An era long gone in a remote part of Martha’s Vineyard

An era long gone in a remote part of Martha’s Vineyard

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Lonely and windswept, there's not much between the Quansoo Farm and Hispaniola, if you head due south. — Photo by Amelia Smith

If travelers from the 17th-century Vineyard were to arrive at Quansoo Farm today, they would find it more familiar than almost anywhere else on the Island. The old farmhouse is thoroughly pre-modern; it was never wired for electricity and has no plumbing, just a well underneath the kitchen ell. The meadows surrounding the house were farmed into the 20th century, and the trees in the “picnic woods” seem almost primordial in their windswept twistings and turnings.

This past Saturday, September 17, Kristin Fauteux, director of stewardship at the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, and Timothy Boland, executive director of the Polly Hill Arboretum, led more than 30 people on a walk around Quansoo Farm. The property was willed to Sheriff’s Meadow by its late owner, Florence “Flipper” Harris, who was the sister of Polly Hill. Sheriff’s Meadow is working to restore the house, re-establish farming on the land, and keep much of the property as a nature preserve.

Walking across the meadow, Ms. Fauteux pointed out an area of scrub oak scheduled for a controlled burn, which will bring down the underbrush while preserving the larger trees. “A controlled burn is patchy, depending on vegetation,” she explained, “so the effect is very different from mowing.”

Burning has also been used to control the phragmites, a huge invasive wetlands grass that thrives along the farm’s frontage on Black Point Pond. “There was a raccoon with its tail on fire in a controlled burn we had here,” Ms. Fauteux said. “It ran to the pond and dunked its tail in the water to put the fire out. It knew just what to do.” She also talked about a harrier hawk family in which the mother had died and the father successfully raised the young on his own as a “single dad,” and she showed the trail that otters follow from Black Point over to Tisbury Great Pond to the east.

In the meadow, Mr. Boland showed off the American hazelnut, which is edible, but more mealy and less sweet than the European hazelnut. A self-described “plant nerd,” he also pointed out switch grass (Panicum virgatum), lion’s foot, wood lily, sandplain flax, and the endangered purple needlegrass.

Then he started in on the oaks. “We have six different species of oak on the Island,” he said, “plus four documented white oak hybrids.” As he led the group into the Picnic Woods, he talked about his latest find, an oak that isn’t clearly one of the six types known on the Island. He said that it looked like it might be a chestnut oak, but that he couldn’t be sure without finding an acorn for ID. This year, he said, there have been very few acorns.

The walk wound around to the tree in question. “It’s really kind of interesting,” Mr. Boland said, “even though the Vineyard is a small, confined piece of land, we’re still finding new things here.”

It was an exciting moment when someone spotted an acorn. “It’s so great to have all these eyeballs,” Mr. Boland said. “I’m going to send this to Cornell for identification. We think it could be the Chestnut Oak, Quercus montana. Right now it is tentatively treated as dwarf chestnut oak, Quercus prinoides. However, its leaf size and shape, coupled with its very tall stature, makes us believe that it could be new to the Island.”

Even after that moment of scientific discovery, the grand finale of the walk was a peek into the antique house. Linoleum on the kitchen floor, in the newest part of the house, gave testament to the 20th century. The last inhabitants of the house, members of the Mitchell family, were descendants of the original builders of the house. Through the centuries, family names changed from Mayhew to Norton to Hancock in the late 1700s and finally to Mitchell in the late 1800s, as daughters of the family married men with different last names. Members of the Mitchell family spent parts of summers in the house as late as the late 1990s, while more modern houses mushroomed up in the woods behind them, and the nearly-as-ancient Quenames farmhouse nearby was progressively modernized.

The Mitchells lived mostly in the kitchen, the newest part of the house. The crumbling, propped-up southwest room is the oldest section and shows evidence of wattle and daub construction, which dates it to the 1600s. It is one of only four surviving examples of this kind of construction in the United States. Upstairs, antique clothes lie on the attic floor, eerie abandoned traces of former inhabitants. Old jam jars sit in a pantry, lost in time.

The house is a conservation challenge, impossible to bring up to code without destroying much of what makes it unique and valuable as a piece of surviving history. Mrs. Harris wanted a family to live here again and farm the land, but instead of making them live in the old house, she took out her dowsing rod and looked for a good place to dig a well for a new house site, which she found, just across from the old house. Sheriff’s Meadow director Adam Moore and his family now live in the new house, a stone’s throw away and a few centuries removed.

This story was changed on September 22 to reflect the correct name of Adam Moore.