Memories of August: Islanders reflect on Illumination Nights and Ag Fairs of old

Nelson Amaral.

As told to Linsey Lee, Oral History Curator at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Courtesy of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.


The Grand Illumination


Nelson Amaral (1925 – 2012) Oak Bluffs, chief of fire department (station named in his honor).

For years and years my grandfather rang the Tabernacle bell. On Illumination Night, couldn’t wait for that church bell to ring, and that was the signal — they rang the church bell and you’d start hanging the lanterns. They didn’t have the electric bulbs. You’d have a match or a lighter and you’d go around and light the lanterns. They had these rods about six-and-a-half feet tall.  They had an eye on the top and the string went right through from one to the other.  It was one continuous line all the way out from the Tabernacle and that’s where they’d hang the lanterns. They used to have strings all around the park and the Tabernacle. In the side parks, and all them. There would be thousands of lanterns — oh, it was beautiful.  


John Hughes (b.1922) Vineyard Haven, creator and director of the Lobster Hatchery for 26 years. Marine fisheries biologist.

Illumination night was a big thing. The lanterns were all lit by candles, and we were allowed to light the candles and put up the lanterns. The curtains would be drawn around the Tabernacle and the community sing would be going on, and then they would play “God Bless America,” or something like that. When the community sing was over, the curtain would be pulled. It was just like being in Fairyland, seeing it all of a sudden like that when the curtains were pulled. One of the other things we used to do, the lanterns were hung on strings from tree to tree, and we’d take our fathers’ straight razors and run like hell like this and cut the strings. God, if my kid ever did that, I would have killed them. And, of course, they’d come down and burn. That wasn’t every year, that was just sometimes when you felt your oats.


May Davies Oak Bluffs, began Camp Jabberwocky with her sister Helen Lamb.

We thought that Illumination Night was wonderful. We were overwhelmed with it. It was really nice. In fact, then, they made me light the first candle. And I thought that was just wonderful. Yes, it was all candles. There wasn’t any electricity. But it was very, very pretty. My mother called it a “Little bit of heaven.” She thought it was so nice. We’d go around the Tabernacle, and then we used to stand by that doorway that goes to Circuit Avenue, that opening. And just look down.  Oh, it was beautiful. Just beautiful. It was a very nice attraction.   


The Ag Fair


Jane Newhall.

Jane Newhall (1913 – 2011) West Tisbury Fair entry clerk.

In the real early days at the Fair, they used to have plowing contests. Not at the Hall, but at the farms. And the judges would go around and watch them plow a portion of the field, and then they’d go to another farm and watch them plow a portion of a field, and judge which was done best. But that was a long time ago.

At the Fair when I was young, there used to be exhibits for hunting and fishing that were quite interesting. Way back in the ’30s, Gay Head people used to have a big exhibit all across the back of the Hall with their wares and such like. And they would bring down their oxen.

I don’t think they were as many children’s things as there are now. There wasn’t nearly as much artwork. There was not as much food to be bought. The Eastern Star had the Soup Kitchen in the little ell out in the back of the Hall. They used to have sandwiches and pies, and chowder. The Soup Kitchen, as they called it then. Some of us still call it the Soup Kitchen. Homemade pies that the ladies made themselves. And they’d make up the sandwiches for you there. They used to be that main food department. There weren’t nearly as many local booths.

In the early days of the Fair they used to have a sort-of track meet for the local youngsters. My father won a little cup for a race. The children would have races and shot-put and javelin and high jump and pole vault and things like that. That’s when my cousins John Whiting and Everett Whiting were young. John used to organize things like that. He showed us all how to throw a javelin and how to put the shot and that sort of thing.


Mabelle Medowski (1920 -2013) West Tisbury.

We always went to the Fair. We always had races and running races. I’ve got a couple of medals from there from when I ran. They had the fifty-yard dash or a hundred-yard dash and we’d go in those. Some of us competed in that. Then I always remember my bantam hens used to have to go over to the Fair. So my father would have to pack them up and cart them over to the Fair. And I would see if I got a prize on them. Once in awhile I got a prize on them. And then they had pole vaulting back then for the fellows, you know. My dad was a champ pole vaulter and he had cups from there. They gave cups, back in his day. But when we won over there, we had these medals that had a little racer on the medal. They had a gold medal, and then they had silver and third place. They gave those out. Finally it got down to ribbons.

And they had a greased pig. Well, they turned a pig loose who was greasy, I mean, they’d put grease on him. And I certainly didn’t participate in that, but the fellows all did, and they used to have to catch him. So they had a greased pig.

Then my Dad ran the only concessions there. There were about three. My Dad ran the Hoop-La over there. He had these red, blue, and white blocks and he had rings on the table and he had dolls for prizes and he had blankets for prizes. And if you got a ring over the red block it was such-and-such a prize, you know? I always got a doll for Christmas, one of the leftover dolls. He ran that. And then he ran a wheel thing over there that was spokes and you threw a baseball through the spokes. And they gave a box of chocolates for it, if they got three balls through the spokes. That was about it for entertainment, really.

Marjorie Manter Rogers (1928 -2013) West Tisbury.

We tried to make classes up that all the kids would end up with at least with a ribbon at the end of the day. If there were too many kids in an Equitation class, we tried to divide it into two classes. Like, if there might be fifteen, sixteen signed up, we’d divide it into two classes, and we gave at least six ribbons. Anything they could come up with, we’d make a class for them. So a lot of the kids had ribbons. Then we’d have games like a Pair Class and Command Class and things like that. So it was it was a lot of fun the kids had. Now, I don’t even particularly enjoy going to the horse shows now, because it’s the same horses winning each class. The ribbons don’t get spread around that much.

But we did it more for the backyard horses. We’d have jumping, and the jumps would be set low because the kids weren’t used to jumping. Some of the ones that would be here for the summer with their horses would complain that the jumps were too low. The horses couldn’t jump well that low. And we just said, “Tough. This is for the local and the backyard kids that can’t get to other shows and things.” But everybody admitted they think back then how much more fun the horse shows were.