Vineyard-Born Mayhew Brothers Hope to Preserve Rural Lifestyle

BY IAN FEIN

When the time comes to raise a family, Jeremy Mayhew hopes that his children will be able to enjoy the same small-town, rural lifestyle that he has shared with many generations of Mayhews before him. He wants them to be able to leave their keys on the car seat, without locking the door, and to be able to see all the stars at night.

"I hope they can experience the same kinds of pleasures that we all had growing up," said Mr. Mayhew, who turns 30 on Tuesday. "I hope they can go barefoot in the Chilmark Store, and no one will yell at them."

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Mr. Mayhew is sitting in the sun on a front stoop with his wife, Michele, younger brother, Todd, and his girlfriend Aubrey. They are all barefoot. And no one is yelling.

While recalling some fond memories from their own Vineyard childhoods, the Mayhew brothers acknowledged that they did not know what to expect in the coming decades.

"It's a safe haven. That's why a lot of people love it here; it's away from the rest of the world," said Todd, 24, his hair pulled taught above his head. "But it feels like it's being leached away, bit by bit. Each loss might be small, but if you think ahead, in 100 years that's a lot of change."

The Martha's Vineyard Commission is trying to make a similar point as it launches the public phase of its ambitious Island Plan that will attempt to chart a course for the next 50 years on the Vineyard. The commission will host a public forum this Saturday morning at the Sailing Camp Park in Oak Bluffs, where it will begin to ask people what they want to see in the future of the Island.

The Mayhews seem a good place to start, with their family ties on the Vineyard tracing back to 1642.

Jeremy, a freelance graphic artist and documentary filmmaker, and Todd, a commercial fisherman, have both seen dramatic changes to the Island within their lifetime and have felt the pressure caused by an era of unprecedented growth.

From the vista of their parents' home on Nashaquitsa Pond, the Mayhew brothers have watched as the landscape slowly evolved. Todd said he could always see at least one new home under construction, and Jeremy worries about the size of some of the seasonal estates.

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"Seeing how enormous some of the places are, and how much land gets cleared, it seems kind of crazy to me," Jeremy said. "This is a little Island, and there's only so much space. How many houses can we build?"

It is the open land, and the conservation preserves, that they enjoy in their free time. And over the course of the last few decades, the ability to wander has been severely restricted.

"My father remembers walking around when everything was open, when there weren't any No Trespassing signs. And I was raised with that kind of feeling. That's how we had our fun as kids," Jeremy said.

"It's frustrating now, during the summer, when you're walking on a beach that you've visited all winter and your entire life. Even if you don't get busted, you have the feeling that you're doing something wrong, that you should feel guilty. And that's not right."

He considers himself lucky to have grown up where he did, but he also faces the grim reality that the Chilmark family compound may break apart in the years ahead. With the market value of their family homes soaring beyond belief, Mr. Mayhew sees his parents and extended family struggling to keep up with their taxes.

"We're all really going to be scraping to try to hang on to as much as we can. But stuff keeps being whittled away," he said. "As the generations keep going, how many subdivisions and youth lots can you cram in? With the number of grandchildren my grandmother has, there is no way she can house everyone. It's impossible."

Mr. Mayhew is all but resigned to the fact that he and his wife will never be able to purchase a market rate home. They are committed to staying on the Vineyard to raise a family, but at this point will have to rely on receiving some type of affordable housing. And though he assures he does not feel entitled, and would be happy to own a piece of land anywhere on the Vineyard, he hopes they can settle up-Island, because that is where his heart is.

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With his income as a freelance artist, Mr. Mayhew also wonders whether he will be able to keep up with the cost of living on the Island, regardless of his housing situation.

"I start to think, even if I get a youth lot, what's it going to be like out here in 20 years? Will everything be so expensive then that I have to leave?" Mr. Mayhew asked. "Every time I go to Cronig's [Market], I wonder how I can afford what I'm buying. But then we have a potluck dinner party, and everything seems to work out," he said.

"Life is good out here," he added. "It's just tricky."

It was only after marrying Michele, whom he met at art school in Philadelphia, that Mr. Mayhew realized he wanted to spend his life on the Vineyard. As an artist, he thought he would be tied to city life, but after a cross-country road trip looking for potential places to live, Michele helped him learn to appreciate his home town.

"I realized how much I admired all the old fishing salts here. They were their own bosses, rather than taking orders from someone else," Mr. Mayhew said. "That's the kind of lifestyle I've known. I will continue to do my art out here, maybe on a smaller scale, but that lifestyle is something that's important to me."

With Michele, Mr. Mayhew started Oceanscape Arts to showcase their work, and he is also the artistic director of the Martha's Vineyard Independent Film Festival. Now in its sixth year, the festival is a perfect example of the grassroots cultural events he hopes will continue to grow on the Vineyard. Mr. Mayhew said it is vital to offer opportunities and attractions that keep young people on the Island.

"The Vineyard has become much more of a resort and retirement place - and that's what freaks me out the most," he said. "I wish there was a way we could maintain a younger population."

Reflecting a nationwide trend, Mr. Mayhew also acknowledged that younger Vineyard residents have shown little interest in participating in town or regional government. He could list only one friend that holds a town office, and noted that he and his cousins have abandoned what had been a family tradition. At the age of 24, his father, Capt. Gregory Mayhew, served as one of the youngest legislators in the state (and also one of more than 20 Mayhews to hold the title of the Vineyard's state representative), and his uncle Jonathan served nine years as a Chilmark town selectman.

Todd, however, has carried on the family tradition of fishing. He went on his first deep sea fishing trip at the age of six, and is now the co-owner, with his father, of the 75-foot steel western rig fishing boat Unicorn.

"You crave it after a while," he said. "If I've been away from the sea, on the mainland or something, I feel like I need to get out on the boat. It's what keeps me here, and keeps me fishing."

He said he hopes to continue the work, as long as the boat survives and the fish stick around. And he hopes the tradition continues on the Vineyard.

"It's part of the Island," Todd said. "It keeps us closer to the earth, in a sense, and to our past."