A House for the Ages

The Vanderhoop homestead, site of the new Aquinnah Cultural Center, embraces more than one hundred years of Gay Head history.

the Vanderhoop homestead, refurbished and opened in July as the Aquinnah Cultural Center, stands half hidden behind overgrown privet bushes that mark the property line. A copse of elm trees, miraculously untouched by Dutch elm disease, shades the east side. But long ago, the wide vistas from the homestead to the south shore were unbroken, its views west and north went clear to the Gay Head Cliffs, and the land around the house was home to grazing cattle.

As the Cliffs were developing into a tourist attraction in the 1890s, Edwin DeVries Vanderhoop, a whaling captain and the only Wampanoag to serve in the Massachusetts legislature, built his house and a barn on the expanse just east of the Cliffs. He paid $75 for three acres of land, and at least one researcher thinks a part of the homestead was moved there from another location in Gay Head. Few other buildings stood on this westernmost tip of the Island. A home for the lighthouse keeper with a few outbuildings stood next to the Gay Head Lighthouse, and later a New Bedford businessman – some say he was a rumrunner – named John Ginocchio built the Not-O-Way Inn in the meadow behind the lighthouse.

Just east of the Gay Head Cliffs today there lies “the circle,” a blacktopped loop where tour buses empty and sightseers climb the steps, walk to the overlook, then stop for snacks and souvenirs at the Aquinnah Shop or the little shacks that line the pathway. But the circle didn’t exist when the Vanderhoop house was built. State Road wasn’t established until the 1870s, and even then it was a dirt track, rutted in wet weather by Model T’s. Moshup’s Trail, the road leading away from the circle along the Atlantic shore, dates only to the late 1960s.

When the Vanderhoop house was new, steamboats sailed every Sunday from New Bedford and down-Island piers to Duncan’s Wharf – also called Steamship Wharf or Pilot’s Landing – off Lighthouse Road. Gay Headers who owned oxen and carts met the boats and carried the tourists to the Cliffs.
Along the way, the visitors surveyed an offshore wilderness. The late artist and tribal storyteller David Vanderhoop, whose paintings decorate the cultural center, claimed wild horses once roamed Gay Head’s open fields. Beach salvage brought surprises and rewards. Edwin’s wife Mary Cleggett Vanderhoop, a schoolteacher and expert on tribal matters, described in a 1904 letter to George Hough – father of Henry Beetle Hough, the future editor of the Vineyard Gazette – how 700 cans of French peas had washed ashore at the Cliffs, along with a human hand.

Beatrice Gentry, ninety-six, the first Wampanoag woman to graduate from college, may be the last of the elders who remembers Captain Edwin and Mary Vanderhoop, her Uncle Eddy and Aunt Mame.

“What I remember most about Mrs. Vanderhoop is that she was the person who collected the legends of Moshup,” Beatrice says. “She was very well educated, and she was very interested in educating children.” Beatrice describes Captain Vanderhoop as a friendly, kind man. The Vanderhoops entertained a great deal, and Beatrice recalls some of the typical Wampanoag refreshments. No Cake, made of parched and ground corn, milk, and sugar, was a unique Wampanoag recipe. Other favorites were plum porridge and bannock bread, a form of fried dough.

As generations of family members came and went, summer renters enjoyed the remote beauty around the Vanderhoop homestead. Edwin’s son Leonard lived there year-round as a young man, even though the homestead was never winterized, which, it was thought, kept it from rotting in the sea air: The open construction of the building let it breathe, so it stayed in remarkably good condition. Edwin’s great-great-grandson Tobias, vice president of the Aquinnah Cultural Center and a consultant and professional lecturer on Wampanoag history and culture, dismisses rumors that the homestead was haunted. He says this house has always been full of life and good memories. As recently as last year, two of Aquinnah’s summer policemen lived in the house.

Although Gladys Widdiss, ninety-two, doesn’t remember visiting the homestead until she was an adult, the Cliffs were her playground as a child. The fenced-in lookout wasn’t built, so the edge of the Cliffs was unbordered all the way around.

“We had a path,” Gladys says. “We used to roll down the hill – that was fun.” She also remembers digging with shells, although not for clay. She and her friends collected petrified quahaugs and built hilltop racetracks to see whose quahaug went fastest down the course.

Cranberry Day, a three-day event beginning the second Tuesday in October, gave Gay Head residents, predominantly Wampanoags, a time to pick the crop before other Islanders were allowed into the wild bogs. Gladys and the others in her family would go to the bogs and pick until noon. Then the children would roll cranberries down the hill in races. Beatrice Gentry remembers the cranberry agent who determined when the fruit was ready to pick.

“You always wore winter clothes,” she says. “Maybe it was colder in those days. Many people still have their cranberry scoops. In those days they’d trade the cranberries for sugar, flour, or whatever you needed. The Gay Head men who had catboats took the cranberries to New Bedford to sell.” Beatrice also remembers how her mother winnowed the cranberries. After putting a blanket down on the ground, she’d toss the cranberries in the air above it and let the wind help remove leaves and other debris.
 In 1921, when she was seven, Gladys Widdiss made little clay souvenirs for the tourists. So did Beatrice Gentry and her siblings. Beatrice’s brother found a potter’s wheel and her sister became very good at using it. They made bowls, canoes, paperweights, and ashtrays or filled glass bottles with clay in layers of colors. When fired, the variety is baked out of the colors in Gay Head clay; for this reason the knickknacks made by the children were left in the sun to bake and dry.

“That’s how my sister and I went to college,” says Beatrice, the last survivor of nine children. “The Cliffs have been an economic boon for the whole community.”

Gladys Widdiss went on foot to the Little Red Schoolhouse, now Aquinnah’s public library. “We walked everywhere,” she says. Morris Belain had one of the first cars in town, so Gladys piled into it for rides with up to ten other teenagers. Later, in the 1950s, Beverly Wright, the former chairman of the Wampanoag tribal counsel, remembers she and most of her friends started driving as early as twelve; they just avoided State Road and the town constable.

Valedictorian when she graduated from Tisbury High School in 1932, Gladys Widdiss recalls, “I wanted to be a boy and go on tramp steamers. I was a rebel.” She never did, and today she laughs at the thought, since she doesn’t even like the water. “As I grow older, I sit and think. And I never, ever remember feeling deprived. I was curious about why we lived up here, and we were a little different. But we had fun, and we made our own things.”

Luther Madison, half a generation younger at eighty-two, spent winters in New Bedford because his mother, Nannetta Vanderhoop, was teaching school in Canton. But every summer he and his two sisters and mother came home to the Vanderhoop homestead, where his father Napoleon, a fisherman who scalloped in the winter, stayed. In those days, the big barn located next to the homestead housed the family’s milking cow and their two oxen, which plowed the fields.

“My father grew vegetables,” Luther says, “and my mother and Aunt Pauline canned them.” He and his six cousins, who lived up the hill near Aquinnah’s Baptist Church, roamed the Cliffs. “We had a great time on the dunes,” he says.

 “One year there were donkeys that would take people down the Cliffs,” Luther says. “I had the chore of taking the donkeys to their pasture right below the homestead.” The meadow next to the homestead was kept mowed for hay to feed the cattle. Beatrice Gentry remembers that the fields were rotated at different times of the year. Leonard Vanderhoop’s son Edwin, named after his grandfather, remembers taking the cut hay and storing it loose in the homestead barn.

The second Edwin and his friends went up and down the Cliffs, now listed in the National Register of Historic Places and strictly off-limits to the public, “as if it was nothing.” After milking the cows and finishing other chores, he and his friends would swim in the waters off the Cliffs. Whether swimming, climbing trees, or playing games, they never got bored. One of Edwin’s chores was to fill the family’s kerosene lamps and clean the chimneys. Electricity did not come to Gay Head until 1951.

Born in 1926, the second Edwin was twelve when the Hurricane of 1938 slammed into the Island. “We were out running around with our hands up like bird wings, and from my dad’s we could see those mountainous waves. They flattened the dunes,” he says. As a teenager Edwin went to square dances at town hall and played spin the bottle, post office, and musical chairs. Before the advent of the automobile, Gay Headers walked to Oak Bluffs, and it was an all-day excursion. Then they bicycled. A favorite occupation for Luther Madison and his friends was to watch cars loaded with tourists come up to the Cliffs, and they guessed at the model names of the different vehicles.

When Luther was a boy, Burt Vanderhoop, a cousin of Luther’s mother, ran the Not-O-Way Inn across the meadow from the homestead. “We used to pick blueberries and sell them to him,” Luther says of Burt. Family nights at town hall entertained Gay Head teenagers then, and the homemade ice cream was a special treat. “All of us had a fine time,” Luther says. On one occasion, though, Luther’s father gave him money to buy ice cream for the family, and he dawdled on the walk back home. “I remember my father came looking for me. When we got home, I was sent to bed, and they drank the ice cream.”

As it does now, tourism provided a major source of income in the old days. Dorothy Scoville’s father ran day trips in an open bus from down-Island. Sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s, Luther Madison’s father built a small shed on the Cliffs and sold soda and hamburgers. He named it the Aquinnah Shop, leasing the land from the Vanderhoop family “for a little piece of nothing,” and every year he expanded it a little. Now an Aquinnah landmark, the business has stayed in the family, and Luther and his wife Anne Vanderhoop run it.

Every day, one or two tribe members would set up card tables at the top of the Cliffs near the Aquinnah Shop to sell clay souvenirs. The restaurant’s food was cooked on a gas stove, and ice was delivered daily from down-Island to chill those items that needed it. Cisterns gathered rainwater for cooking.

After World War II, Gay Head started getting built up, says Gladys Widdiss. The second Edwin Vanderhoop remembers a World War II gun emplacement that children used to play in; it is now buried under the overlook. Edwin remembers Germans from a submarine landing in a rubber raft, and when he saw a strange man with a black satchel walk by, his father reported the incident to the Coast Guard. Rich people had beach shacks along the south shore. When their cars got stuck, Edwin’s dad, Leonard, would hook up his oxen and say, “Come on, boys, let’s get them out.”

Wampanoags who grew up in the 1950s have their own memories of life at the Cliffs. Natalie Francis lived with her grandparents and as a child accompanied them to the Cliffs to carry the tourists in their oxen cart and to sell souvenirs. Her grandmother wore her Indian costume and sent Natalie around with a tin cup to collect twenty-five cents for each snapshot taken of her grandmother. “If they didn’t pay first, she’d run like the devil,” Natalie remembers. Her grandfather would tell the gullible that he had seen monkeys come ashore at the Cliffs. She and her brother Eugene loved to keep the tourists laughing with their high jinks, but they knew they’d gone too far when their grandmother threatened “bush tea.” That meant a spanking with a switch. “We were some wild little kids,” she says.

Adriana Ignacio, who runs On the Cliff, a Gay Head beachwear and T-shirt shop, lived in the Vanderhoop homestead one summer. Her aunt Viola MacDiarmid had by then taken over the Not-O-Way Inn across the meadow from the homestead, renaming it the Thunderbird.

“I remember it as a really wonderful inn,” Adriana says. One of the waitresses who went to art school painted fresco-like stories of Moshup on the walls of the inn’s dining room, using clay. The inn eventually became the Gay Head Museum. When it was razed in the 1960s, Adriana’s mother Bertha Giles rescued the murals and installed them in her pottery shop, Stony Creek Gifts, although they have since been painted over.

Remembering the field next to the homestead, where the Cliff restrooms are now, Adriana says, “We never used to mow it. It was filled with daisies. My sister Carla and I would pick them and make daisy chains, or play loves-me-loves-me-not with the petals. When I see Forrest Alley mowing in June, I remember spending hours picking daisies.”

Beverly Wright’s grandparents had the first umbrella-shaded stand to the left on the path to the Cliffs. Her grandfather made candlesticks and paperweights out of clay, while her grandmother fashioned dolls out of yarn, made shell earrings, and decorated post cards with scallop shells for the tourist trade. Beverly and her friends loved to show off for the tourists by jumping off the Cliffs. They knew just where to run to make it look more dangerous than it was.
The Cliffs were larger, taller, and farther out, according to Beverly, and before a big, red section fell into the water in 1973, it stained the ocean red. Just below the Aquinnah Shop lay a natural amphitheater of white clay with a big rock in the middle. That was where the annual town pageant was held. Beverly’s grandparents specialized in selling Prell shampoo bottles filled with colored clay and sealed with wax. Since the bottles were square on top, they fashioned a squaw head with braids on it.

Although the Vanderhoop homestead began life with an outhouse – or backhouse, as it used to be called – Beverly remembers the fantastic view of the south shore from the bathroom eventually installed behind the kitchen. Derrill Bazzy, an employee-owner of South Mountain Company, the West Tisbury architectural and building firm, who as chairman of the Aquinnah Community Preservation subcommittee helped organize the Vanderhoop homestead–restoration project, tells how a pair of women’s lace-up boots were found inside a wall of the house, along with a doll’s leg, and other items. A concrete landing, taken out to make way for a stone patio, was filled with all kinds of old metal objects, including jacks, an iron, and a horseshoe. “It was fascinating to find these pieces of life as it was then, that the community found uses for, even after they broke,” he says. The Vanderhoop homestead, which has been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places, still has much of its original furniture, including a hutch believed to be made of wood salvaged from the wreck of the City of Columbus, a steamer that sank on Devil’s Bridge, just beyond the Cliffs, killing 104 passengers and crew in 1884. (It was the worst shipwreck in terms of loss of life in Island history. Two crews of Wampanoags rescued the survivors in a surfboat launched from below the Cliffs during a winter gale.) Furniture from the David Vanderhoop estate has also been donated. Most of the artifacts from the old Gay Head Museum, which closed in the 1960s, have disappeared or been removed, but Berta Welch, president of the new cultural center, hopes they will find their way back into what is an authentic recreation of life as it once was lived in Gay Head.