20 Things You Didn’t Know About Martha’s Vineyard

Martha's Vineyard

Martha’s Vineyard is one of the most famous summer colonies that can be found throughout the United States. For people who are unfamiliar with the concept, it refers to communities that serve as resorts as well as retreats for the upper class, which tend to be prized more for their peaceful nature than for their festive boisterousness. However, it is important to remember that Martha’s Vineyard and the other summer colonies that can be found in the United States have histories of their own that make them more than the confines of their current roles.

For example, it is interesting to note that the earliest English settlers on Martha’s Vineyard maintained friendly relations with the Native Americans who had been living on the island before them, which was a remarkable contrast to the situation on much of the continent. Later, the island became a center for whalers who hunted the marine mammals for their blubber and oil, which had come to a conclusion by 1870 because those resources had been replaced by petroleum. Fortunately for Martha’s Vineyard, the collapse of the whaling industry was followed by the building of more and more summer residences on its shores, thus contributing to the creation of its current reputation as one of the finest summer colonies in the United States.

Here are 20 things that you may or may not have known about Martha’s Vineyard:

Chappaquiddick Island

1. Martha’s Vineyard Is Sometimes Two Islands

It is interesting to note that Martha’s Vineyard is sometimes two islands rather than one island. This is because of Chappaquiddick Island, which is sometimes an island and sometimes a peninsula connected to the bigger island by a barrier beach. When hurricanes and other powerful storms manage to reach the region, they can cause a breach that separates the two islands, which is a situation that can last for years and years at a time.

Chappaquiddick Island Ted Kennedy

2. Chappaquiddick Island Is Named Using a Native American Word

Given its name, it should come as no surprise to learn that Chappaquiddick Island was named using a Native American word. To be precise, it was named using “cheppiaquidne,” which means separated land. In the present, some members of the Chappaquiddick Wampanoag Tribe still call Chappaquiddick Island home, where they have formed a non-profit organization in order to preserve as much as of their culture as possible by running educational programs, practicing sacred customs, and protecting burial sites.

Martha's Vineyard Aerial View

3. Martha’s Vineyard Is One of the Biggest Islands on the East Coast

In total, Martha’s Vineyard encompasses about 100 square miles of land. This is enough to make it the third largest island on the East Coast of the United States, following Long Island in the state of New York and Mount Desert Island in the state of Maine. However, it is interesting to note that most of the United States’s largest islands are not found on its East Coast, as shown by the fact that Martha’s Vineyard is no more than the 58th largest island in the whole of the United States.


4. There Is No Connection Between Martha’s Vineyard and the Mainland

There is neither a bridge nor a tunnel that connects Martha’s Vineyard with the mainland. Furthermore, there are no plans to build either a bridge, a tunnel, or something similar to connect the two places. After all, much of the island’s appeal for its visitors lies in its peaceful nature, which could be disrupted by more convenient access to the mainland. Never mind the potential threats to the island’s ecosystems that could be realized by the same source.

Marthas Vineyard Travel Guide

5. Much of the Island’s Land Has Been Conserved

Part of Martha’s Vineyard’s appeal consists of its natural landscape, so it should come as no surprise to learn that 5 percent of the island has been conserved so far. However, it is interesting to note that there have been other motives for conservation as well. For example, No Man’s Land is a small island to the southwest of Martha’s Vineyard that has been designated as a U.S. wildlife preserve because it was once used as a practice bombing range, meaning that it might still have unexploded ordinance. Unsurprisingly, it is not open to the public.

Martha's Vineyard Sign Language

6. The Island Had Its Own Sign Language

Martha’s Vineyard had a large population of deaf people for a significant part of its existence. For example, 1 in 155 of its residents were deaf in 1854, while 1 in 5,728 of U.S. residents were deaf in the same period of time. Combined with the island’s relative isolation from the mainland, this resulted in the creation of the Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language, which has fallen out of use but contributed much to the creation of American Sign Language.


7. Its Sign Language Was Not Limited to Deaf People

It is interesting to note that Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language was not limited to its deaf population. In part, its non-deaf residents learned the sign language because the sheer number of deaf people living on the island meant that it was convenient for their day-to-day living. However, it should also be noted that it was useful in other applications as well. For example, children are said to have signed to each other during school lessons, while adults were said to have signed to each other during church sermons. Furthermore, fishermen are said to have signed to each other when weather conditions made it impossible for them to communicate through normal means.

Martha's Vineyard Beach

8. Most of Martha’s Vineyard’s Inhabitants Are Seasonal

Summer colonies tend to have a high percentage of seasonal residents. Martha’s Vineyard is no exception to this rule, seeing as how the 2010 census revealed that it had about 16,535 year-round residents, but more than 100,000 residents in the summer. Unsurprisingly, about 56 percent of the homes that have been built on the island are seasonally-occupied, meaning that more of them are empty for most of the year than not.

Martha's Vineyard Wage

9. Average Wage on Martha’s Vineyard Is Low

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission conducted a study revealing that the average weekly wage on the island was 71 percent of the average in the state of Massachusetts. Although this can seem surprising to those who have heard about its popularity with the upper class, it should be remembered that most of those people make their money elsewhere, meaning that wage-earners on the island are referring to the year-round residents. Since Martha’s Vineyard has a small population as well as a small economy, it should come as no surprise to learn that its year-round residents’ economic prospects are lacking.

Martha's Vineyard Mansion

10. Cost of Living on Martha’s Vineyard Is High

Unfortunately, the low average wages on Martha’s Vineyard is combined with a high cost of living. For example, a study conducted by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission revealed that the cost of living on the island was 60 percent higher than the average in the United States, with housing being particularly expensive. There, it was revealed that the median home price was 54 percent higher than the median home price of the state, while even the median rent price was 17 percent higher than the median rent price of the state.


11. Martha’s Vineyard Has One of the Oldest English Place-Names in the United States

Originally, Martha’s Vineyard was the name given to a smaller island to the south in 1602, but became the name of the current island a little later. As a result, it can claim the honor of being the eighth oldest English place-name to still see use in the United States, which is a rather remarkable feat.

Bartholomew Gosnold

12. No One Knows Who Martha Is Supposed to Be

Martha’s Vineyard is named for someone named Martha, but no one knows who Martha is supposed to be. In short, an English explorer named Bartholomew Gosnold is known to have come up with the name, so it should come as no surprise to learn that Martha was someone important to him. Unfortunately, Gosnold had two important people in his family who were named Martha, with one being his mother-in-law and the other being his daughter. Interestingly, Martha’s Vineyard was also called Martin’s Vineyard at one point, which may or may not have been because of a man named John Martin, who was the captain of Gosnold’s ship.

Health Hen

13. The Island Was the Last Refuge of the Heath Hen

Once upon a time, the East Coast was home to the heath hen, which lived up to its name by being a heavy-bodied ground-feeder like chickens, grouses, turkeys, and pheasants. Being a common bird, they were hunted for food, so much so that they actually developed a reputation for being the food of the poor man. Unfortunately, this practice led to their extinction in spite of efforts to save them in the 19th century, which were not enough to keep the last known example of the species from dying on Martha’s Vineyard in 1932.


14. Martha’s Vineyard Considered Secession

In 1977, Martha’s Vineyard was home to a short-lived secession movement because of its loss of its guaranteed seat in the Massachusetts General Court, which is the name of Massachusetts’s state legislature. There was no consensus about what the island would do once it had seceded, but suggestions ranged from becoming one of the United States’s territories to becoming part of either Vermont or Hawaii, which had already made offers for it to do so. In the end, the secession movement failed because seceding from Massachusetts would have been too impractical, but its seagull-bearing flag can still be seen here and there on the island.


15. Martha’s Vineyard Is an AVA

For people who are unfamiliar with the name, AVA stands for American Viticultural Area. In short, different wine making regions have different reputations, meaning that it makes sense for the relevant authorities to decide which vineyards can and cannot claim that their products were made in those regions, which resulted in the creation of AVAs. While there was some controversy at the time over the creation of the Martha’s Vineyard AVA, the proposal succeeded because the residents of the island have been making wine since 1602, capitalizing on not just its warmer climate but also its longer growing season.

Whalers on Martha's Vineyard

16. Successful Whalers Used to Build Estates on the Island

Whaling used to be a prosperous industry because whale blubber and oil had a wide range of useful applications. For example, whale blubber could be used to make soap, leather, and cosmetics, while whale oil could be used as fuel in oil lamps, which had few substitutes at the time. As a result, a lot of whalers built estates on Martha’s Vineyards after they had become rich by hunting whales, which contributed to its eventual reputation as a retreat for the rich.

Martha's Vineyard Beach

17. Summering on the Island Has Become a Tradition

Martha’s Vineyard has become so popular that summering on the island has become a tradition for the upper class. With that said, while this practice used to be limited to the richest families from Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C., their counterparts from all around the United States can be found summering on the island in the present.

Flying Horses Carousel

18. Home to the Single Oldest Platform Carousel

In 1876, Martha’s Vineyard became home to a platform carousel named the Flying Horses Carousel. Nowadays, it is the single oldest carousel of its kind that can be found in the whole of the United States, still serving people interested in a little whimsical nostalgia in exchange for $2.50 a ride.

Gingerbread Cottages Oak's Bluff

19. Gingerbread Houses Are a Common Sight in Oak Bluffs

On a related note, Oak Bluffs, the town that hosts the Flying Horses Carousel, is also home to gingerbread houses, which are a particular kind of home built by the Methodists in the mid 1880s. Like their name suggests, they are classical in structure but possessing a sort of storybook charm, which has been brought out in full by the careful use of bright and colorful paints. The result is one of the most popular attractions in the town.


20. Many of the Towns Are Dry

In total, there are six towns on the island, but it is interesting to note that four of them forbid the selling of alcohol. In part, this is because of the island’s cultural background. However, it should also be noted that most of the island’s social life takes place in people’s homes rather than in the towns. Oak Bluffs and Edgartown are the two exceptions to this rule, which should come as no surprise because they are also the two largest towns with the most appeal for visitors on the island.


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