Ralph & Ethel Sherman
by Chris Fischer
If you’ve ever been to the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market over the past 21 years, you have seen “Ethel’s Kitchen,” the stand stocked with mostly jams and pickles. The jars have handwritten descriptions on printed labels, a way to show customers what is inside. Of course there are also beautiful piles of hearty-looking vegetables available for purchase. Ethel’s Kitchen is a popular but unremarkable-looking stand. As is so often the case on Martha’s Vineyard, there is far more here than meets the eye—and the whole story is quite remarkable indeed. Ethel and Ralph Sherman, the elderly couple behind Ethel’s Kitchen, are living archetypes, perfect representatives of a generation of Vineyard Washashores who have preserved and upheld the traditional lifestyles of the Vineyard.
Ralph and Ethel’s story begins off-Island; they had met in September 1970; Ralph asked Ethel out on a date in May of the following year. She was working at Wheaton College at the time, as Head of Information in the Administration Department, and did not hear much from Ralph in the nine months she waited for their first date. They bowled together and shared an ice cream sundae, on that memorable date.
Ethel reveals in her self-published memoir (Against Tremendous Odds) that the whole point of moving to Martha’s Vineyard was simply to be “on Martha’s Vineyard.” It was a place she sensed they would be happy. Ralph had fished obsessively and masterfully for years off the beaches of Chilmark and loved it here, but he had a steady job working for a gas company on Cape Cod. When in early 1973 Ethel presented to Ralph the idea that they should quit their jobs and move to a place with soaring off-season unemployment, Ralph told her it was up to her, and then went fishing. When he returned with a nice mess of fish, he learned they were about to move to what was then the poorest county in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in the middle of the winter. Even among Yankees of a certain generation, that takes special gumption.
An opportunity had presented itself: Smith, Bodfish and Swift (known as SBS), the grain store, was in danger of going under. The Shermans took over the business and moved into a house on the edge of town. They spent a number of winters without insulation in their store on the Vineyard Haven harbor, making sure farmers could always get the supplies they needed in order to grow and raise food.
“I remember breaking down cardboard boxes to cover up the holes in the floor behind the counter,” Ethel recalls. “Our wood stove was on the second floor. It was stupid. Everyone knows that heat rises.” Ethel kept the books in order while Ralph ran the shop.
As they worked at turning the store around, they also began making a life for themselves, on a woodlot they’d bought from David Flanders on Middle Road in Chilmark. Here is where their quintessential “Vineyard life” began. Ralph cleared the land using an ax and a handsaw. He was always strong and would not shy away from a hard day’s work, but—like more than a few would-be homesteaders in the 1970s—he was not a trained carpenter.
“We had almost every young person in Chilmark coming through here to help us on the house at one point or another,” Ralph recalls. They built a garage before they built their home, because Ralph had so many tools he needed to store properly. During their first decade in Chilmark, they built their home piecemeal, room-by-room, as they could afford it.
Ralph grew vegetables on a plot of David Flanders’ land by the South Shore, between Windy Gates and Squibnocket. He had no fence—a requisite for today’s vegetable gardens because of the exploding deer population. When he finally put up a fence around the garden on his own Middle Road property, it was mostly to keep the Flanders’ unruly cows out.
“Do you remember old #68, Ethel?” Ralph asked, “She would not stay in her pasture, and I would wake up the middle of the night and hear her trampling my garden. I had nightmares about her.”
Today there is an 8-foot-tall fence in place, supplemented by two strands of electric lines around the bottom to keep the deer and raccoons out. Within, Ralph keeps a very clean garden. He grows fruit, flowers, and vegetables in this one-acre plot right next to his house; a half-acre garden in the woods supplies asparagus and other vegetables for himself and the market.
“At the beginning of 1988,” writes Ethel in her memoir, “I was 65, exhausted, and had lost my sense of humor.” The store had never allowed her time for another long-held dream, which was working at the Farmers’ Market. So she retired from SBS, and started making jam to sell.
One small detail—she had never made jams before. So she began by reading the recipes on her Sure-Gel boxes. (She also made Bread-and-Butter pickles using a recipe given to her by a colleague from her former life at Wheaton College.) Thus began Ethel’s Kitchen.
Ethel has sold her jams, and Ralph’s vegetables, every year since 1989, missing the market only when it was canceled due to thundershowers. As the most senior member of the vendors, she rings the bell twice: once to start the market at 9 am and once again at noon, to close the market. Ethel usually has an entourage of friends helping her run her stand and keep the saltines stocked for her free samples, or just to visit her and shoot the breeze.
“I started doing the market because I would overhear the young kids at the store talking about how much fun they had there,” says Ethel, with a bit of a twinkle in her eye. She enjoys each one, unpacking the car with Ralph before he bids her good luck and leaves to work in his garden. In the 21 years Ethel has worked at the market, Ralph has never stayed to sell vegetables.
Ralph and Ethel are modest and frugal people. All the cash they make from the market goes straight into the bank to pay for their winter bills. Ralph knows how much money he makes off of a 50-lb. bag of seed potatoes ($250), and Ethel notices when the price of sugar at the supermarket goes up ten cents (which it did this spring). This lifestyle, based on self-sufficiency, has afforded them a chance to live healthily into their later years: Ethel turned 87 in May and Ralph is 78. They still work hard at what they do, and help each other out a bit more these days. Ralph helps in the kitchen now, making jam, and Ethel has convinced Ralph not to grow shell beans this year because, from seed to plate, they require so much labor.
“Ralph makes jam now!” Ethel says emphatically.
“I am the second mate,” Ralph corrects her quickly. “I stir the pots while she sits at the kitchen table and tells me what to do.”
This summer, Ethel plans to make Bread-and-Butter Pickles again when cucumbers are in season. Ralph never sticks around to hear all his customers gush about his peppers or stand in line for his perfect tomatoes. He is too busy getting his next crop ready. They have helped the Island preserve so much during the past 40 years, while enjoying the simple life together.