The Inkwell

The little strand at the end of Tuckernuck Avenue wasn’t always the Island’s most famous beach. But it has always been treasured.

I am most assuredly not a beach person, yet I delight in informing the world that I have spent my almost sixty years of Vineyard summers living up the street from one of the Island’s most famous beaches. It’s not the prettiest by far. It’s not the most secluded or the most exclusive. It’s not even the most notorious. Most of those are up-Island and access is granted to those in the know, those with parking stickers, or those willing to take off their clothes. Rather, my beach is the town beach of Oak Bluffs that now goes proudly, publicly, and more than a little controversially by the name of what was once a shared in-joke: the Inkwell.

When I arrived with my parents on the Island some six decades ago, various towns had their own stretches of beach, the perquisites of which were jealously guarded, as we found out when we were gently asked off of Edgartown’s Lighthouse Beach one summer. (Back then, they could tell that we didn’t live in Edgartown, ’cause no black people did!) The Oak Bluffs town beach was considerably more egalitarian and was right at the end of our street at the foot of Tuckernuck Avenue. It offered a curve of beach protected by a seawall and came complete with a floating raft to which one could swim and on which one could sun. Across the street, the Sea View Hotel, a ramshackle remnant of the town’s gilded age, offered refreshment: a trip across the dark lobby took one into the bar where a cool drink and libations could be had.

The town beach was adjacent to Pay Beach, where there were changing rooms and a lifeguard. I vaguely remember a concession stand of some sort, but it could not have rivaled the thrill of heading into the Sea View. I later learned Pay Beach had been segregated in the town’s early days, but when my family arrived in the late 1950s the segregation was financial. Pay Beach’s facilities were available for a nominal sum (I think it cost a dime), but the town beach was free and it was ours! As the town changed complexion and became more and more African American, the in-joke name that was whispered among certain folks was “the Inkwell.” It was a private joke that was never, ever uttered in public company, rather an affectionate sobriquet bestowed on the beach by those who swam and sunned there.

Ray Ewing

There are other tales of how the beach came by its now world-famous name. Some suggest that it was labeled derisively by whites as the beach and the town blackened up. And still others suggest, somewhat curiously, that it was because of some of the Harlem Renaissance writers who summered in Oak Bluffs. (Dorothy West was most assuredly not a beachgoer!) Whatever the rationale, the name has stuck, taken on a life of its own, and is now proudly emblazoned on T-shirts, baseball caps, and hoodies. There was a 1994 film about it, although it was not filmed on the Vineyard, and there is even a car sticker that proudly proclaims INK – to the despair of some of the Island’s more politically aware residents.

The beach’s name moving from a whisper to a scream is perhaps the most obvious change that the curve of sand has gone through. Indeed, the beach has morphed with the town and the times. Each summer adds another layer of lore and each hour of the day has its particular beach denizens. In the early days, there was the tale of the woman who floated out to sea: Gertrude Smith. She was noted for her graceful strokes back and forth, up and down, between jetties. One day, she headed out and got caught in one of the Island’s notorious riptides. She had the good sense to float, but was carried so far out that rescue came in the form of a passing boater.

Smith was one of the Polar Bears, a more than seventy-year-old organization that began as a group of friends who took a morning dip before heading off to their summer jobs. The group still exists and now welcomes visitors and stalwarts every summer at the beach at 7:30 each morning. Mondays are special, with a potluck breakfast drawing swimmers and non-aquatic admirers. The Polar Bears are a part of my beach memories, because my mother was an early member, and I recall the cries from friends under her window calling her to walk down to the beach with them for their daily dip. I still know some of the more senior members who date back to her times: the Dowdell sisters, whose centenarian mother would join the group on occasion, plus Phyllis DeChalus and Fran Gaskin. I still miss some of those who have gone, like Eloise Allen. I cherish Mom’s Polar Bear sweatshirt and the memories it carries, but I’m a late sleeper and a different kind of water baby.

I’m not a part of the beach’s midday crowd either. I watch the day folks as they pass by on their way to the beach hauling wagons full of impedimenta. They arrive like Grant taking Richmond and set up camp for the day, complete with umbrellas, beach chairs, coolers, and more. Mothers are happy to converse with each other and perhaps indulge in a game or two of bridge or bid whist while youngsters paddle about and form lifelong summer friendships. Someone’s eye is always seaward and the beach-going village raises the children together.

Peter Simon

All are not parents; for some, the beach simply provides an outdoor living room where sun and sand, punctuated with an occasional dip when the sun’s heat is too much, make for the perfect summer day. No one exemplified this beachgoer better than Lois Lippman, who lived up the street. They should name a stretch of the beach for her. For decades, if the sun was out and she was on Island, she could be found in her usual spot on the beach: greeting her public, working on her sunglow, and generally basking in the warmth of community that this particular stretch of beach celebrates.

Today’s beach has become so popular in the minds of Island visitors that it ranks just after the Tabernacle on TripAdvisor’s list of things to do in Oak Bluffs. Folks vie with one another for a spot for their blankets and the ability to say they’ve spent some time at the Inkwell. The meeting and greeting are epic and the networking so astounding that I have been known to wonder aloud if folks have pockets sewn in their bathing suits for business cards! The good times continue as each new generation creates its own memories of the iconic beach.

As day turns to sundown, a different set of beach lovers arrives, those who may not want the camaraderie of the early morning or the good-time crowds of midday. Late afternoon, the people thin out. Wagons are packed up, children rounded up, and thoughts turn to dinner and evening activities. That’s when I venture out. I do a brief stroll at water’s edge and marvel at the history the beach has witnessed: family gatherings, memorial services, weddings, and secular baptisms in the chilly waters of Nantucket Sound. A litany of names runs through my mind as I walk. I think of friends and family who have loved these waters, always ending with my parents, who gave me to the Vineyard. Then I pack up my belongings, bid the water goodbye for a while, and head back home to my house up the street from the beach with the problematic name.

Comments (16)

karen A. wells
Orange, NJ
We want the Inkwell sign restored immediately.
July 1, 2018 - 6:50pm
I visited this beach for the first time today and I wasn't sure if I was in the right place because there were no signs or monuments.I was very disappointed to find that such a historical landmark doesn't have a memorial or something indicating it's location and significance.
August 2, 2022 - 10:04pm
Cynthia Neville
I had the opportunity to visit the Vineyard, its true their is no sign for the Inkwell existence. Their was one shop that had Inkwell memorabilia.
June 18, 2023 - 11:40pm
Sheila D Woods-Singleton
Very my heart. The Smith and the Briges Family. I wish I was down at the.brach now.
July 4, 2018 - 6:21am
Western MA
Great read ....I share those memories and the time frame. Grandmother says the name comes from the color all crowded into one section that opens up to the expanse of the ocean. However it was named, I continue to marvel at our place in the sun~~
July 5, 2018 - 1:57pm
Liz Slaughter
Jessica, a beautiful and thoughtful commentary on the beloved Town Beach. Go home and call it whatever you like,but it will always be the Town Beach to us early (and earlier) folks.
July 5, 2018 - 5:48pm
In the forties when I arrived on the Vineyard, there was no "Inkwell".It hadn't really been Born. My family used to take us to the beach next to the wharf in front of the comfort station.There were restaurants, flying horses, ice cream parlor, curio shops roller rink, even movie theatres and a toilet close by. The Oak Bluffs jetty was a short walk away to go fishing and the beach was not crowded. Watching the people coming and going to the Steam Ship was entertaining in itself. If we wanted to play on the grass we had Ocean Park right there. What could be better? But one day my mother said we were going to go to the "Town Pier" for our beach day. No toilets, no steam ships to watch, no travelers to watch, no ice cream parlor, no shops, theatres, curio shops or flying horses to ride. Just the snack bar on the side of the hotel that Mrs. Ballard owned and operated. We now had more beach space, a pier to jump off, fish off ,ride bikes off, dive off and a float to swim to. We had two jetties to fish off. We still had a park to play in but that didn't last to long. Because there were more people to play with and grow up with on the beach.Then the inevitable happened. The difference began to be understood. Why did I wear shots in the water and some other kids were covered from neck to upper legs. I along with my new buddies discovered GIRLS! The game changed! The "Town Pier" was the place to be! And to make it even more fun, the girls thought the same way. The parties were frequent and we all grew up. Today, some of those same kids still come to the Town Pier with their families. However, no one calls it that anymore. The beach name has evolved to "THE INKWELL". How and why the name changed is subject for a book and much discourse. The fact is, that beach is a special beach to many people.Last summer we took a photo of four females in my family, my wife who I met 20 yards down the beach, my second daughter, her daughter and my great grand daughter. Only my mother who first brought me to the Town Pier" was missing. My great grand daughter is with child. A new heir to the INKWELL is on the way and my grandson has just begun. HOW SPECIAL IS THE INKWELL? What's your answer? Rich Washington
July 7, 2018 - 12:41pm
Marybeth Spence
My first visit to The Inkwell on 7/418 was simply amazing. I was one of the first to arrive at 7am that morning to participate in celebration of The Polar Bears and The Inkwell. It was a family reunion; it was spiritual; it was inspiring.
July 11, 2018 - 8:13am
Kenneth Taylor
Richmond, Va.
In my earlier years I was fancinated at the young boys that would dive for coins when the ferry would dock at Oak Bluffs. This inspired me to learn to swim. My parents would take us to Town Beach as it was called then and I would work on my stoke in between playing with my siblings. As a teenager I would never forget coming home one day and telling my aunt I was going to the Inkwell. I thought that was such a cool name since so many black people were on the beach enjoying themselve the way black people do. She emphatically said it was not called The's "Town Beach". I never used the word Inkwell around her again but it will alwayes be The Inkwell to me.
August 15, 2018 - 11:22am
Donald Hilliard,Jr.
Millstone, New Jersey
I made my first visit to the Vineyard 34 years ago, along my wife, our 2 year old daughter, and recently widowed mother, immediately fell in love with Martha's Vineyard! And yes, the Inkwell, Aguinnah, and Menemsha were all enjoyed. There is something interesting about the Inkwell that makes it stand out, at least for me. You meet so many warm, friendly, accomplished people who look like me, I wanted our three children to be a part of that empowering experience. We are there yearly, and sometimes in the Fall. Martha's Vineyard is a very special place for this family, now into its fourth generation.
August 22, 2018 - 2:12pm
Donald Hilliard,Jr.
Millstone, New Jersey
I made my first visit to the Vineyard 34 years ago, along my wife, our 2 year old daughter, and recently widowed mother, immediately fell in love with Martha's Vineyard! And yes, the Inkwell, Aguinnah, and Menemsha were all enjoyed. There is something interesting about the Inkwell that makes it stand out, at least for me. You meet so many warm, friendly, accomplished people who look like me, I wanted our three children to be a part of that empowering experience. We are there yearly, and sometimes in the Fall. Martha's Vineyard is a very special place for this family, now into its fourth generation.
August 22, 2018 - 2:12pm
Michelle Stent
Tuckernuck Ave, OB
Dear Jessica, what a lovely tribute to Town Beach. I spent my summers on Tuckernuck with my parents moving there in 1953 after Mom grew up in the Highlands. It was Town Beach with Pay Beach next door during my childhood and teenage years. I learned to swim there with my Mom teaching many of us in the early morning COLD water. The final test was swimming to the raft which was where the teenagers hung out. Sitting on the boulders by the wall, walking the jetty, collecting beach glass, my happy place on Tuckernuck with my Tuckernuck family.
October 2, 2018 - 11:05pm
Paul R
Just north of Boston
After seeing a couple of Presidents vacation on the Vineyard I thought, We've got this gem of a place in our back yard, and one day in 2010 we decided to see what all the fuss was about. We instantly fell in love with place and have since been there fifteen times since 2010. Another Spring and Fall trip are planned. As far as we're concerned the best times to go.
January 30, 2019 - 1:51pm
I am reading Elin Hilderbrand's newest book Summer of 69 - I love it because it mentions so many place on the Vineyard (and Nantucket), for all the years that I have gone to the Vineyard it was the first mention in her book that I ever heard of Inkwell. I cannot wait for my next visit to the Island to search this beach down.
July 25, 2019 - 10:40am
A MV fan
Hollis NH
The first time I came to OB ten years ago, I was mortified that the beach was called Inkwell. Good Lord, and there was a shop on Circuit that even told tshirts with the name on it? Yikes! At the time we were staying with friends in OB and walked down with the wife and spent the afternoon there. It was lovely. In subsequent years, the Beach Road was my running route and I loved to see so many families able to walk from their residence to a great beach. A few yrs later, I found old letters from my great grandmother relating summers spent at the Tabernacle (they were die hard Baptists). She even mentioned the beach, but it was called Town Beach then (late 1800s). After a bunch of reading, and a long talk with a friend of a friend who lives in town, I now get it that by celebrating the name Inkwell, it takes away the sting and gives it back to the African American community. So not for me to get my knickers in knot! I just get to enjoy the beauty of it with everyone else.
August 19, 2021 - 3:52pm
I got engaged at the inkwell! A special place in my heart
August 16, 2022 - 8:30pm