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Hometown U.S.A.: Chilmark, Mass.

Even with presidents and hurricanes, it's calm here

Locals and vacationers alike chill out in this corner of Martha's Vineyard, despite the approaching storm. 'Who needs electricity?' remarks one.

August 28, 2011|By Maeve Reston, Los Angeles Times
  • People fish and watch the sunset off the jetty at Menemsha Harbor on Martha's Vineyard, in Chilmark.
People fish and watch the sunset off the jetty at Menemsha Harbor on Martha's… (CJ Gunther, European Pressphoto…)

On Friday morning, as President Obama juggled conference calls and drafted a statement on the approaching hurricane from his retreat at Blue Heron Farm, the hub of activity in this onetime sheepherding town was five miles west at the Chilmark General Store.

Beginning at 7 a.m., casually dressed locals and vacationers in flip-flops made their way across the creaky pine floorboards of the store's porch and through the swinging doors for breakfast. Preparations for Hurricane Irene had added a few provisions to the morning's grocery list — ice, bottled water and batteries — but, as usual, hardly anyone was in a hurry.

Even before a storm forecast to bring 80-mph winds to Martha's Vineyard by Sunday night, bicyclists, builders and vacationing regulars leisurely stopped by Friday morning for fresh muffins and cinnamon rolls.

Settling into the dark-green rocking chairs on the porch, they welcomed interruptions from neighbors and friends. The conversations — which had meandered earlier this week from the stock market to the health of the local fishing industry to Chilmark's tax rate, among the state's lowest — had shifted to strategies for riding out the storm, including the feasibility of distilling seawater on a gas grill.

Even with a president down the road, no one here seemed terribly concerned. After all, some families here in Chilmark have weathered storms for as many as 12 generations. When asked whether she was worried about the hurricane, one young mother on the porch was overheard saying that she wasn't "worried about anything."

"Who needs electricity?" another woman remarked aloud later that morning, discussing the storm's path with a clutch of friends in their rocking chairs.

That embrace of simplicity is one of the reasons many are drawn to Chilmark, a town incorporated in 1694 that stretches across oceanfront meadows lined by stone walls to the tiny fishing village of Menemsha, where Obama took his wife for a sunset dinner on one of the first nights of their trip.

While the more formal cocktail-party set is centered in Edgartown — a former whaling town where preppy boys roam the bars at night in Nantucket reds and ribbon belts — it's unusual to see anyone here wearing anything fancier than shorts and T-shirts. It's hard to get cellphone reception, except when the president is in town with his portable communication towers.

Longtime vacationer Susie Wilson, who began coming with her husband in the 1960s when he worked for the Kennedy administration, said people come to Chilmark "to get away from it all."

"It is a place to really relax and get back to basics," said Wilson, after dropping by the store earlier this week for eggs and blueberries. She noted somewhat sheepishly that she'd hardly glanced at the newspaper over the previous two days.

But Chilmark's informality belies the sophistication of its community. The rolling hills that brought sheepherders have also drawn writers and actors, including James Cagney. Bill Murray and Ted Danson have relaxed on the Chilmark porch. Washington power broker Vernon Jordan, President Clinton's confidant and Obama's recent golfing partner, has a house here. Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry has crossed paths with Obama's entourage while biking.

There are also newcomers like Eric and Molly Glasgow, both 39, who left lucrative careers in London to run a solar-powered dairy and raise pigs in the woods at their Grey Barn & Farm. (One irresistible draw, they said, was the Chilmark school, where the student-teacher ratio is about 7 to 1.)

It is that diversity of interests, said University of Pennsylvania professor Francine Frankel, that keeps people like herself coming back each summer.

"I don't think that you're judged by who your caterer is or your designer," she said. "Everybody is interesting; that's what so attractive."

Frankel noted that this month her women's book club here was discussing a new translation of Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex" that was completed by a member, who spends much of her time in France.

"The people here, as a group, are phenomenally well-informed, well-read, well-traveled, and you can always have a good discussion with them," she said.

The Obamas did not do much public socializing in Chilmark this week. Many of their friends vacation in Oak Bluffs, long favored by, among others, black scholars and intellectuals.

The first family had practical reasons for choosing Chilmark. Rather than halting traffic in the busier towns on the island's east side, the presidential motorcade was able to travel along back roads as Obama shuttled between the beach and golf. The 28.5-acre farm where he stayed has a long driveway that can accommodate a motorcade of nearly two dozen vehicles; the Secret Service conducted security checks next to the Glasgows' equipment barn as cows grazed in the distance.

But like many here, the Obamas seemed drawn to the seclusion. Though locals put out handmade signs welcoming the first family — including one warning them to watch out for ticks — they mostly left the president and his family alone.

Wilson said she hoped the president would draw the same kind of strength from Chilmark that she does.

"We have some questions about his leadership and his willingness to confront really difficult issues," she said. "But I have found myself glad that he came here, because I feel that maybe he'll find renewal here.

"And in order to be courageous and take difficult positions in public life, I think you need a chance to really forget it all, to get back to who you are and what you stand for, maybe find a wellspring that will make you a better leader."

maeve.reston@latimes.com

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