From the Sept. 10, 1926 edition of the Gazette:

Who possesses the best memory on Martha’s Vineyard? Not a memory for historically recorded facts or for statistics, but for the little incidents in the lives of Vineyarders many years ago, the people themselves and the folk-lore of the olden days?

Offhand the question might be answered by saying that the oldest person might be expected to remember the farthest back, but this does not follow. Time and illness often impairs the memory of the very aged, and while there are many persons on the Island who have lived far beyond three score and ten years, there are not a great many who can relate their experiences in an unbroken line from early childhood to the present day.

There are a few, however, whose memories are more active than those of even youthful people, and are as accurate as the written record. Incidents of three-quarters of a century ago, and even longer, are indelibly recorded in their minds, and yet there is no crowding; the happenings of last week, last month or last year, are also fresh in their memories. In this small group there is also a champion, whose memory can not be excelled by any other Vineyard, Mrs. Susan Johnson of West Tisbury.

Mrs. Johnson will be 91 years of age on the 25th of this month, yet it is extremely doubtful if she would experience difficulty in passing any mental test yet devised. Her faculties are perfect, and Providence has given her the most jolly disposition in the world.

Her birthplace is a historical spot, being one of the oldest houses now standing on the Island, the Herman Vincent house on the South road, Chilmark, and which is supposed to have been built in 1702. Here she lived until she married at the age of 22.

There was a church up in Chilmark in those days, on or near the Guerin estate. It was not the church which is remembered by many up-Island people as standing in that locality; it was the building which the congregation out-grew before the latter church was built. Although a small child at the time, Mrs. Johnson recalls the square pews with railings around three sides. The high pulpit to which the preacher had to ascend by means of a veritable step-ladder. There could have been no heating appliance in this edifice, since she also recalls the footstoves carried by the churchgoers on cold winter days.

Then the “new” church was built by Marvin Luce, as Mrs. Johnson relates. “The best carpenter on the Island,” she adds. Like the first it was of the Congregational denomination. How few are the people who know that there ever was a Congregational church in Chilmark!

The Chilmark town hall stood on the Middle Road at that time, and was no doubt the same building which was sold when the present hall was erected. There is not a dwelling to be seen from the spot where the old hall stood, nor has anyone lived in the locality for many years. Yet Mrs. Johnson when a young woman kept a private school in the old hall. The school was for very young children. Some, she says, were under three years of age and were sent to school in order that their parents might be spared the pains of looking after them, a practice which still survives in many localities.

It seems hard to believe that many children could have been found to attend the school, when one looks over the country roundabout, and sees nothing but hills and woods for miles, yet Mrs. Johnson taught and cared for quite 30 pupils during one summer.

Upon marrying, Mrs. Johnson moved to West Tisbury, living in the house she now occupies for a few years, and later on Long Point. There were many houses in the village at that time which have since disappeared, she says, although the number may not have decreased owing to new ones having been erected. But one interesting change noted by her is the growth of the trees. There were no trees at all in West Tisbury 70 years ago, she says.

Life at Long Point was also very different than at the present time. There were many people living in the Great Pond country then. Two schools were maintained for the children, one at Scrubby Neck, and the other at Pohogonot, although Mrs. Johnson does not recall when the last mentioned was used, having sent her children to the other. After living at Long Point for 17 years, Mrs. Johnson returned to the village of West Tisbury, where she now resides.

She has always gotten about a great deal, and is very familiar with all parts of the Island, being able to describe even pasture fields in outlying sections. She is the only living person who has attended every fair held by the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, and she plans to attend this year’s fair as usual.

“If I live until my 91st birthday,” she says, “I am going to join the Dukes County Historical Society.” If this occurs, the society should feel honored, and perhaps, through the society, some of the history of the Island and Island families, now possessed only by Mrs. Johnson, may be preserved to brighten and complete the written records.

Compiled by Hilary Wall