A Flagpole Tribute on West Chop

It may be the most cryptic and intriguing memorial to an individual on Martha’s Vineyard, located in what may be the prettiest setting. A bronze plaque fastened to the base of a flagpole at a clearing at West Chop, the tablet recalls the name of Philip Leverett Saltonstall.

What did this man do that caused “the children of West Chop” – as the inscription describes them – to present this flagpole in his memory, obviously long ago?

First, a little geography: West Chop is the northernmost point of the Island, with the lighthouse and stately gray-shingled houses that the ferries sail by as they shoulder their way into and out of Vineyard Haven harbor. West Chop was an uninhabited tangle of scrub and wind-blasted cedars when three Boston sportsmen – Charles C. Jackson, William Minot Jr., and Stephen Weld – got a look and bought it during a duck-hunting trip in July 1887.

At first the idea was to make a profit selling lots to the general public. But the founding purchasers themselves began to occupy the houses they had initially built on spec, and friends and family began to buy and build too. West Chop soon became a summer retreat of houses, an inn, a community center called the Casino, tennis courts, and even a wharf with a private steamer running regularly to the mainland. It was an enclave so distinct from the rest of Vineyard Haven that eventually it had its own seasonal post office.

By design, West Chop grew into a “close-knit, family-oriented summer settlement, which today is tribal in feeling,” wrote Constance Fuller Sanborn in her book The Magic Sea Glass of West Chop (published by the author, 1985). Those who summered on the point were strongly encouraged to think of themselves as belonging to a club and to participate in West Chop sailboat races, art shows, costume balls, baseball games, tennis tournaments, communal picnics and meals, and especially the Saturday night dances and games held each week at the Casino.

This is where Philip Leverett Saltonstall comes, albeit somewhat hazily, into the picture.

Saltonstall was one of the original three trustees of the organization that ran West Chop as a community endeavor. He was born into a prominent Massachusetts family in Chestnut Hill on May 4, 1867, and graduated from Harvard in 1889. He became a banker in Boston who specialized in the establishment and management of utilities such as electric companies and trolley lines. He married Frances Anna Fitch Sherwood in 1890 and had six children. He was the uncle of Leverett A. Saltonstall, a future governor of, and senator from, Massachusetts.

With his family, he came and built a summer house in the first years of West Chop (his brother Endicott came with his family too). The Saturday night dances at the Casino became an early fixture of life on the headland; these were jacket-and-tie and gown affairs run by mothers and daughters for residents of all generations, but there were games too, led by the fathers, and Saltonstall was among the first and most popular among them.

Saltonstall, remembered as an inventive man, helped start the sailing program, but we don’t know much about what games, besides baseball, he may have dreamed up, or how in particular he ran them. Yet we get the occasional glimpse of the man – tall, thin, physically a bit lame, charismatic, with a hearty laugh – from a long, rather metrically uneven poem recorded in a personal history of West Chop by Roy Goff, a summer resident. And when Saltonstall died on November 15, 1919, after a long, painful, but unnamed illness at the age of fifty-two, the writer of his obituary in Harvard Graduates Magazine took care to note he had served as director of two institutions run for the welfare of children, possessed “a generous heart, unfailing tact, a cheery nature,” and that at reunions his “exuberant spirits, and kindly efforts to make every one feel happy and at ease, contributed in no small degree to the success of these occasions.”

On July 11, 1920 – the summer after his death – there was a ceremony in his honor at the promontory on the Vineyard Sound side of West Chop. “A memorial to Phil by all the children, and they sang the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’” wrote Constance Sanborn’s great-grandmother, Constance Greenough, in her diary. “All grouped at the foot of the flagstaff. The children collected money for the flag and the staff and [my husband] Charlie made a short tribute to Phil, telling of his influence down here among old and young, and then we sang five of Phil’s favorite hymns. It was all very lovely and touching.”

In succeeding generations, the flagpole has been the site of important gatherings at West Chop, such as a service of thanksgiving after the defeat of Japan in World War II and the 1976 bicentennial celebration, where the story was apparently last recounted in public as to why the flagpole was dedicated to a West Chop neighbor named Philip Leverett Saltonstall fifty-six years before.

Sources for this story include the libraries of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and Vineyard Gazette; A West Chop Chronicle, 1889-1989, by Constance Greenough Fuller and William J. Cox (Governors of the West Chop Club, 1990); and historian Chris Baer.