To the Editor
With July 4th approaching it may be useful to remind us that there are still places in America that embody traditional values unchanged by our seemingly convoluted universe.
Cuttyhunk Island, the southernmost of the Elizabeth Islands midway between the Vineyard and Fairhaven off Buzzard’s Bay, remains one such place. This small, hilly island of just several square miles with a protected harbor has been mostly inhabited by settlers ever since it was discovered by Gosnold in the early 1600’s. Less than 100 “year rounders” live here, engaged in fishing and tending to the “summer folk” when the Island’s population increases to several hundred.
Taxes are quite modest. One meeting takes care of “local business.” Modest salaries reportedly are paid just to the Harbor Master, school teacher and refuse collector. Otherwise, its all by volunteers. Civic expenses are largely financed by mooring/dock rentals in the harbor and by the Forbes estate on an adjoining island. The quality of Island well water is legendary. Electricity is currently 60 cents a kilowatt courtesy of diesel generators. Visitors are kept in check by the absence of shore-based shower or laundry facilities. There is a bed and breakfast, but no restaurants. A one-room school house currently has two students. High school students are boarded on the mainland. No police. Crime is virtually unknown. Doors remain unlocked. Dogs and children roam freely without cares. One small church serves several faiths. Only a handful of rusty pickup trucks. Residents get by mostly by walking, on bikes or occasionally using golf carts. During the summer the “mail boat” brings supplies daily. For the remainder of the year it arrives just once weekly. Winters can be harsh. The Island breeds hardy people.
The “year-rounders” are friendly to a degree hardly seen anymore. Everyone says hello. A small modest post office is the place where “it all happens.” There, Ms. Janet Burke, a retired marine biologist, faithfully keeps the office open 6 days a week earning a reported $14 an hour. Several dozen customer boxes line the walls. Curiously they almost have their keys in their locks ! The big event is the mail cart delivery once daily from the mail boat. Neighbors and visitors frequently come by to chat and exchange the news. Next to the post office is a very small grocery. When the mail boat comes daily with new supplies islanders line up to see what new goods have been delivered.
Fourth of July is the major event here. With a parade involving all the year-rounders in their assorted vehicles, fireworks, bonfire on the beach, food stuffs, and so forth. Cuttyhunk is as patriotic a place as one can find. Cuttyhunk men are superb fishing guides, have navigated sail vessels all over the globe for centuries and have distinguished themselves in our wars abroad. On one beach lie the still-visible remains of the “Wanderer” – the last sail whaling ship to set out of nearby New Bedford that floundered during a storm.
Modern “civilization” is here with the web and TV available. But most evenings when the weather permits much of the island wanders down to the town docks to see everybody. And during summer months to enjoy superb chowder and ice cream. Visitors from round the globe hike up the “hill” to watch the sun set over Buzzards Bay.
Having visited Cuttyhunk often over the past 50 years its remarkable how little has changed. Most of the Island remains open space. In good times and bad times the islanders “make do”. Children oft return to the island after completing their education. While isolated the island has a truly superb public library that would do a much larger community well. People look after one another and everyone seems to know every one else. And their business ! There’s no need for a newspaper. Here the news travels fast. Winters are harsh when the mail boat comes only once weekly. Heading over to the mainland by private hired boat is expensive. A visiting doctor usually summers on the island but real emergencies require air transport.
In our ever fast past changing world a leisurely visit to Cuttyhunk reminds us of a world largely passed.
A world of good neighbors, co-operation, good manners, helpfulness and plain old kindness. Its always refreshing to return here even after long absences. But July 4th is the best of times when everyone celebrates. And I mean everyone. The entire community of both year rounders and visitors celebrates the Land of the Free.
Peter I Berman