By: Hannah Fillmore-Patrick
Chilmark, Massachusetts is the third oldest town on Martha’s Vineyard, after the towns of Vineyard Haven and Edgartown. In 1694, residents founded the town, naming it after the village of Chilmark in Wiltshire County, England because Governor Thomas Mayhew, who established the first settlement on Martha’s Vineyard in the mid-seventeenth century, was originally from Wiltshire County.
For several centuries, Chilmark had an unusually high percentage of deaf residents. In the early eighteenth century, many people with genetic deafness immigrated to Martha’s Vineyard from Kent County in England.
They passed this genetic trait on to their children and, by 1854, the percentage of deaf citizens in Chilmark was more than two hundred times the national average. To communicate with one another, the people of Chilmark developed a local sign language, called Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL). Even those who weren’t deaf typically knew and used MVSL. Local children, for example, used the language to pass messages behind teachers’ backs and farmers used it to send instructions across large fields.
As the number of people born deaf in Chilmark decreased, so did the usage of MVSL. By 1950, the unique language was unfortunately extinct.
Chilmark includes the secluded island of Noman’s Land, just off the southern coast of Martha’s Vineyard. During World War II, the military conducted extensive bombing drills on this island to prepare soldiers for the planned landings in Normandy. During these drills, soldiers stationed on beaches on Martha’s Vineyard would send mortars into Noman’s Land. The army often conducted these drills in extreme weather to prepare soldiers for a potentially difficult landing.
Today, the town of Chilmark, along with the nearby towns of West Tisbury and Aquinnah, make up the hilly “up island” region of Martha’s Vineyard. This region is less developed and, due to its larger summer properties, ritzier than the “down island” towns of Vineyard Haven, Edgartown, and Oak Bluffs. In 2013, Chilmark had the highest median home sale price in Massachusetts.
The beautiful Menemsha Beach is located on the historic Menemsha Harbor, where the salty Menemsha Pond opens into Vineyard Sound. At sundown, the waters of Menemsha Harbor turn a spectacular red, pink, and purple in some of New England’s most dramatic sunsets. Steven Spielberg also filmed much of the movie Jaws in the waters around Menemsha Beach.
Town Hall Address:
401 Middle Road
Chilmark, MA 02535
Phone: (508) 645-2107
Cost of Stickers:
Beach Stickers: Depends on beach
Transfer Station Stickers: $30 plus pay-by-bag
Shellfish License: $25 resident, $50 non-resident