Elisha R. Smith, an Oak Bluffs farmer for more than three-quarters of a century and for more than two decades the president of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, died last Friday at his home in Vineyard Haven at the age of 90. It was thanks to his determination, hard bargaining and skill at dealing with people that, in 1992, the society acquired the land that is the site of today’s Agricultural Hall. The acquisition of that West Tisbury Panhandle property where the annual fair is held was one of the proudest moments of his life, Elisha Smith said. Before then, the fair site had been held behind today’s Grange Hall in the middle of West Tisbury
“I was society president in the 1980s,” he reminisced a few years ago, “and I knew we really needed new fairgrounds. We’d outgrown what we had, so I called Bob Woods out in California, who used to come here every spring and summer, and I managed to talk him into providing the land. I’ve always been pleased that I managed to do that.”
Two other agricultural highlights in his life were being asked not to take his Grand Champion Ayrshire cow, Princess, to the fair anymore because she always won, and the fact that in the years when he raised dairy cows, his produced more milk than those of any other Island farm.
He was born in Oak Bluffs, Jan. 30, 1923, a son of Ralph and Roseanna (Normanda) Smith. The house in which he was born, at the Head of Lagoon pond, had been in the Smith family since the 17th century. His father died when he was three, and his mother moved off-Island so his father’s uncle, George Smith and his wife, Nellie, adopted Elisha, his sister, Leona, and his brother, Ralph.
George Smith, who had spent his younger days exploring the central and western United States, had come home to the Vineyard to farm at Red Hill, a Smith family property that at one time was 600 acres running from the intersection of Barnes Road and the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road to beyond NStar Electric and stretching as far inland as the former Thimble Farm.
Elisha’s farming career began when he was only six years old and his great-uncle, whom he called Grandpa George, gave him 25 chickens and two pigs. A year later, he got his first calf. By the time he was eight, Elisha knew how to drive a team of horses and how to milk a cow. He was Grandpa George’s companion on his milk delivery rounds, running out from the family Model T to leave the milk on family doorsteps in Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven.
His entrepreneurial great-uncle also bottled and sold water from the farm, served as engineer at the pumping station at the Head of the Lagoon and established a horse-racing track. Called the Girdlestone Track, it was on today’s Barnes Road. There, young Elisha would sometimes race his own white horse, not as an entrant but to see what riding on a racetrack was like.
But there was always the serious business of farming to be done. Elisha had to be up at 5 a.m. to milk the cows and feed the chickens before having breakfast and heading off to the Oak Bluffs School. He took a wicker basket of fresh eggs with him to sell at houses in the Camp Ground and on Circuit avenue at lunchtime. A high point of that lunchtime activity was a visit to Pearson’s Drug Store at the entrance to the Arcade. There he would be offered a free candy of his choice from the grand selection under the counter. Another high point of his young life — after the pig pens and the chicken houses had been cleaned and wood cut on Saturdays — was going canoeing. Joining him on the canoe trips were boyhood chums John Hughes, Tom Attridge and Eddie Hermann. For the other boys, swimming by the pumping station was a favorite Lagoon activity, but never for Elisha. He had been thrown into the water once when he was very young and never cared for swimming after that.
When Elisha was only 14, George Smith died and Elisha had to take over Red Hill Farm. Although his great aunt was still alive, she concerned herself principally with cooking for the family. Plans were that Elisha would inherit the farm, but there were legal problems so he had to go to work raising turkeys at Oscar Burke’s turkey farms. There were two of them — one on the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road where Hillside Village is now and another in Katama. In addition, he milked cows for Arthur Norton in Edgartown and delivered the milk to the Harbor View Hotel.
But as Elisha grew older, and the legal problems concerning Red Hill Farm continued, he began to look for other farming property to buy. When he learned that the 200-acre Katama Ranch where he had worked for Oscar Burke was for sale, he decided that was what he wanted. With the help of the late Arthur Hillman of the Edgartown National Bank, budding young farmer Elisha was able to purchase the land at a low interest rate. He soon had 80 milking cows and was busily planting potatoes on the property. (Potatoes, prepared in any fashion, always remained a life-long love, as did eggs, which were always part of his daily breakfasts.)
About that time, in the 1940s, the Co-op Dairy had been started at Cow Bay in Edgartown to sell milk from Island dairies. (That was where Elisha’s cows supplied more milk than any other Island dairy did.) But in 1965, after the Co-op Dairy had closed down, Elisha sold his Katama farm. The property, ultimately, with the assistance of the Vineyard Conservation Society, the Vineyard Open Land Foundation and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, was deeded to Edgartown for perpetual agricultural use. It is now the Farm Institute property.
Elisha moved to Vineyard Haven for awhile, then he built a house at Sengekontacket. By then, virtually all of the original Red Hill Farm was gone, except for six acres remaining on the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road near Barnes Road. There, Elisha continued farming, raising chickens and geese and a few Hereford cows. In addition, he leased land for haying in Chilmark and pastured his cows there in summer.
Until just a few weeks ago, he had been following his usual working schedule of feeding his poultry and animals each morning. First, though, he would stop at the Black Dog and Cronig’s in Vineyard Haven to get old bread to feed to his animals and sometimes he would go to Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs for brewery grain. And he was training his grandson, Justin Smith, to take over the farm.
At the graveside service for Elisha on Tuesday at the Smith Cemetery on Barnes road, virtually every Vineyard farmer was there to pay tribute to the dean of Island farmers. After Elisha’s skillful acquisition of the Panhandle land for the new Agricultural Hall, however, there had been a battle over what sort of barn was to be built. Elisha urged that it be a relatively inexpensive steel structure with a shingled exterior to make it look like a wooden building. Younger members of the society wanted a genuine wooden barn. Elisha was called a pragmatic Yankee who simply didn’t want the society to spend any more money than necessary. After the proponents of the wooden barn won, there was a falling out for a time between them and Elisha. But Elisha’s fondness for the society he had so long headed and its fondness for him withstood the altercation. The society made him an honorary trustee and soon, at fair time, he was showing up to visit with fair manager Eleanor Neubert to find out how everything was going.
“We owe him a lot. In the 1940s, if it hadn’t been for Elisha, there simply wouldn’t have been any fair,” Arnold Fischer Jr. of West Tisbury’s Flat Point Farm said. “He pretty much kept it going single-handed.”
“What a passion for farming he had!” Robert Woodruff, former West Tisbury farmer and longtime Vineyard conservationist remarked.
Augustus Ben David 2nd, longtime Vineyard naturalist and former director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, nostalgically remembered how, when he was 10, he was taught to milk a cow by Elisha. “He would do anything to help young people learn about farming,” he recalled. “He just loved it.”
In addition to his longtime membership in the Agricultural Society, Elisha Smith was a member of the Order of the Eastern Star, the Rotary Club, the Masons and the Scottish Society of Martha’s Vineyard. He was also active in the Bristol County Conservation District. A favorite pastime was playing cribbage once a week at the Masonic Hall. He was an expert dancer with a particular fondness for the music of Lawrence Welk, He was one of the first Vineyarders to own a color television set. Elisha was married four times — first to the late Julia V. Welch Smith, with whom he had four children. There was a second brief marriage in the early 1960s. Then in 1964, he married Phyllis Clark of Vineyard Haven, who died in 1999. In 2005, he married Denise Medeiros of Edgartown, who survives him.
He is also survived by his sister, Leona White, and her husband, Lester, of Oak Bluffs; a half-sister, Gloria Briggs of Chicopee Falls; a son, E. Ralph Smith, and his wife, Tammy, of Oak Bluffs and their children, Justin and Emily; a daughter, Carol Pearson, and her husband, Ray, of Commerce Township, Mich., and their children, Jeffrey and his wife Amy of Luxemberg, Wisc., and Jodi Hastings and her son Gabriel Elisha of South Lyons, Mich.
Elisha’s other daughter, Jody Battistini, and her husband, Paul, of Middleboro and their children, Thomas Elisha of Medford and Arthur of Middleboro are also survivors, as is a grand-daughter, Rebecca Donnelly Flynn of Edgartown. There are two great-grandchildren. Other survivors are his stepsons, Robert and Richard Clark of Vineyard Haven and Richard’s wife, Lorraine, and her children, and David Medeiros and his wife, Lauren, of Fall River, Jennifer Bettencourt and her husband, Nathan, of Swansa and their son, Henry. A daughter, Rosemary Donnelly, predeceased him.
The Rev. Roger Spinney, formerly of the Baptist Church of Vineyard Haven and now the Hospice chaplain, officiated at Tuesday’s service. It was followed by a Masonic service by the Oriental-Martha’s Vineyard Masonic Lodge. A bagpiper was provided by the Scottish Society.
Donations in Elisha’s name may be made to the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, P.O. Box 73, West Tisbury 02575.