Most Vineyarders are still snuggled in bed when eighty-seven-year-old Elisha Smith is out feeding the 250 chickens, fourteen geese, and ten head of Angus and Hereford cows that he keeps on his six-acre Red Hill Farm in Oak Bluffs, named for its richly colored soil.
Afternoons, he’s likely to be driving his tractor up-Island pulling his plow behind it, because in Chilmark – on the Tyler Smith Farm off South Road and at the Stamell Farm down Blue Barque Road – he leases land for haying. He grows and cuts and bales the hay for his cows, which he moves there from down- Island in summer for the better pasturage.
“I had quite a time with the cows up there,” he says, talking about one day this past July. “I go up every day to give them their hay and old bread and brewery grain I get from the Offshore Ale house in Oak Bluffs. That’s what’s left over when they finish making their ale and it’s full of good nutrients for cows. When I got up to their pasture, I found somehow the cows had knocked down the farm gate and seven of my herd were gone. They’d made their way down to the beach and then walked some three miles or so farther into Chilmark. I got my grandson to come up and he followed the tracks till we found them.”
Rooted in farming
Elisha Smith has been farming ever since he was six years old. That was when his great-uncle George Smith, with whom he lived, gave him twenty-five chickens and two pigs. George Smith had adopted Elisha, his sister, Leona, and his brother, Ralph, after their father died and their mother moved off-Island. A year after that first animal gift, “Grandpa,” as he was called, gave Elisha, the oldest of the children, his first calf.
“‘From now on, you’re in business,’” he remembers being told. “‘You’ve got animals to take care of.’” By the time he was eight, Elisha could drive a team of horses and knew how to milk cows, and he and “Grandpa” George would go out in the family Model T to sell the milk.
“We’d go door to door all over Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven, and I’d run into the houses and leave the milk. One house had a dog though. It was usually on a chain, but it broke its chain and ran after me. My dog was with Grandpa and my dog bit the hell out of that dog and really saved me.”
Red Hill Farm has been in the Smith family for more than three hundred years. For much of that time, it was close to six hundred acres that extended from the intersection of Barnes Road and Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road to beyond NStar Electric. It went as far inland as the former Chicama Vineyards and today’s Whippoorwill Farm. There was still more Smith farmland on Barnes Road going toward the airport and even more around the head of the Lagoon. Today’s Featherstone Farm was Smith property and Elisha was born nearby in one of the Island’s oldest houses. Sadly, after George Smith died, while Elisha was just a young teenager, much of the property was taken and sold under questionable circumstances, Elisha says bitterly.
Elisha remembers all of this in the living room of the Vineyard Haven house where he now lives with his wife Denise. It has been his home for more than four decades. To ensure that Elisha, who served as president of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society for more than two decades, never forgets his animals – even when he is not tending them – his living room is decorated with figurines and paintings of chickens and cows that are gifts from his children. In addition to his Agricultural Society post, he has also served as master of the West Tisbury Grange, and president of the Vineyard conservation district and the state association of conservation districts. He is a Mason and a Rotarian.
A great-uncle’s influence
Even though there was so much Smith farmland in George Smith’s days, it had taken Elisha’s great-uncle a while to decide to have anything to do with it. In his young days, George was said to have been “the greatest wanderer the Vineyard had known since whaling days.” He left the Island before he was twenty to travel all over the central states and the west and as far north as Canada. He chopped wood for railroad ties and locomotive fuel in Texas before going to work as an engineer for the Union Pacific Railroad. Eventually his father asked him to come home and farm, and he did.
But he was also entrepreneurial. He soon found that there was good spring water on the family property and decided to bottle some of it. The Beach Grove Mineral Springs Company that he established sold bottled water all over the Island and even on Cape Cod. “Grandpa” George’s next project, after the bottled water, was becoming the engineer at the pumping station at the head of the Lagoon. It had been built around 1890 to supply Oak Bluffs with water.
And as if that wasn’t enough, George Smith also laid out a horse trotting track on a parcel of the family land on today’s Barnes Road. “He called it the Girdlestone Race Track, and when the leaves are off the trees, you can still see the remains of the foundation on the left-hand side of the road going toward the airport,” Elisha says.
Elisha remembers racing his own white horse around the track when he was a boy – not as a race entrant, but just to see what the track felt like. And he reminisces about the delectable clambakes his great-uncle would put on during the summer for race track patrons (and others) where Tilton Rental is now. The horses being raced, he recalls, came up the Lagoon by boat to a dock at the dike. They were then walked across the dike and up the road to the track. Meanwhile, along with all these activities, George Smith kept on doing what the Smiths had done for generations: farming. And young Elisha proved a willing and able helper.
Elisha would get up at 5 a.m. in those days, just as he still does. He would milk the cows – there were as many as fifty of them – and feed the chickens before he ate breakfast and went to the Oak Bluffs School. He always took a wicker basket full of five- or six-dozen eggs with him to school, and at lunchtime, when he had finished his sandwich, he would set off for houses in the Camp Ground and stores along Circuit Avenue to sell his eggs.
“The last place I always stopped was Pearson’s Drugstore there by the Arcade,” he remembers. “Sharky’s is there now.
“‘Okay, Smitty,’ Mr. Pearson would say to me after he’d bought his eggs. ‘What kind of candy do you want today?’ Then he’d fill a bag up with it and I’d hurry back to school and share it with my friends.”
Elisha also shared the farm with his school friends, inviting them to come for weekend visits – as long as they helped out with his farm chores. Normally Elisha would ride the bus back and forth to school, but on Fridays, he would take his horse and wagon. He tied the horse in the woods until school was over. Then his friends would jump into the hay in the back of the wagon and return home with him to help clean the pig pens and the chicken houses and cut wood.
“We had a canoe down at the pumping station and when the work was all done, we’d jump into the canoe and race across the Lagoon, or we’d go in swimming. Most of my friends lived in town, so going out to the farm and working on it was a real treat. John Hughes was one of my classmates back then.”
John Hughes, who lives in Vineyard Haven, remains friends with Elisha, and chuckles over the time he and several other young friends of Elisha’s found the farm horse missing. When they asked Elisha where he was, he didn’t say anything. Then he took the boys down to a fence above a heap of newly dug soft dirt and proposed jumping from the top of the fence into the dirt. The boys were delighted with bouncing in the dirt until a gleeful Elisha informed them that the horse had died and that was where he was.
“And Elisha always enjoyed introducing newcomers to the farm by squirting milk at them from the cows’ udders,” John Hughes recalls.
After George Smith died in 1937, the farm work was left in fourteen-year-old Elisha’s hands. His younger brother had died at age six and his sister had little interest in farm work. Aunt Nellie, which was what Elisha and his sister called his great- uncle’s wife, was still living, but she concerned herself mainly with the chickens and eggs.
“She was a great cook though,” Elisha remembers, “and she took good care of us. She’d get up at 4 a.m. to light the fire and start breakfast. She made her own bread and butter and cheese. She only weighed about ninety pounds – she was a little bit of a thing – but if a cow or bull got out of the pasture, she’d take a broom and get it back every time. We children slept downstairs when we were little and if there was a thunderstorm at night and we were scared, Aunt Nellie would always get dressed and come downstairs to keep us company.”
Elisha was supposed to inherit George Smith’s farm, but there was little to inherit after the legal shenanigans that followed George’s death. So in addition to working what was left of Red Hill Farm, Elisha got a job raising turkeys for Oscar Burke, the New York manufacturer of Sweetheart Soap, who had a turkey farm on Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road where Hillside Village stands now, and another one in Katama.
“Every Thanksgiving we’d get about a hundred turkeys ready, and I’d drive them to New York to his Sweetheart Soap plant. I was only about sixteen years old. You couldn’t make the trip all in one day in those days, so Mr. Burke would put me up in a hotel and I’d get to do different things that one night...in New York. I’d go out to dinner and usually they’d be playing music.
“And I worked for Arthur Norton down Pease’s Point Way in Edgartown too. I’d milk his cows and fill up the milk cans and then I’d take the Model T and drive up to the Harbor View [Hotel] with those ten-quart cans. There was an old cook there; he was a great guy and he’d always give me a first breakfast. There’d be a second one when I got home.” (To this day, Elisha Smith eats an egg a day in one form or another and has no worries about cholesterol.)
Meanwhile however, Elisha was on the lookout for other Island farmland to buy and have as his own. The most appealing that he found was the 250-acre Katama Ranch, which he had managed for Oscar Burke, who had later sold it to Fred Paris.
“Arthur Hillman at the Edgartown National Bank knew I was looking for a farm,” Elisha recalls. “He called me one day to say Fred Paris wanted to sell his for $30,000. ‘Was I interested?’ I said of course I was, but I didn’t have $30,000. Mr. Hillman told me not to worry about that, he was sure he could get it for me for $20,000 and that the bank would lend me the money at low interest.” So Elisha bought it and soon had eighty-five milking cows on the land and was growing potatoes, which were being sold all across the Northeast.
“That was when there was the Co-op Dairy out at Cow Bay in Edgartown that accepted and sold milk from many Island farms. My Katama Ranch cows produced more milk than any other cows on the Island,” Elisha remembers proudly. But in 1965, he sold it to Al Brickman when the Co-op Dairy stopped buying milk. It later was sold to developers Alvin and Marcus Strock, who failed to build on it. Today it is the FARM Institute. Elisha thinks the FARM Institute is a good idea, but as a lifelong, dedicated farmer, he is not sure its directors always know enough about farming. “But it’s a good idea for young people to be exposed to farming,” he says. “They learn responsibility.”
Over the years, Elisha has married four times. He and his first wife, Julia V. Welch Smith, were married when she was nineteen and he twenty-two, and they had four children, the late Rosemary, Ralph, Jody, and Carol. But farming had little appeal for her and she left the Vineyard – and Elisha – to join the Women’s Army Corps. He had a very brief marriage in the early sixties, then in 1964 he married Phyllis Clark, a Vineyard Haven widow whom he had known twenty years earlier. The two were together until she died in 1999. Five years ago, during a winter storm, a snow-covered woman walked into the Bagel Authority in Vineyard Haven, where Elisha was having coffee. She lived on Edgartown–West Tisbury Road and her car was stuck in the snow, she said. She had hitchhiked so she could get to her work at the telephone company but had stopped in at the bagel shop to warm up. Elisha offered her a ride to work and a ride home from work and it wasn’t long before Denise Medeiros, who had grown up on a farm in Tiverton, Rhode Island, became Mrs. Elisha Smith.
In their Vineyard Haven living room last spring, the two were talking pigs. Elisha asked, “Say, Denise, isn’t it time for us to get some more of them?” The subject evoked the memory of a fellow farmer, the late Craig Kingsbury, and the day Craig asked Elisha to look at some pigs he had.
“Craig was a great guy,” Elisha Smith recalls, a smile spreading across his round face. “I remember he had some big pigs and some small ones, and he asked me over to see if I could get them butchered for him off-Island where I took my animals. Craig’s big pigs were as big as a cow, and I told him the butchers would be hanging me up instead of the pigs, if I took a four- hundred- or five-hundred-pound pig to them to butcher. Craig just chuckled and asked if I hadn’t seen his small pigs. Those were the ones he wanted me to take.”
Mention of Craig Kingsbury also put Elisha in mind of the day Craig had been arrested for slowing down traffic in Vineyard Haven as he drove his oxen down Main Street. “They put him in jail, but the oxen stayed out on the street, still stopping passersby who’d come up to pet them and talk to them. The police didn’t care for that, of course, so they let Craig out so he could move the oxen on their way. But instead, to tease the chief for locking him up, Craig took his own sweet time checking out his oxen and making sure none of the ‘friendly’ passersby had injured them in any way.
“Oh, Craig was a character,” Elisha Smith says with a chuckle.
Elisha has made his own mark. Bob Woodruff, West Tisbury farmer and Island conservationist, says of Elisha: “He’s the last of the old-time Vineyard farmers, always kind and generous with his knowledge, and an inspiration to us all.”
In Elisha Smith’s farming life, there have been three high points: In its heyday, his dairy farm’s cows produced more milk than those of any other Vineyard farm; he was finally asked to stop entering his Grand Champion Ayrshire cow in the Ag Fair after it won for too many years; and it was he who acquired for the Agricultural Society the land it now owns. Not only is the society’s West Tisbury Panhandle Road property the site of the annual Ag Fair each August, but its barn is used for Island weddings, memorial services, art fairs, potluck dinners, and antique engine exhibitions.
“I was the president of the Fair at the time and we really needed new fairgrounds. We used to be there right in the middle of West Tisbury in back of the Grange Hall, but we’d outgrown that, so I called Bob Woods out in California, who comes here in the spring and summer, and I managed to talk him into providing the land. I’ve always been very pleased that I managed to do that.”
By then, Elisha Smith had finished his reminiscing. It was time to leave his Daggett Avenue living room and get back to Red Hill Farm to give his chickens their evening meal. He pulled at the suspenders over his plaid shirt as he climbed out of his chair.
“Did I ever want to do anything besides being a farmer in this life? Not at all. I love and always have loved what I’m doing.”