Cultural Outpost

Shops and eateries atop the Gay Head Cliffs have been drawing tourists and Vineyarders alike for more than a hundred years. Run by Wampanoags, the shops are part of the tribal culture in Aquinnah.

gay head cliffs aquinnah

Summer! Colored Clay Cliffs! Lighthouse!

Our Island’s reputation as a tourist mecca goes back much further than many would think. In the 1880s, an ad for a “grand excursion” to Gay Head (now called Aquinnah) via “Captain Manter’s steamer, Island Home” read: “sail around the spot of the ill-fated City of Columbus, visit a settlement of Indians,” and “the most magnificent Light on the coast, with a gentlemanly keeper to show you through it. All the above for fifty cents.”

So before the tour bus, there was the tour steamboat, and while some tourists enjoyed the walk from the steamboat dock to the Gay Head Light, others preferred the ox-cart ride provided by enterprising Gay Headers – all of whom at that time were Wampanoags. Others in the tribe saw an opportunity to add to their seasonal earnings by providing the visitors with souvenirs to purchase. Souvenirs then and now have included pottery made of the multicolored clay from the Gay Head Cliffs.

The beautifully colored cliffs and the lighthouse were the main attraction, and that’s where the tourists on their grand excursion wanted to be. But before there were shops atop the cliffs, handcrafted items produced by the local folks during the winter months were displayed outdoors on tables or blankets, and under umbrellas. Some of these artisans would craft their wares while waiting for customers. This small outdoor market, dependent on the weather, was located on the relatively flat ground near the present-day parking area for cars and buses on the loop road. They eventually migrated up the hill toward the overlook.

Anne Vanderhoop Madison, the elder stateswoman of the cliff top, explains that the now-brick path running between the shops and ending up at the overlook was once – before there were shops – a sandy path with beach grass “almost hip high” on either side. As the greater world discovered the beauty of the area, she says, “the path was worn deeper and deeper, the grass was trampled, and eventually the town had to pave it in the late fifties.

matthew cully vanderhoop aquinnah shop anne
Matthew “Cully” Vanderhoop now runs the famed Aquinnah Shop, but his mother, Anne Vanderhoop Madison, is still the grande dame.

“Every day, or every other day, taxis would come up. Nellie Amaral would drive her taxi from Vineyard Haven, with people from the boat,” Anne says. Now the rhythm of visitors is governed by the arrival of tour buses, and in high season each bus drops off up to forty people at a time for a half-hour visit.

More than 130 years after the earliest days of tourism, the shops at the cliffs and the food establishments are still run by tribal members, and several have been there for generations. These family stores have family stories.

The Aquinnah Shop Napoleon Madison built the Aquinnah Shop – the first food shop on the cliffs – in 1945. The tribe’s medicine man was married to Nanetta Vanderhoop, whose family owned the land atop the cliffs. Asked what things were like when she first got involved in the shop, niece Anne Vanderhoop Madison says, “I was mouthy then, because I was young. I would tell Uncle Poli what he should do.” Anne thought there should be a greater variety of things for sale, and certainly didn’t approve of Napoleon putting canned condensed milk in the customers’ coffee.

The main items were takeout hamburgers and hot dogs, and because electricity didn’t arrive in Gay Head until 1951, there was no refrigeration. That meant a trip to Cronig’s on Main Street in Vineyard Haven every day for fresh supplies.

Anne was fully in charge of the Aquinnah Shop by the late 1960s and grew the business, adding more tourist items to the shelves and filling out the menu while expanding the size of the building. Legions of young women – Islanders and wash-ashores – have benefitted from Anne’s training, becoming waitresses and hostesses, earning their summer money and leaving for the larger world with a valuable new skill in the fall.

Today Matthew “Cully” Vanderhoop (one of Anne’s sons) is the proprietor. Seventy years since it began, the shop now has a large dining area, with wide-ranging breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus, and a wonderful deck that hangs out over the cliff edge for a truly spectacular view of the water and cliffs. That deck, which Anne calls “the precious patio,” offers the lucky diner a front-row seat for sunset – if they time their reservation correctly.

aquinnah shop outdoor seating
Nothing beats a front-row seat for sunset at the Aquinnah Shop.

For waiting diners, a few displays of Island history entertain. They include photos, memorabilia, and native artwork – alongside Cully’s brother Buddy Vanderhoop’s sixty-plus-pound striped bass mounted on the wall.

Stony Creek Gifts In the 1940s, Earl and Viola Vanderhoop both made pottery, and their niece Bertha Vanderhoop would sell it for them within the circle, which is how she was able to go to college. There is an Alfred Eisenstaedt photo from that time of Bertha carrying clay up from the cliffs. Bertha and her husband, Jose Giles, then built a shop inside the circle in the early 1950s.

Two of Bertha and Jose’s daughters, Berta Welch and Carla Cuch, carry on the Stony Creek shopkeeping tradition today. Carla remembers a story from when her mother was very young: Bertha had worked an entire summer selling pottery when her mother said to her, “Bertha, I hate to ask you, but we need a new cooking stove and we have to use your money.” Surely a sad moment for the budding entrepreneur! In the early 1960s, when the shop was built at its present location, Bertha had a pottery wheel installed and would make small clay items there.

These days, Stony Creek Gifts is a musical experience with a multitude of wind chimes catching the ever-present breezes from the sea. As with the other shopkeepers, winter is the time for going to trade shows and looking through catalogues, choosing the great variety of wares that regular visitors have come to expect. There are artifacts from Mexico and the southwest, and innumerable trinkets and must-haves. Especially featured is the distinctive wampum jewelry made by Berta, her husband, Vern Welch, and son, Giles.

On the Cliffs

One of the smaller shops, On the Cliffs, was started in 1990 by Adriana Ignatio, on the site where her Aunt Lucille and Uncle Alfred Vanderhoop had their “tiny little gift shop selling trinkets and curios.” Adriana says, “Aunt Lucille sold her pottery made from Gay Head clay, and did beadwork,” some of which was made from her handmade Gay Head clay beads.

Alfred had built the shop in the late 1940s with beach wood and dump lumber. When Adriana opened her business there, her sisters Berta and Carla were running Stony Creek Gifts. “I didn’t want to compete with them, so I stocked T-shirts and sweatshirts.”

adriana ignatio on the cliffs
Adriana Ignatio at On the Cliffs continues a family tradition of operating shops near the Gay Head overlook. Her sisters, Berta Welch and Carla Cuch, run Stony Creek Gifts.

In 2009 Adriana’s daughters, Ona and Amera, joined the business briefly and introduced women’s fashions and accessories. “Customers are really surprised that they can come to Aquinnah and get a fashion item.” Frugal fashionistas, take note: “I open every season selling last year’s stock at half price,” Adriana says.

HowWassWee Trading Post

Proprietor/artist/wampum-maker Donald Widdiss explains the name of his shop this way, “HowWassWee is the phonetic pronunciation of the matrilineal family name of descendants of Thomas E. Manning,” from whom he descends. The shop occupies the spot where, in the 1950s, his grandmother Minnie (Manning) Malonson would set up her folding table. There she would display her clay objects, beadwork, and other handmade goods, while beside it she created new items for sale.

In 2003 the Widdiss family built the Trading Post, replacing the Wright Place, a food shop. Over time the Trading Post has become a modern version of those early folding table displays. It features handmade, Island-produced scrimshaw, wampum, leatherwork, and baskets as well as Native American craft goods from other tribes.

This year, HowWassWee is reviving the traditional Gay Head practice of artisans creating their crafts where they are sold. Donald and others can be observed as they produce works of wampum and clay in the shop. Today only Wampanoag tribal members are allowed to mine the cliffs for clay, which adds to the preciousness of these beautiful multicolored Aquinnah artifacts.

Hat-Mar-Cha Gifts

Charles and Hatsuko Vanderhoop started the Hat-Mar-Cha Shop in 1974. Charlie grew up at the Gay Head Lighthouse, because, beginning in 1920, his father, Charles W. Vanderhoop Sr., was the principle keeper. Living on the cliff top as a boy, Charlie would make pottery from the clay cliffs and sell it from a table outdoors, just across the loop road from where the family’s shop is now. Many Gay Head youth of that time were able to go to college using their summer earnings from pottery – including Charlie’s sisters.

Thirteen years ago, when their daughter Martha and her husband, Marshall Lee, took over the business, the name changed slightly – the word “gifts” replaced “shop.” Over time, the focus on Martha’s Vineyard–themed tourist items was replaced by fair trade, American, and locally made products. But wampum, turquoise, scrimshaw, and silver continue to be sold as they were when the shop began – side by side with native fair-trade goods from around the world.

Martha says, “Travelers come here and ask, ‘Why do you have all these Native American products?’ A lot of people, even in this day and age, think of natives as being in the west, or southwest, so they’re surprised to find native people here on Martha’s Vineyard in the most beautiful part of the Island. Part of working up here is being a bit of an educator, and I like that. Everyone who works here at our shop, tribal or not, has to know a little bit about our history.”

Of course anyone who knows of the Native American culture in Aquinnah might assume the shop’s name comes from the Wampanoag language, but not so. Martha says with a laugh, “Hat” is short for her mother, Hatsuko, “Mar” for Martha, and “Cha” for Charlie.


gordon dona perry dreamcatcher
Gordon and Dona Perry at Dreamcatcher.

Gordon Perry and his wife, Dona, built their food shop in 2004. To do so, they knocked down the shack that had been Shindigs and, before that, Daffodils. Gordon’s parents, Gordon Sr., who was Wampanoag, and his wife, Phyllis Perry, had Sugar and Spice, a restaurant in the family home on State Road, in view of the cliff shops. Phyllis went on to be the first female head chef on Martha’s Vineyard in the early seventies, and cooked at the exclusive Inn at Blueberry Hill in Chilmark.

When Dreamcatcher first opened, the menu was classic American fried and grilled takeout. But Dona says she’s found customers have grown a bit more sophisticated. Nowadays salads, grilled chicken sandwiches, grilled fish, and grilled veggie garden burgers have joined the menu mainstays of beer-battered fish and chips, burgers, and the lobster roll (claw, knuckle, a little Hellman’s mayo, and a touch of black pepper on a toasted roll).

This year for the first time, Dona and Gordon are serving dinners Thursdays through Saturdays. And for you clam connoisseurs, another new direction for Dreamcatcher is full-bellied clams, not clam strips.

Faith’s Seafood Shack

Faith Vanderhoop and James Shephard built the first shop on the left going up the path in 2008, replacing a food shop called Broken Arrow. Their business plan was not fast food, but good food for Vineyarders and tradesmen working up-Island, as well as for visitors. Lobster rolls, chowder, sushi, fish tacos, a raw bar, steamers – they cover the waterfront, with meatball subs and other offerings for those not in a fishy mood.

faith vanderhoop seafood shack
Faith Vanderhoop at Faith’s Seafood Shack.

Faith, who in her youth was a waitress at the Aquinnah Shop, says, “When I see buses pulling in, we have to gear up quickly. There could be forty people on board or two, but you have to be ready. The people on the bus get off knowing they have only thirty minutes before the bus leaves, and if they’re hungry, they’re expecting, if not fast food, which we don’t do, then fast service. It’s a challenge.”

Some folks keep in touch year-round, taking advantage of the Seafood Shack’s webcams to stay connected with the Aquinnah vibe. One camera looks out at Moshup, Philbin, and “Painted House,” the beaches that stretch out from the cliffs toward the southeast – a benefit to down-Island surfers in summer and fall. Is the surf up? The cam knows. The other camera looks toward the Gay Head Lighthouse, a historic icon of the town, revered Island-wide as a link to our shared maritime history.

Faith’s Seafood Shack has pioneered a new wrinkle in the ancient business of takeout. As at many such establishments, James will ask your name when taking your order so he can call out to you when the food is ready. But here the script goes like this – James: “Can I have your name?” Me: “My name’s Richard.” James, smiling: “Richard, good to meet you. My name’s James.” So all of a sudden you’re being fed by a friend. It’s good for business too.

Tribal information

Many of the visitors to Martha’s Vineyard have no idea that the face of the cliffs is tribal property, that every inch of the land they are walking was once communal tribal land, and that the person serving them at a cliff shop might well be a tribal member.

Bettina Washington of the Wampanoag Tribal Historic Preservation Office says that Bret Stearns of the Wampanoag Tribe’s Natural Resources Department deserves credit as the driving force behind the latest cliff “shop” – just built this year. Nothing is to be sold there, but it is meant to provide a tribal presence for the tourists passing by.

The tribe’s cliff-top education and awareness campaign begins with the look of the building’s rounded roof and raw bark shingles. Both are elements of the traditional Wampanoag housing known as a wetu (WEE-too) and contribute to making this building appealing and unique.

Bret says that one purpose of the new building is to provide information about the current environmental and cultural programs, such as the tribe’s air- and water-quality monitoring. A kiosk inside, with an electronic display linked to the tribe’s website, will promote environmental awareness about the cliffs as well as give information about the tribe and the town’s Gay Head/Aquinnah heritage.

Some signage will be of the “you are here” variety to give visitors a deeper understanding of this beautiful and geologically interesting spot, 130 feet above the sea. Cultural items are to be hung on the walls, and brochures will tout the nearby Aquinnah Cultural Center.

Bettina says, “We’ll start off slow as we build and refine the information we provide to the public. Even tourism in Gay Head is historic – we’ll tell that story too.”