Friday evening I was at the Grey Barn and Farm on Martha’s Vineyard listening to Presidential historian Michael Beschloss. I was there in my role at the National Trust for Historic Preservation with a group from the National Trust Council and special guests from the region. Beschloss – in speaking to the importance of preserving the places where history happened – made two points that spoke directly to our last four days of touring, learning, and generally soaking in as many new experiences as possible.
First he noted that in seeing places where people lived in the past, “You are walking through their autobiography.”
Beschloss added – as a good historian should – that is was important to try with all your might to “get the interpretation – the story – right.”
On my first visit to Martha’s Vineyard, I hoped to gain an understanding of the many layers of history where the autobiographies are derived from its past as Native American settlement, a working whaling port, Victorian resort, a vacation refuge for African-American professional elite and intelligentsia, and part untouched landscape. Four days was just barely enough time to scratch the surface, yet we did our best to understand how these pieces make Martha’s Vineyard what it is today.
My explorations began with an insider’s tour of the Old Whaling Church. Whaling was an important early industry, setting the commercial tone that helped shape the buildings and homes in small communities such as Edgartown. The Old Whaling Church – with its impressive trompe l’oeil painting on the interior – was a key civic institution in a region where religion played an outsized role in early life.
Later that evening the passage – generation-by-generation – of buildings and history as part of the island’s past was very evident in a visit to an authentic 1890s wooden boathouse on the Edgartown Harbor – the oldest on the island.
During the weekend, we spoke with local preservationists from the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust and the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to learn of their past work and future plans to expand ways in which they can tell the island’s full story.
Saturday morning, my colleague Beverly Morgan-Welch, Executive Director of the Museum of African-American History in Boston & Nantucket, helped us with Beschloss’ admonition to “get the story right.” Speaking of the rich history of African-Americans in Oak Bluffs, Beverly noted that many communities – including many generations of African-Americans – passed their stories down orally as opposed to in the written word. She spoke of how African-Americans knew how to connect, knew how to “do” community, almost from the beginning of their time in America, as they fought for survival in a hostile world. The networking that later took place among African-American elites at Oak Bluffs is an extension of that ability to connect and build community.
We spent a delightful day in Oak Bluffs on a picture perfect Saturday, viewing the multi-hued Victorian gingerbread cottages and the Martha’s Vineyard Campgrounds. Again, these places spoke volumes about the values and lives of the builders as well as today’s residents.
Today, preservation is helping keep Martha’s Vineyard history alive and relevant for the 15,000+ year-round residents and the hundreds of thousands who visit the island each year. I was privileged to see a handful of these special places and hear of the stories that help flesh out the autobiographies of the men and women who made – and continue to make – this island a place that matters.
More to come…
Image: Edgartown in Martha’s Vineyard by DJB