From the Vineyard Gazette editions of August, 1958:
The Menemsha of today presents a contrast with the Menemsha that Ralph B. Potter of Cranston, R.I. knew sixty summers ago. But this contrast has not been reached abruptly, as Mr. Potter can assure you, for he has vacationed at Menemsha for every one of those sixty summers, and has watched the changes come in slowly and irresistibly.
Mr. Potter was born in Providence. In 1895 and 1896 the Potter family came to the Vineyard, staying in the old Naumkeag Hotel in Cottage City, which is now Oak Bluffs. During this time Mr. Potter and his three older brothers used to rent bicycles and took daring trips along the roads up-Island which were little more than tracks of sand. Their visits included Menemsha, then a tiny farming and fishing town. The Vineyard, and particularly Menemsha, captured the fancy of young Ralph, so he came alone to Menemsha when he was 16, in 1899, and has only left it since to carry on a busy and interesting career.
One of Mr. Potter’s most often-recalled memories is of the day when he arrived, having taken the steamer from New Bedford to Oak Bluffs. “Then,” he remembers, “I caught a little horse-car that was running between Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven. When I reached Vineyard Haven it was about 11 o’clock in the morning. I asked someone at Bodfish’s blacksmith shop when the mail stage would start for up-Island. Well, I didn’t feel like waiting around Vineyard Haven for six hours until 5 o’clock, so I started walking.”
Few young men would venture such a walk, but Mr. Potter was eager to reach Menemsha, and he did, too, about 4:30 that afternoon. This was the first and last time he reached Menemsha this way, however. When he returned to Menemsha in other summers, he took the mail stage, “bribing” the driver to drop him at Menemsha after stopping at the post offices along the route. The fare was fifty cents, not including the bribe.
Although Menemsha has changed less than other towns on the Island, it was radically different when Mr. Potter arrived. The most obvious difference was in the people themselves. The residents of the village were almost all farmers or fisherman, and often both, and whatever picturesque quality the town had was the result of entirely practical intentions.
Tourists were an oddity. Everyone knew everyone else. If someone saw a strange face, it was at least worthy of passing mention, and among the more talkative wives a matter of some importance. Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs were remote settlements. Edgartown was “in another world.”
He fitted in well with the quiet earnestness of the town, and delighted in the lack of frivolity that youth today considers indispensable. His summer vacations were ones of deep satisfaction. Often arising at 4 o’clock in the morning, he would accompany trap fisherman in their long dories. Or he would pay one of the local boys to row him across the creek, and then he would walk four miles along the shore to Gay Head.
Sometimes he would line-fish from the jetties or swim from the beach. He still remembers the ridiculous “bathing costumes” worn by the few ladies who had time from their chores to swim: “Stockings, bloomers, skirts, blouses — it’s a wonder they didn’t sink to the bottom.”
All other amusement was centered around a small ice cream and bakery store and the post office-general store which was built by a young man named Carl Reed and had a sign announcing “Creekville Post Office” over the door.
“Because everyone was so busy during the summer around Menemsha, trying to make enough money with the fish and the crops to last the winter, the beach was virtually ignored,” he remembers. “There were few activities at night for the young people — they were usually too tired after the day and knew they’d have to get up so darned early in the morning that they went to bed very early.”
The only taste of adventure for the young people came in walking to the Chilmark General Store at Beetlebung Corner to watch the stage come in. Once a week, in Town Hall, there would be “Tucker parties,” a variation on the square dance. The warmth generated by the activity, and the blushes of bashful modestly would be dispelled on the long walks home through the soft shadowy nights.
Compiled by Alison L. Mead