If Size Matters, Tiny Aquinnah Is Not So Small

By IAN FEIN

An oft-repeated phrase that has appeared in numerous Gazette news articles and editorials over the years was found this week to be untrue.

Aquinnah is not the second smallest town in the commonwealth.

According to 2004 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, Aquinnah is the eighth smallest town in Massachusetts, with 359 residents. The town of Gosnold - which includes the Elizabeth Islands and is the seventh town in Dukes County - was the smallest town statewide with 87 residents, followed closely by the town of Monroe in Franklin County with 98.

By land area, Aquinnah with its 5.4 square miles is the 18th smallest town in the commonwealth. The town of Nahant in Essex County is the smallest in size at 1.2 square miles. There are 301 towns and 50 cities in Massachusetts.

Aquinnah officials this week were pleasantly surprised to learn that their town is not the second smallest in the state.

"It's a shock," said selectman and longtime planning board chairman Camille Rose. "I'm just so used to seeing it. It's become kind of folklore," she added.

"I've heard it a lot and just accepted it as fact," said selectman chairman James Newman. "One thing I know is that we are growing in pride and self-confidence. Maybe that has put us further up the list."

According to census data, Aquinnah was the fastest growing town in the state between 1990 and 2000 - with a 70 per cent population increase from 201 residents to 344. But even in 1990, when the town was officially named Gay Head, it was the fifth smallest town in the commonwealth. The town name was changed to Aquinnah in 1998, and in 2000 it grew to become the sixth smallest.

It remains unclear where and when the second-smallest phrase originated. An examination of Gazette archives this week found the first internal reference to be June 1999, in an article about the town's nomination as a district of critical planning and concern. The phrase reappeared in at least 15 Gazette news articles and three editorials since.

The second-smallest distinction was also used in at least one publication of The Martha's Vineyard Times, and currently appears on the Aquinnah police department web site.

The revelation comes at a time when, nationwide, the credibility of the press has come under the spotlight.

"All newspapers - and especially community newspapers - have a responsibility to get things right. And if we don't get it right, we have a responsibility to correct it," Gazette editor Julia Wells said this week. "This is a reminder to us that we should always be asking questions of our government, of our sources, and of ourselves."

Ironically, Aquinnah is not the only Massachusetts town with a mistaken identity. The web site of the Berkshire Eagle newspaper in Western Massachusetts refers incorrectly to the town of Mount Washington in Berkshire County as the second smallest town in the commonwealth. Mount Washington, with an estimated 133 residents in 2004, is in fact third behind Gosnold and Monroe. New Ashford, also in Berkshire County, is the fourth smallest with an estimated 245 residents.

Even without a penultimate population, the town at the extreme western edge of the Vineyard can boast its fair share of unique superlatives.

According to reports, Gay Head in 1951 was the last town in the state to receive electricity. It is home to the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), today the only federally recognized tribe in the commonwealth. And Gay Head for some time had the dubious distinction as the poorest town in the commonwealth, according to census data for annual median income.

Aquinnah is also the smallest town on the Vineyard, in both population and size. Chilmark, with an estimated 934 residents in 2004, is the second smallest on the Island and one of the 25 smallest in the state.

According to previous census counts dating back to 1930, the lowest population ranking Aquinnah ever attained was in 1940, when Gay Head was the third smallest. The 127 Gay Head residents were fewer than those on Gosnold (136), but still more than Mount Washington (57) or New Ashford (87). Between 1940 and 1950, the Gosnold population fell precipitously to 56 residents - dropping it below Gay Head.

The news of the population ranking this week did not appear to affect the daily lives of any residents in the eighth smallest town in the commonwealth.