From the farm to the Fair, the Society cultivates our agrarian roots
The Once and Future Ag Society
by Elissa Lash
From the Collections of the Martha's Vineyard Museum
“Agriculture—one of the most noble callings: Man’s first and last employment. The present generation owes much to those who have been pioneers in its improvement. The Future will owe them still more.”
As a little girl, I remember visiting my grandparents each summer in Chilmark and accompanying my Omi to Ozzie Fischer’s place for eggs. We grew most of our vegetables; my father or uncles caught our fish. Anything we didn’t grow or catch we’d find at neighboring farm stands. Omi knew which overgrown dirt road to turn onto to find remarkable sun-warmed raspberries, tender lettuce, over-sized zucchini, chickens for roasting, fresh cream, and homemade jam. We rarely visited supermarkets, and I didn’t miss them.
Thirty years later, I’m a washashore, a refugee from Manhattan with my husband and son, attempting year-round Island living, including our first crack at a summer garden—excellent tomatoes and eggplant, mutant-looking carrots, and failed Swiss chard. When driving around the Island with my son, I’m often tempted to turn down random unmarked muddy roads. Is this the place where we bought those gem-colored jellies and I played with a dusty barn cat while my grandmother sorted through beans and chatted about recipes? My investigation into the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society seemed similar to my search for the idealized farm stands of my youth—a muddy, somewhat circular adventure often leading me off-road to find something or someone unexpected and illuminating. For kids, the Fair is the first chance for some neighborly competition. A few dollars guarantees an entry, and with a little luck, a ribbon.
These words, written on a small square of parchment in flourish-filled script, are attributed to “A Lady.” The crumbling and poetic note of admiration is housed at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, among their small collection of documents recording the founding, mission, and history of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society. Most of us probably think of the Agricultural Society chiefly as the overseeing body for the Vineyard’s beloved annual summer agricultural fair. Few of us know of the impressive history and culture woven into the Society’s mission, or the important role it has played—and continues to play—in our rich Island tradition of farming and feeding our families and community from our land.
My hunt began with an appointment at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, rummaging through old copies of The Intelligencer and soft, ragged documents from the inception of the Agricultural Society. In large ornate script on faded parchment, Henry L. Whiting writes, “On the 26th of March a call was published in the columns of the Vineyard Gazette for a meeting to be held in the Academy of West Tisbury on Saturday April 3rd at 1 o’clock pm.” The meeting was to establish an Agricultural Society for Martha’s Vineyard. Mr. Whiting reports that the meeting was “well and encouragingly attended.”
With a unanimous vote, those in attendance adopted the following: “That the attainment and pursuit of scientific and practical knowledge in the cultivation of the soil was a subject of such importance to demand the associated effort of the farmers of Duke’s County.” A vote appointed a committee of three to draw up a constitution and make plans for the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society.
From the first meeting on April 14, 1858, came the constitution, which stated, “[The Society’s] object shall be to improve the condition of agriculture, horticulture, mechanics, and the domestic arts, and to encourage the raising and improvement of stock and the introduction of improved breeds.” Furthermore, “any person could become a member on subscribing to the constitution and paying not less than one dollar annually.”
The Society built the original Agricultural Hall in 1859 on 2.5 acres of land bought from Mrs. Hannah Look for $250. They eventually shared the building with the West Tisbury chapter of the National Grange, which was founded in 1905. Some old-timers compare the Grange to the Masons. The local Grange used the hall to hear reports from such groups as “The Committee on Bulls,” and recorded in detail the crops being grown each year. An early list reads almost like a seed-savers dream: Apples (Pippins and Baldwins), White Carrots, Orange Carrots, Italian Turnips, Long Blood Beets, Quinces, Cranberries, Grapes, and Corn. (Ed. Note: After 104 years, the West Tisbury Grange recently closed down. Today, the old Ag Hall is referred to as the “Grange Hall.”)
Agricultural Society representatives traveled to the State Board of Agriculture Conference each year to gather information and establish a presence. In 1876, Franklin C. Knox, the Island delegate, participated in panels such as: “Saving and Preparation of Manures,” “Does it Pay to Raise Corn in Massachusetts?” and “What has Chemistry done for Agriculture?”
But without a doubt, the annual fair was the most visible reflection of the Society’s mission from the outset. The original goal of the Fair, as established by the Society in 1858, was to improve the quality of farming, from vegetables to livestock, through a little healthy competition. When I talked with Elisha Smith, an Agricultural Society member since 1948, he said he felt the Fair had accomplished that aim. He remembers helping his grandfather deliver his cows for judging. “Each year, I saw better-looking animals and vegetables. People may think it’s just fun, but the farmers try to put in the best they have.”
The first Fair was in November of 1858 and was attended by close to 2000 persons. “One of the best and largest audiences the Vineyard had ever collected,” reported Henry L. Whiting. In 1868, secretary Davis Cottle wrote,“Notwithstanding the drought of two previous summers, and the ravages of the worm ... The officers of your society ... felt an emotion amounting to something like pride.” Butter was described as “so nice and rich,” honey “a new thing, a luxury all may have,” quinces “not to be surpassed.”
Over the years, the Fair grew to be the magical culmination of the summer season on the Vineyard. “As a child, I looked forward to two events every year,” says trustee Jim Athearn, “the Fair and Christmas. And my 25-cent allowance was carefully saved in anticipation.”
These days, Fair organizers seem particularly interested in the educational element offered by an agricultural fair. “The thing about the Fair,” explains Ag Society Secretary Kathy Lobb, “is that you see the actual animal. It doesn’t look like a chicken in a picture book. Kids see the circle of life; a lot of us have lost track of that.” John Mancuso, a long-standing trustee, adds, “People come to the Fair and have never seen a cow or chicken before, have no idea what it looks like, or smells like. They just go to the store for meat and eggs. This is food—it’s not a pet; that’s where a lot of people get lost. It’s not a bad thing; it’s just the way it is.”
The categories are wide ranging, from best in native shell collection to purebred milking goat, with many opportunities for junior competitors. “We try to get youngsters involved. We can teach them responsibility, and they feel part of the community,” says Eleanor Neubert, Trustee and Fair Manager for over twenty years.
While the Fair is an inspiring achievement, 99% volunteer staffed, the Society’s trustees don’t want it to overshadow their other programs and what some see as an agricultural rebirth on Martha’s Vineyard.
In November of 1994, the community came together in a three-day event to raise a 33-foot-tall barn on Panhandle Road in West Tisbury to replace the society’s previous hall near the town center, which had become too small. Mr. Smith, of Red Hill Farm, was then President of the Society. He was instrumental in the search for space and brokered the deal with Edwin Newhall Woods in 1992 for the purchase of the 21 acres. Before the transfer, Mr. Woods placed an agricultural preservation restriction on the use of the land, which limits the types and numbers of future events in the hall. Mr. Smith calls this, “My legacy ... I think building that barn is the biggest accomplishment I’ve seen.” Mr. Athearn agrees, “We were able to tap that grassroots yearning for the basics with the barn raising. It was a real happening—people were beaming with good will. This piece of ground is blessed with good vibrations. We’ll have good success there.”
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
Abigail Higgins, another trustee, who grew up on a small Island farm, expresses her enthusiasm, “We have a new space and an opportunity to revitalize. Many have said that we can’t farm here, there is no future, but the Society has persevered.”
Many trustees express the feeling that this is a time of opportunity for farming on the Vineyard. “People are concerned about where their food comes from… The more stuff in the news about tainted food, the more control they may want,” explains Ms. Lobb. They observe the resurgence in backyard farming, home gardens, raising a few chickens, supporting local sustainable agriculture.
Ms. Neubert says, “It’s a hopeful time. I believe strongly in the mission, the continuation of farming, a person’s right to grow their own food; it’s one of our freedoms. We encourage farming. Yes, you can do it. Yes, you can make mistakes; that’s how you learn. If this Island needed to, I believe we could sustain ourselves.”
The Society has long offered a scholarship program for students wishing to pursue degrees connected to agriculture.There is also a new grant program offering financial support for new and existing farms, sponsoring projects from fence repair to building a chicken coop. For local vegetable gardeners, Ms. Higgins has created an Ag Society “support group,” which meets every third Sunday in the hall.
The Agricultural Society is also enjoying partnerships with groups like Island Grown Initiative and the Sowing Circle, and is encouraging community members to become members, to start gardens, and to support local farms. They look forward to continuing to welcome the community to events like the Barn Raisers Ball, the Living Local Harvest Festival, the Agricultural Society Potluck, the Fiber Festival, and the Antique Engine Show. Future projects may include a museum displaying a permanent collection of agricultural equipment, a slaughter facility for four legged animals, and a wind turbine farm.
“I might be becoming something of an activist even though I don’t like that word,” shares Ms. Higgins. “I’ve always been like my father—live close to what you use. I don’t think bigger is better. We are already seeing globalization create eco nomic and ecological meltdown. Empowering—that is something the Agricultural Society can do without a lot of money. Community strengthening—events where all are welcome—this is an important function, because there are so many people from elsewhere who aren’t sure how they fit in.” Concludes Mr. Mancuso, “Growing your own food is good work and a very social thing. Things have changed, but this Island hasn’t lost its luster.”
Heartened by the hope-filled voices of these seasoned farmers, I continue to turn my compost, and have ordered my seeds. This spring I won’t be afraid to ask for help about when to plant what, and I vow to turn down dirt roads when a hand-painted farm-stand sign beckons.