Mildred A. Huntington died at her home on Hines Point, Vineyard Haven, on August 3, after a brief illness. She was 91.
With her death, the Vineyard has lost an extraordinary person, one who watched the Island change from a place where most men went to sea and most roads were winding, sandy lanes to today when traffic gridlocks and standby lines are the main topics of conversation.
Born in Chilmark, she attended grade school in a one-room school with one teacher for eight grades. It was a time when Chilmark had no electricity, no telephones. The family moved to Vineyard Haven when she was a teenager. She and her friend Miriam Tower, daughter of the Bethel chaplain, would regularly go out on the chapel launch to toss newspapers and mail onto the decks of the scores of vessels anchored there awaiting a fair wind and tide. Some sailors would return with them to the chapel where Mil would play the organ and, with Miriam, sing hymns as the mariners gathered in the Bethel to listen to Chaplain Tower's sermons.
She was co-captain of the girls' championship basketball team at Tisbury High School and a straight-A student. She went on to graduate from Bridgewater Teacher's College. In the 1930s, shortly after marrying Gale Huntington, she was the dancing partner of actor Jimmy Cagney at Chilmark Tavern, while her new husband watched enviously as he played his fiddle for the dancing. Cagney, perhaps the Island's first celebrity, ran a farm on North Road in Chilmark when he wasn't making tough-guy movies in Hollywood. She typed book manuscripts for Max Eastman and Kathleen Moore Knight in the 1940s. She sold tickets at the Vineyard Haven wharf for passage on the famous White Steamers of the 1920s. There were no standby lines, no trucks, only passengers and an occasional automobile.
She lived through the fastest-changing years in Island history and with her death, we have lost a precious resource.
Mildred was born in 1912 into one of Chilmark's oldest maritime families, the Tiltons. Her parents were Capt. Thomas and Emily Tilton and her grandparents were Capt. Welcome and Hattie Tilton. Hattie was a Butler from Noman's Land Island, where Welcome had met her while cod fishing.
So many Tilton families lived in Chilmark at the time that they were divided geographically into the North Road Tiltons, the Middle Road Tiltons and the South Road Tiltons. There were Down-Island Tiltons, too, but they were sort of second-class members, it seemed.
Her family was best known as "The Singing Tiltons," because grandfather Welcome and his brothers loved to sing and often broke into spontaneous song, together or solo, always without accompaniment.
Welcome Tilton had six brothers, all of whom but one, Edward Van Buren Tilton, were mariners. Edward was considered strange, not because he was not a mariner, but because he had no occupation and would spend his days walking from town to town, singing Gospel songs at full voice. He was the most "singing" of the Singing Tiltons.
It was music that brought Mil and her husband, Gale Huntington, together. Gale had settled on the Island after graduating from Stetson College in Florida. He wasn't sure how he would earn a living, but he loved Chilmark. His family had been summer people for years in an old house on Quitsa Pond. After his father died, the family moved there and Gale attended the Island schools.
In the 1920s in Chilmark, Gale was trying to support himself as a fisherman during the day and as a musician at night. He was an excellent fiddler and loved playing for dances. With two other musicians he played often at the Chilmark Tavern, the town's Beetlebung Corner gathering place. When there were no dance engagements, they would play just to amuse themselves.
One day, Artie Look, the group's accordionist, told Gale that they were invited by Welcome Tilton to play at a songfest in his house in Vineyard Haven. Mil's mother had just died and the grandparents, Welcome and Hattie, had moved in with the family to help out. Welcome was perhaps the best of the singing Tiltons and loved songfests. Gale didn't know him, but he, with Artie and Hollis Smith, another fiddler, joined in the fun.
Late that evening, while they were playing a spirited number, Mil came home. A senior in Tisbury High School, she was co-captain of the girls' basketball team (the late Peg Littlefield of North Tisbury was the other captain). They had just defeated Oak Bluffs to win the Island championship. Mil was so excited about winning and so taken by the spirit of the musical occasion (and especially by the playing of one of the fiddlers!) that she broke into an impromptu dance. Gale never forgot that moment. He knew right then that he wanted to marry that young girl - and he did, four years later after she was graduated from Bridgewater State Teachers' College.
Gale loved his fiddles and he had many. Too many, Mil thought at times. Soon after their marriage, while they were struggling to get by in the "Toy House," a tiny summer camp on Boston Hill, Chilmark, he had six violins and a guitar hanging between the open studs in the unfinished living room. No matter how many he had, he always wanted more.
Their major income was from scalloping. He owned an ancient dory that he had put an engine in. The boat was so heavy and clumsy that he had stopped using it, preferring to drag the scalloping dredge behind a rowing skiff. One day, Roy Cottle offered to buy the power boat.
"I won't sell it," Gale said, "but I'll trade it to you for that fiddle of yours."
Gale had played Roy's fiddle a number of times and loved it. When he got home, he showed Mil the handsome fiddle. "Whose is it?" she asked. "Mine," Gale said and explained that he had traded his power dory for it. Mil was shocked. That dory, she thought, was what Gale depended on to make a living.
He quickly explained that he hated the power dory and was no longer using it. The violin was added to the six on the wall.
A short time later, he had taken a load of trash to the dump in his Model A "truck" (actually an old coupe with its rumble seat replaced by a small truck bed). He spotted an old violin among the trash. Recovering it, he cleaned it up, making it look presentable. When he got home, he showed it to Mil.
Not another fiddle! she thought. Where did you get that, she asked him, fearing the worst.
"I traded the truck for it," Gale answered.
Mil was close to tears. It was some time before Gale was able to convince her that he was joking - that he had found it at the dump. It was added to the lineup of fiddles on the wall.
Gale enjoyed such practical jokes, like the one he played on Mil years later, when she was a cashier at the Vineyard Haven bank. They owned a small wood lot in Chilmark and would allow others to gather wood from it for so much a cord.
One day, while Mil was at work, several men brought Gale the money for the winter wood they had chopped. It was a sizable amount and he took it to the bank, taking his place in line in front of Mil's window. When he got to the window, he handed Mil the large bundle of bills without a word of explanation.
She looked at him in amazement. "Where did you get all this money?" she exclaimed so loud that all could hear.
"Mrs. Huntington," Gale replied, feigning insult, "what right do you have to ask such a question of a bank customer?"
The bank was hushed. Gale finally explained to all that it was just a joke. Such was life with Gale.
Like Gale, Mil loved music, playing the piano and singing beautifully. She and Gale sang often at folk-music concerts on the Island and throughout New England, singing Island songs and sea chanties. She was co-author with Gale of several books of folk music and chanties; Gale would write down the music and commentary while Mil transcribed the lyrics, as they listened to her grandfather and great-uncles sing.
All her great-uncles were singers and all except gospel-singing Ed were mariners in the Island tradition. One was George Fred Tilton, famous for having walked many miles over the ice to get to Seattle to report that his ship, the steam whaler Belvedere, was crushed in the Arctic ice along with many others. After retiring from whaling, Cap'n Fred became custodian of the whaler Charles W. Morgan, now at Mystic Whaling Museum.
Mildred was born in George Fred's house on North Road (her grandmother, Welcome's wife Hattie, was the midwife). She was a special favorite of George Fred's (he and his wife Lucy were childless). One year he brought back from the Arctic a a pair of Eskimo children's boots for her. They were among her favorite possessions. Her mother wasn't so pleased. When wet, as they often were, Mil would put them behind the kitchen stove to dry out. Soon, they exuded a pungent "Eskimo" aroma - a "stink," her mother called it, and made her put them outside.
Another of Mil's favorite great-uncles was Zeb Tilton, master of the Alice Wentworth, a coastal schooner that carried bulk cargo, such as lumber, coal and bricks, all along the East Coast. For many years before big trucks, the Wentworth was the workhorse of the area. Mil's father, Tom Tilton, was Zeb's first mate on the Wentworth. One year, Mil, still a small child, and her mother, the former Emily Potter of Marion, spent the summer aboard the Wentworth as she hauled bulk cargo from Maine to Virginia.
Being raised in such a maritime family gave Mil a tremendous depth of knowledge about the sea and the men who made their living from it. It made her well qualified for the most enjoyable job she ever had, that of copy editor of the Atlantic Fisherman, published in Goffstown, N.H. That was soon after she and Gale married in 1933. He was teaching school in New Boston, N.H., and they lived in nearby Goffstown, where Mil worked at the magazine. She knew many of the fishing schooners and their captains and understood the language of mariners. It was the best job she ever had, she said.
But when Gale was offered a much higher-paying job at a school in Michigan, they moved, much to Mildred's regret. They didn't stay long. Mil just wasn't happy away from salt water. They lived in a small house looking over Lake Michigan. But a water view wasn't enough. "It doesn't smell like the ocean," she complained to Gale.
When they returned to the Vineyard permanently in 1949, a much-happier Mil became Chilmark town treasurer and tax collector. Later, she was town auditor. Gale taught history at Tisbury High School and later at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, a job he loved.
Mil soon went to work in the Martha's Vineyard National Bank in Vineyard Haven and they built their home on Hines Point. She never lost her numerical skills and, despite being in her 90s, when she died, daughter Emily discovered her financial accounts up to date, the checkbook precisely in balance as of the end of June. She died a month later.
Although she and Gale lived in Vineyard Haven on Hines Point for most of their lives, she always considered herself an up-Islander, a Chilmarker. Soon after they were married, she and Gale build a small camp overlooking Quitsa Pond on land that had been part of Gale's family home. She listed the camp as her address so she could vote in Chilmark. When, after many years, Chilmark dropped her from the voting list, she was crestfallen. Although she lived in Vineyard Haven, Chilmark was where her heart was.
Mil and Gale had one child, Emily, now Mrs. Ronald J. Rose, also of Hines Point, Vineyard Haven. Besides Emily and Ronnie, Mil is survived by two grandchildren, Stephanie Gale Jette of Lynn and Jonathan J. Rose of Boulder, Colo., and three great-grandchildren. Also surviving are her three sisters, Dorothy O. Howard of Carver, Alma T. Lowe of Florida, and Bernice E. Benway, who moved in with Mildred soon after Gale died and was with her when she died.
A graveside service will be held Saturday, August 9, at 1 p.m. at Abel's Hill Cemetery, Chilmark, the Rev. Nancy Collins conducting.
Contributions in Mrs. Huntingon's memory may be made to the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society, Box 1310, Edgartown, MA 02539; Hospice of Martha's Vineyard, Box 2549, Oak Bluffs, MA 02557, and the Visiting Nurse Service of Martha's Vineyard Community Services, Box 369, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.