Already, Cuttyhunk Shellfish Farms’ floating raw bar has launched for the season. So, too, has the marina, where fishermen can dock after trying to reel in one of the island’s legendary striped bass. When school lets out later in June, hundreds of families will cross Buzzards Bay and descend on the island, moving into their summer lodgings.
They will join the handful of full-time residents of Cuttyhunk, a blustery islet tucked between the South Coast and Martha’s Vineyard. Here, there is no year-round grocery store, doctor, or reliable transportation to the mainland — in the winter, the ferry from New Bedford runs only twice a week. To get around the less-than-1-square mile island, you either walk or take a golf cart.
“We call it the Island of Misfit Toys,” said Lexi Lynch, who, at 48, believes she is the youngest year-round resident of the island. “You have to know who you are if you’re going to live there.”
But it’s not the summer season that concerns these year-round islanders. It’s what comes after. The most recent Census data reported 70 residents of Gosnold, Mass. — the town that comprises the string of Elizabeth Islands, including Cuttyhunk — making it the smallest of the Commonwealth’s 351 municipalities. Residents estimate that there are 12 year-rounders on Cuttyhunk (some people have other homes off island but spend the majority of their time on island, so it shifts depending on the week) — a figure they say has been dwindling for years, taking amenities, like a year-round market, with it.
Most of the few who remain hold multiple roles in the town: The fire chief also runs the shellfish farm; the Wi-Fi manager is also the first responder. This skeleton crew may be keeping the island’s operations afloat for now, but full-time Cuttyhunkers see an existential problem on the horizon.
“The folks that keep the town running, we’re all aging out,” said Lisa Wright, 61, who is the town clerk, secretary to the selectmen, central billing clerk, and town hall janitor. “We’re just not seeing the enthusiasm of younger folks to come and learn what we do and pass the torch off to them. So we all sort of look around and scratch our heads and wonder what that’s going to look like — and we don’t have the answers.”
A 2021 report by the state’s Division of Local Services stated that if Cuttyhunk’s “stagnant and aging population” trends were to persist, and island officials were to, as expected, “retire or step down within the next five years,“ it would soon be necessary to devise “bold strategies for contending with this reality.” Or else, residents fear, Cuttyhunk’s year-round population will be snuffed out altogether.
“In my lifetime, am I going to see this place turn strictly into a summer resort where basically everybody leaves in the winter? I’m not sure,” said Duane Lynch, 52, Lexi’s husband and a lifelong Cuttyhunker. “But I never thought that there were days during the winter I was going to see a zero population, and now that happens.”
Reversing these demographic shifts, residents seem to agree, means finding ways to recruit new year-rounders — in other words, making the idyllic island amenable to 21st-century lifestyles.
“There is a tension there between trying to keep things the way they are, keep things simple, to value the escape from the rat race — but, also, people enjoy the rat race,” said Stewart Young, one of Gosnold’s three selectmen.
Young said the town has kicked around several ideas, like finding ways to support small business opportunities or increasing the frequency of the winter ferry. Improving the island’s Internet service, too, is “a number-one priority,” said Sarah Berry, a selectwoman. Cuttyhunk Wifi Group, one of the island’s Internet suppliers, is in the midst of a system upgrade, and Berry said the town is hoping to bring in a new broadband provider by next summer to improve bandwidth and speed.
“When I was growing up, it was immoral to have a television . . . almost, because you came to Cuttyhunk for the purity of it all,” said Berry. “But that’s not life anymore.”
The hope is that if remote work from the island becomes feasible, more people might make the move. During the pandemic, some of the summer residents came early, and the one-room schoolhouse, whose sole student graduated in 2019, saw an influx of eight students for the 2020-21 school year. Families were drawn to the prospect of in-person learning, but after the year ended, “they all went back to wherever they had come from,” Wright said.
“It would be nice to have a younger group with kids in the school, because it helps make a community a community,” said Seth Garfield, 65, co-owner of Cuttyhunk Shellfish Farms and the town’s fire chief.
But for families to uproot their lives and move to the island, they need a place to live. “If you’re a young family just starting out and you’re not independently wealthy, forget it,” said Lexi Lynch. The only Cuttyhunk house currently listed on Zillow is a four-bedroom for $2.5 million. Many of the island’s properties are family summer homes passed from generation to generation, and much of Cuttyhunk’s undeveloped land is either privately owned or under conservation by the Buzzards Bay Coalition, said Young.
“The challenges that Gosnold, and specifically Cuttyhunk, is experiencing are actually not unique across the region — they just are very much exacerbated when you have a tiny year-round population and you are incredibly geographically remote,” said state Senator Julian Cyr, who represents the Cape and the Islands.
Beyond the logistics of finding a place to live, there is the question of what it means to live on the island — the isolation, the quiet, the delayed gratification. “The fact that you can’t walk down the street and buy what it is you want to get means you’ve got to be a certain type of person,” said ferry captain Jono Billings.
But for those who love it — the privacy, the peace, the way the February stars stretch down to the waterline — living on Cuttyhunk is no great sacrifice, said solid waste manager Asa Lombard IV. “We don’t carry any money. We don’t carry any keys. We walk to work. There’s nobody around. There’s no traffic. There’s no sirens. . . . The people that are here are here for a reason: because they like the way it is.”
Even if the island can lure new year-rounders, there is no guarantee they would assume the roles that keep the island operating — especially since many of the jobs involve low pay and manual labor. Some services, like electricity, could be controlled remotely, said Young, but other positions, like emergency management, must be held by a resident as a matter of public safety.
“If everybody comes to Cuttyhunk to relax and nobody speaks up, Cuttyhunk’s going to fall apart,” said Lexi Lynch. “And that’s exactly what’s happening.”
Despite mounting concerns, inevitably, planning for the future takes a backseat to the labors du jour. “It’s such a big nut to crack, and then we’re all trying to take care of regular business,” said Wright. There are houses to care for, oysters to harvest, and a water system to replace. Years ago, the town created a long-range planning committee, but Young said it is currently “fairly inactive.”
“There are some that say you can’t force it — it’s just going to go through its own historical cycles organically and it will come back,” said Berry. “It’s kind of a moving target.”
The future of Cuttyhunk may be murky, but as the summer approaches, the distractions are plenty. Soon, there will be shopping at the market, fishing tournaments, and fireworks. There will, for however brief a period, be children gamboling around the island. Perhaps one of their parents will take note of the faster Wi-Fi.
“I don’t know if people come first or the amenities come first, but they’re definitely leaving together,” said Duane Lynch. “How to get them back? Very slowly, I guess.”