicolored “luna arch” and a “Temple of Pleasure” rising 50 feet above the water atop revolving columns. “For half a mile on either side, the land was black with people who came early,” reported the Globe.

But the lake had a big problem. By 1884, it was derided in the newspapers as “the Cottage City swill tub,” and “a sink of pollution.”.The green sheen of “miasma” upon its surface triggered fears of malaria. “The shores are being raked over nearly every day, and the sea moss and green scum constantly being removed to the land and left in small piles, which decompose,” wrote a reporter for the Globe, “and the air is laden with a perfume that is first-rate if you don’t smell it.” “Perhaps the best cure, with little expense to the town,” wrote another Globe reporter in 1884, “would be to open the narrow beach that closely divides the lake with the sea; let the unobstructed waters of the ocean sweep in and out, call it Cottage City yacht and row boat harbor, put a row of shade trees around it, electric lights, establish bathing houses at the west side, and have a young Switzerland.”

But that was more expensive than the town could afford. The U.S. Army came to study the problem, but decided it was not worthy of federal funds. The idea was kicked around for another decade. An unsuccessful attempt was made to sell “subscriptions” to summertime yacht owners who otherwise had to anchor their vessels in Vineyard Haven.

There was a small and unnavigable natural opening between Lake Anthony and the sound. In July 1894, 6-year-old Peter Baker of Newton was washed into the lake by the swift current of the incoming tide when he tried to bathe in the little waterway. New York City public school teacher Clothilde Douai was lauded as the “lion of the hour” when she dove into the lake to rescue the child as others simply watched. Doctors worked on the boy for several hours, but efforts to resuscitate him ultimately failed.

By 1894, the Baptist association threatened to withdraw their annual camp meeting from the Island unless the “filthy condition of Lake Anthony” was addressed. By 1895, any talk of making a yacht harbor was “out of the question,” according to the Boston Herald, as the streetcars could now bring yachtsmen from Vineyard Haven Harbor to Cottage City in a matter of minutes. The board of selectmen proposed a “dam or dike” to close the natural opening, a plan which was approved at the state level, but this project also languished.

And so “the nuisance of vegetable growth” in Lake Anthony continued to fester. Residents petitioned the Cottage City board of health that “the disgusting vegetable matter be at once removed.” The selectmen again looked at opening a navigable channel into the lake. “Lake Anthony on the Vineyard is said to be in a filthy condition suggestive of malaria. It needs the purifying influence of a heavy northeast storm,” wrote the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror in 1897.

A year later, Nantucket’s quip became a deadly prophecy. In late November 1898, a violent blizzard known as the “Portland Gale” tore across the region, wrecking hundreds of ships and killing countless people across New England waters. Unable to find a port in a storm, the schooner Island City was wrecked just outside the natural opening to Lake Anthony. In hurricane-force winds and blowing snow, Captain Lars Nelson and two crewmen found themselves far enough from the storm-pounded beach that they couldn’t swim to shore, but close enough that they could be clearly seen by the line of residents on the beach. Brave would-be rescuers tried repeatedly to reach them by boat, but were turned back by the storm each time. Others tried to deliver a line by firing it at the wreck via rocket, but that, too, failed in the gusty winds. The three crewmen lashed themselves to the rigging, but over the next few hours, each fell into the frigid surf. Their bodies would wash up days later. The wreck lay on the beach for years afterward.

Motivated by this tragedy, the building of the harbor began in earnest the next summer. Five feet deep and flanked by a pair of granite jetties extending 200 feet into the sound, Oak Bluffs Harbor was completed in November 1899. Dredgings were deposited on the beach on both sides, providing a substantial barrier against breaking waves.

Enter the Joys

Three Joy brothers had arrived on the Vineyard — Charles, Everett, and Eugene Joy — all born on Nantucket. Their father, Edward Joy, was a truckman and sailmaker, but also spent a few years during the 1860s working as a mariner on the South Shoal light boat, some forty miles off the coast of Nantucket. Brothers Charles and Everett were the first to arrive in Cottage City, as contracted cottage painters, about 1880. Everett bought property on Lake Anthony, and by 1892 had opened a paint and sign shop on Lake Avenue, where Nancy’s Restaurant is today.

Charles Joy would spend the rest of his life in Oak Bluffs and Edgartown. He was more successful as a house painter and yachtsman than he was as a husband and father; his first wife Emily, a nurse, divorced him in 1895 “on the grounds of cruel and abusive treatment, and gross and confirmed habits of intoxication.” Charles was a wild goose hunter and decoy maker, and eventually became one of the founders of the Rod and Gun Club.

Their younger brother, Eugene Joy, joined them in Cottage City from Nantucket by the late 1890s. He had a few run-ins with the law on his native island, and by the age of 22 had spent time in the Nantucket jail for larceny of a grocery store. His love life was also rocky; in 1911, while living in Onset for a stint, he made newspaper gossip when he married his widowed landlady on the eve of the trial of the accused murderer of her husband outside a billiard room in Onset a year earlier. The marriage didn’t last long, and he eventually returned to Oak Bluffs.

In late 1899, immediately after “the canal” was cut through to the ocean, Everett Joy was granted a license to build a pier in Lake Anthony, “a wharf in the newly constructed Oak Bluffs harbor to afford accommodation for the numerous sailing craft which will utilize the harbor.” He hired a Nantucket boatbuilder to construct a score of cedar rowboats for summer visitors to rent, together with a flotilla of small sailboats.

About 1900, Everett erected the first “beacons” upon the jetties of the new harbor — one green and one red — and became recognized as the first harbormaster of what would become Oak Bluffs Harbor. As keeper of the jetty lights, Joy even drew a substantial salary from the U.S. Lighthouse Service, earning nearly as much as the Island’s lighthouse keepers.

By 1901, Joy’s building became designated as a “Rudder station” — a recognition provided to marine gasoline stations by Rudder Magazine, which provided free advertising in exchange for flying a 10-foot-long red “Rudder” pennant atop his building.

Joy’s Pier became the go-to stop for the catboats, small yachts, and steam launches of wealthy summer visitors. In the summer of 1903, Harbormaster Joy estimated that an average of 75 yachts entered and cleared the harbor daily, in addition to 25 yachts that made a home port there. Photos of the pier became a popular postcard, and “Joy’s Pier” even became the title of a 1951 memoir by summertime yachtsman Phillips Case. When Cottage City became Oak Bluffs in 1907, it was from Joy’s Pier that a salute was fired and flags raised.

But in May 1907, Everett was appointed keeper of the Brant Point Light on his native Nantucket. It was considered a plum job at the time, but he resigned in 1911, and remained on Nantucket for the rest of his years. Nevertheless, Everett continued to maintain his business interests in Oak Bluffs, now mostly managed by his two brothers. Eugene became superintendent of the wharf, while Charles ran the painting business and became “captain” of the gasoline station and the new keeper of the jetty lights, a role he reportedly kept until the 1920s. (Today, a single red light on the jetty is maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard.)

By 1908, Everett had opened an automobile dealership on the property, about where the Sand Bar & Grille stands today. It was one of only two dealerships on the Island at the time (the other being Sibley’s Garage in Oak Bluffs). “I painted a large sign reading, ’Joy’s Automobile Station,’” recalled Everett in 1939 in an interview with a Nantucket reporter. “On the side, overlooking the harbor, I painted another sign, reading ‘Gasoline For Power Boats.’ Still, on the other side of the building, facing the street, I had: ‘Gasolene For Automobiles.’ The ‘gas’ I sold had an ‘i’ for water and an ‘e’ for land. Just another of my idiosyncrasies. In order to sell my gas, I would strain it through a chamois skin, as water will not run through chamois, but gasoline will, and the least bit of water that got into the gas would stop the engine of a boat or automobile in those days.” Charles likely managed the dealership and garage after Everett left for Nantucket, but the business evidently closed by 1912. “There are more automobiles there than ever,” Charles was quoted by a Nantucket reporter in 1914; “the automobilists are inevitably money-spenders on the Vineyard.”

Everett never married. In his last years, he was known on Nantucket as “the bard of Surfside,” and spent his last days writing poetry for the local newspaper. He died on Nantucket in 1940; his brothers Charles and Eugene both died in Oak Bluffs in 1935.

Coleman Church, who ran a fish market next to Everett Joy’s Lake Avenue paint shop — later moving into the old paint shop itself — eventually took over the management of the waterfront. His name now adorns Joy’s pier.

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.



  1. Another great article here, Chris. So much I didn’t know! Thank you.

    p s. The Joy’s Garage building was unchanged at least to the mid-1960’s when it housed the small beverage wholesaler T. P. Panacy Co. i used to carry wooden cases of soda from there to my grandmother’s snack bar next to the Flying Horses. They had a silver 1932- ish Ford flatbed truck inside that was still used for deliveries!

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