This Was Then: Straw rides

Postcard view of Lake Avenue, Oak Bluffs.

Straw rides, popular on the Vineyard in the late 1800s, were not the hayrides we are familiar with today, carting small children slowly around a farm for an afternoon festival. No, the straw rides of yore were loud, fast, raucous, late-night, teenage events, prone to romance, drama, and a whole lot of noise.

Popular at summer resorts across the Northeast, straw rides were often organized by hotels, and became lucrative side jobs for local hacks in the summer. While they were considered old-fashioned even then, they were not without controversy. An 1895 New York Times article called them “the very essence of foolish sport.” Decrying the “horn-tooters” and strong-lunged youths,” the Times reported, “Every night parties start out from the hotels and cottages, and with dinging and horn tooting, make a tour.” Some oceanside summer communities, like Asbury Park in New Jersey, banned the noisy spectacles entirely in the 1890s for disturbing residents’ sleep at night.

The Philadelphia Times described the fad well in a 1882 article: ”A large hay wagon is secured, the lower the better, and a team of six horses hitched to it, with bells. The bottom of the wagon, which has no springs, is filled with nice, clean straw. The young folks get into the wagon in the straw, there being an equal number of gentlemen and ladies who have arranged in advance who goes with who, and there is always a married lady along as chaperon, or perhaps two. Silent heart tragedies and deadly unspoken duels may occur on a straw ride as well as anywhere else, and the very merriment of one person may be intentionally meant to wound another, as in the case of the hilarity of a young lady who has captured the favorite escort that she knows another lady in the party did her best to get but failed. With the wagon filled, 20 or 25 usually constituting a party, and with a few musical instruments, such as cymbals and guitars, and with many voices, the wagon starts off with a flourish. A moonlight night is always selected, and, if in the country, the wagon, with its jingling bells and horses driven rapidly, goes speeding with all rapidity that can be gotten up along under. Reclining on the straw with their faces upturned to the stars, the young folks sing. It is always late, usually 2 o’clock or after, when a straw ride party returns. College songs are sung to a great extent, the ‘Yuba, Yuba De’ being one of the most popular, and there are a great many merry and often ludicrous roundelays. Peanuts are often taken along and the shells thrown around for fun, and bags of candies are also considerably used for ‘eating philapena,’ which has been revived.”

Straw rides reached their peak popularity on the Vineyard, as nationally, in the 1880s and 1890s. In 1887, straw rides were hosted by the Pleasure Seekers’ Club of Cottage City. One 1899 straw ride from Vineyard Haven on a moonlit Friday night in August involved 30 young people; Johnson Whiting’s gunning house on South Beach was described as “the mecca of the jaunt.” Another late August straw ride in Edgartown in 1895 resulted in the engagement of one couple, visitors Arthur Whiting of Baltimore and Carrie Cooper of New York. Alas, Whiting went on to marry another woman four months later.