The gifts of tradition at Felix Neck

By Pat Waring - November 29, 2007

While off-Island bargain hunters flock to shopping malls to work off their Thanksgiving turkey, nature-minded Vineyarders have their own tradition that's less stressful and less expensive too. Friday's annual Felix Neck Fall Festival drew what many remarked was the largest crowd ever for a day of family fun and outdoor activities. And for those set on Christmas shopping, the Felix Neck shop, sale table, and silent auction offered plenty of opportunity to purchase special gifts for the nature lovers on the list. Best of all, profits went to support the sanctuary.

Countless children, bundled in parkas, hats and mittens, were clearly thrilled to have a day of outdoor play after the family feast. Adults got to chat with friends, stroll the woods and fields, and lend a hand with their children's games and crafts. And although still sated with turkey and stuffing when they arrived, most visitors found their appetites quickly revived by the aromas of burgers on the grill, fresh popcorn, spicy soup, and mulled cider.

Jake Bruno and Sophia Alexander
Jake Bruno (left) and Sophia Alexander visited the goats inside their pen. Photos by Susan Safford. Click photo for larger version.

Dozens of volunteers fueled the event, and education director Justen Walker coordinated activities. Along with volunteer energy, businesses and individuals who gave everything from food to valuable auction items helped make the day a success.

"We see the festival not only as a community celebration but a way to raise money for the work we do," said director Suzan Bellincampi, expressing her gratitude for the generous volunteers and donors.

"Back to Our Roots" was this year's theme, calling attention to the property's longstanding heritage as a farm. Little known to the hundreds who visit Felix Neck every year, the sanctuary was farmed for many decades. Ms. Bellincampi said that she and staff member Susie Bowman researched Felix Neck's history and found it fascinating. Old stone foundations, remnants of wells, and even a lilac hedgerow, are among the "little hints" that suggest the use of the property as a farm, she said.

Sienna Dice and Lia Potter
Sienna Dice (left) and Lia Potter stuff a plump scarecrow. Click photo for larger version.

The sanctuary is named after Felix Kuttashamaquat, a Wampanoag Indian, who raised crops and animals there in the early days. The Smith family worked the land for three generations, and according to Elisha Smith who now lives in Vineyard Haven, hundreds of sheep grazed there. George Moffett purchased it in1963 and the Massachusetts Audubon Society acquired the 194-acre property in 1968. But local groups and individuals had already begun using it as an educational resource.

"We have a tradition that goes back to the 1960s of offering nature programs here," said Ms. Bellincampi.

A magical sense of history prevailed as Ms. Bowman led tours, telling about the old farms. Signs around the property indicated locations of the farmhouse, barn, and other structures. Although the house is long gone and one barn destroyed in the 1938 hurricane, the horse barn still stands, used as the nature center.

Lauren Robbins
Lauren Robbins shows off her hand-made turkey hat; she was first to finish the project. Click photo for larger version.

Adding to the agricultural theme were ducks, unusual chickens, and a pair of curly haired goats who welcomed young visitors into their pen for petting. Nearby, Rebecca Gilbert, who owns the Native Earth Teaching Farm in Chilmark, kept her spinning wheel whirring all day and dispensed fleece and fiber lore to a fascinated crowd. Hayrides in the far field were popular with all ages.

There was lots of other magic too, especially for the youngest visitors. Tables were set up with small logs and supplies of Crisco and seeds, ready to be fashioned into birdfeeders. A heap of leaf-shaped beanbags could be to be tossed into leaf-shaped holes in a board, and a big paper "pin the tail on the deer" game hung on the side of the barn. Volunteers painted exotic decorations on excited little faces and inside a crowded tent children could string cranberries and popcorn for the birds' Christmas tree, craft a perky paper turkey or a turkey hat to wear, and create holiday cards using dried leaves. Beside the tent, youngsters tumbled in the straw before stuffing it into old jeans and shirts to make scarecrows. Indoors, Nature exhibits, a bake sale, and hot cider and cocoa greeted those who ducked inside to warm up from the sunny but brisk weather.

After playing, hiking, hayriding, learning, and feasting on homemade food visitors headed home, surely a good deal happier, healthier, and richer than those who spent the day battling the mall crowds. Their cars might not have been packed with discounted plasma TVs, the latest computer games, or bags of trendy clothes. But the gifts of happily tired children, the exhilaration of a day outside in nature, and the bright holiday memories were priceless.