100 Years, 100 Stories – April

100 Years, 100 Stories

April: Turning a Profit

Martha’s Vineyard’s proximity to major sea lanes and large summer population (a feature of Island life since the end of the Civil War) create unique business opportunities, but turning a profit on the Island also presents unique challenges. The Vineyard’s tiny year-round customer base, limited resources, and inability to compete with large mainland producers are significant challenges, and entrepreneurs’ responses to them have become part of Island culture.

1. Hard-wearing satinet cloth: the West Tisbury woolen mill’s signature product

Manufacturer: West Tisbury Mill
Date: 1859-1873
Reference: 2017.045.001

Wool was the Island’s first, longest-lived, and most profitable cash crop. Sheep adapted well to the rolling pasturelands of Edgartown, West Tisbury, and Chilmark, and an adult sheep could produce two pounds of salable wool each year. Processing wool was a labor-intensive, multi-step process, but one that individual farmers and families could easily adapt to their individual circumstances. 

Fiber processing was socially coded as “women’s work,” and households with many female members might choose to clean, card, dye, spin, and weave the wool from their sheep themselves, using the family’s labor to create a more valuable product that would bring higher prices at market. Knitting stockings, mittens, caps, and other useful objects from purchased or homespun yarn was a major cottage industry on the Island well into the nineteenth century. Home weaving to produce wool cloth for market was less common, but also significant.

Households with fewer female members, or different economic priorities, could sell the wool from their sheep to local or mainland manufacturers. A fulling mill — where water-powered machines processed wool cloth to give it a smooth, even surface — existed in Chilmark by the late 1700s. The woolen mill in West Tisbury, converted from a grist mill by David Look after he bought it in 1809, mechanized the entire process: carding, spinning, and weaving. It operated for more than 60 years, producing woolen cloth like this satinet, before competition from larger mills on the mainland drove it out of business around 1873.

2. Harrison and Selina Vanderhoop selling Wampanoag crafts at Aquinnah Circle

Date: 1950s
Reference: 2021.041.012c

The Wampanoag inhabitants of Noepe participated, for thousands of years, in trade networks that stretched across southern New England. Cross-cultural trade expanded to include the English in 1602, and expanded further after exploration gave way to colonization in 1642. The Wampanoag entered into the expanding English-dominated economy as both producers and consumers. 

The rise of the summer tourist economy, and the construction of a steamer landing at Gay Head in 1883, provided the Wampanoag with a new business opportunity. Steamboat companies advertised day excursions to Gay Head as an opportunity to encounter the exotic: a lighthouse, clay cliffs, and a genuine “Indian village.” The Wampanoag responded by selling the outsiders refreshments, ox-cart rides, and traditional crafts: dolls, beaded jewelry, and pottery made from the clay of the cliffs. Like the tourist shops in Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, the stands at Gay Head were a seasonal venture that supplemented the owners’ off-season income from other ventures.

Steamer excursions to Gay Head ended around World War I, but car and bus tourism increased after State Road was paved in the 1920s, and the Wampanoag continued to cater to visitors who came in search of the exotic. Today, the six seasonal shops that flank the path leading to the cliff-top overlook are leased to Wampanoag tribal members by the tribe or the Town of Aquinnah.

3. Clay pigments from King’s Paint Mill in Chilmark tinted the houses of southern New England

Date: 1875-1885
Reference: 2014.011.002

The glaciers that formed Martha’s Vineyard left behind thick deposits of clay that lined the north shore of the Island from Gay Head to Makonikey. Over the course of the nineteenth century, multiple companies were formed, on- and off-Island, to exploit those deposits. Some hired local laborers to dig local clay in bulk, then exported it to factories built on the mainland to be made into bricks. Others attempted to carry out both mining and manufacturing on the Island. 

King’s Paint Mill, located just north of Roaring Brook on the Chilmark shore, took the second approach. Local workers dug clay from the deposits in the hill behind the factory and carried it to covered sheds where it was spread on wooden tables to air dry. Once dry, the clay was separated by color — red, yellow, blue, black, white, and ochre — and ground into a fine powder by mills powered first by water wheels and then by steam. The powder was packed into barrels and loaded onto schooners that docked at the mill’s deep-water wharf in Vineyard Sound. Mainland hardware stores bought it and resold it to customers who mixed it with a base, such as linseed oil, to make paint.

The Paint Mill, along with the Satinet Mill in West Tisbury and the brickyard at Roaring Brook in Chilmark, was one of the Island’s premier manufacturing businesses. Like them, it enjoyed success in the mid-nineteenth century, but was out of business by the early 1880s.

4. The signature product of the Roaring Brook brickyard awaits shipment to the mainland

Date: 1906
Reference: RU 465

Like the Paint Mill, a little further north along the Chilmark shore, the brickyard at Roaring Brook was a factory, built to turn local raw materials into salable finished goods. Its location offered four critical advantages in one place: thick seams of clay for raw material, abundant wood to fuel the furnaces, a fast-flowing stream to power the machinery, and inshore waters deep enough for schooners to dock and carry the bricks to market.

The early history of the brickyard is hazy, but it was well-established by the 1850s. In its mid-century heyday, it produced 80-100,000 bricks a year. Some may have been used in on-Island projects such as the Dukes County Courthouse and Edgartown National Bank, or in the hearths and chimneys of local houses. Inferior bricks, given away (or sold cheap) to local residents, built three brick barns on nearby Chilmark farms. The majority of the brickyard’s output was expired to the mainland, however, used to build mills in New Bedford and Fall River and, it’s said, upscale apartment buildings in Providence and Boston.

The brickyard, like other manufacturing enterprises on the Island, faltered and failed by the early 1880s, unable to compete with larger, mainland firms. It also suffered from resource depletion: the land around it had been stripped of trees, leaving nothing to fire the kilns on which it depended. Today, only ruins remain: rusting iron machinery, a dry mill race, and a towering chimney amid the stumps of brick walls.

5. One of Erford Burt’s signature “bass boats” in the basin at Burt’s Boatyard on the Lagoon

Date: 1950s
Reference: 2013.031

A self-taught practitioner of a deeply traditional craft, Vineyard boatbuilder Erford O. Burt became a relentless innovator. Born in West Tisbury in 1902, he worked for Manuel Swartz Roberts of Edgartown — a highly skilled but deeply conservative specialist in traditional New England catboats — as a young man. Striking out on his own after a few years, Burt went to work for William Colby of Vineyard Haven, becoming foreman for the Martha’s Vineyard Shipbuilding Company (today’s Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard) on Beach Road.

Burt, with Colby’s backing, produced two path-breaking designs “on spec.” One was the Vineyard Haven Fifteen, an elegant 21-foot racing sloop that helped to introduce the modern “Marconi rig” to Vineyard waters. The other was the “bass boat,” a sharp-nosed, high-sided sportfishing craft designed around an inboard gasoline engine. Both were distinctively Vineyard designs, designed to handle the choppy waters and unpredictable winds around the Island.

Both types proved popular with local buyers, making money for Colby and establishing Burt as a master designer. After World War II, Burt established his own boatyard on the western arm of Lagoon Pond, in the shadow of the US Marine Hospital (now the Martha’s Vineyard Museum). There he continued to build his perennially popular bass boats, like the red one in the picture, while experimenting with new materials like fiberglass and new types of vessels, such as kayaks. Erford Burt died in 1993, but his boats remain in use across the Island.

6. Van Ryper offered its customers affordable “models of ships on which you’ve sailed”

Title: Model of the SS Drottingholm
Manufacturer: Van Ryper Ship Models
Date: 1945-1960
Reference: 1999.055.002

Martha’s Vineyard has a history of nurturing small businesses built around innovative ideas. The Van Ryper ship model shop, which opened on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven in 1933, was one of them. Charles King Van Riper, a summer visitor turned year-round resident was not himself a craftsman, but he conceived the idea for the business and hired a team of local woodworkers, painters, draftsmen, and decorators to bring it to life. 

Van Riper’s business model rested on two core ideas. One was that scale models of sleek, modern liners — like the SS Drottningholm, built for the Allan Line in 1904 — could be made in batches of (say) two dozen at a time, using a scaled-down version of industrial mass production. The other was that models of such ships did not have to replicate every feature of the vessel in precise detail in order to look attractive; they only had to suggest the appearance of the real thing. The result was an attractive model (cut off at the waterline, and ready to display on a mantlepiece or curio shelf) that could be sold at prices within the reach of middle-class buyers.

Founded at a time when virtually all overseas travel was by ship, Van Ryper Ship Models advertised “models of ships on which you’ve sailed.” It closed in 1962, a victim of the jet age and its founder’s declining health, but over nearly 30 years in business it produced more than 15,000 models and earned a worldwide reputation.

7. Martha’s Vineyard Cooperative Dairy helped the Island’s small farmers, but could not compete with mainland producers

Date: 20th Century
Reference: 2015.035.035

The rise of the tourist economy created new demand for locally produced dairy products and vegetables, giving small Island farms a new road to success even as the market for woolen goods shrank. Island dairy farms were mostly small: the largest had herds of 20-25 cows, and many had far fewer. Each farmer bottled and distributed their own raw milk to their own list of customers. 

Shortly after World War II, 20 Island farmers banded together to form the Martha’s Vineyard Cooperative Dairy. It collected raw milk from members’ farms, pasteurized and bottled it at a centralized plant near Trapp’s Pond in Edgartown, and delivered it to homes across the Island. Profits were shared among the member farmers, in proportion to the milk they contributed.

At its peak in the early 1950s, the Cooperative Dairy took in milk from more than 30 farms, and sold over 750,000 quarts a year on the Vineyard and Nantucket. Its success, however, was short-lived. The rise of supermarkets supplied by large commercial farms caused demand for home milk delivery to shrink, and rising land prices encouraged dairy farmers to sell their acreage to developers. When Elisha Smith sold his farm  — one of only nine remaining in the cooperative, and responsible for two-thirds of its milk supply — in 1963, it marked the end of the venture, and of dairying as a significant part of Island agriculture.

8. Chilmark Chocolates was known for its delicious product, and its community spirit

Artist: Thomas Hodgson
Date: 1986-2019
Reference: 2022.042.001

An Island institution for 33 years, Chilmark Chocolates defied expectations of what a successful small business “should” be but succeeded nonetheless. Founded in 1985 by co-owners Mary Beth Grady and Allison Burger and operated out of a converted house off State Road in Chilmark, the shop built a reputation for high-quality, hand-crafted chocolates and other confections. It also built a reputation for word-of-mouth advertising, eccentric hours, and a habit of closing for parts of August: the busiest part of the summer season, which many Island businesses depend on to remain profitable. 

Chilmark Chocolates became known, within the Island community, for its openness to hiring workers with physical and mental disabilities. Beyond simply hiring them, however, Grady and Burger took the time to train them in every facet of the business from production to customer service, adjusting the details of store policies to enable them to do their jobs better.

Grady and Burger elected to close Chilmark Chocolates at the end of 2019, telling staff in a letter that: “We are hanging up our aprons and gloves. We feel very fortunate to have had a chance to work with all of you and so many other inspiring people over the past 33 years.” The letter further explained that they had chosen not to sell the business, preferring “to let it stand for what we all worked together to create.” The letter captured the essence of what their business had been: A community of workers existing within, and serving, a community of customers stretching across the Island and far beyond.

9. The Black Dog began as a year-round restaurant, but became a lifestyle brand

Date: 1995
Reference: 2013.029

Founded by Bob Douglas — an ex-fighter pilot turned windjammer captain — the Black Dog Tavern embodied the eclectic spirit of Martha’s Vineyard in the 1970s. It became a place where day tourists and summer people mingled with year-rounders, and waterfront workers nodded greetings to doctors and bank presidents. Cooks and servers — mostly young, all casually dressed — dispensed dishes with whimsical names that put a modern culinary spin on traditional New England cuisine.

The Black Dog logo, modeled after Capt. Douglas’s own black Labrador, appeared first on colored t-shirts that passed for a staff “uniform.” As employees passed on spare shirts to their friends, they became a sought-after souvenir of a summer on the Island. Recognizing an opportunity, the Black Dog began producing branded t-shirts to sell directly to the public. The company’s line of branded goods expanded steadily from there: sweatshirts, hats, tote bags, dog bowls, coffee mugs, and cookbooks reprinting recipes for the restaurant’s now-iconic dishes.

The Black Dog shirts were originally produced by a local screen-printing artist, and the earliest Black Dog mail-order catalogs (like the 1995 edition shown here) were created by the Island-based design firm of Kolodny & Rentschler. The Black Dog brand has now grown well beyond its Island roots (some visitors are now startled to learn that the restaurant not only exists, but pre-dates the clothing empire), and other companies have tried — with varying success — to establish their own Vineyard-themed brands. The Black Dog remains in a class by itself, however, because of its unique ties to Island history.