Exploring the brickyard in Chilmark


The brickyard chimney stands out against the winter-gray wooded hills of Chilmark’s north shore. It is a lone, crumbling reminder of a far different time, when these quiet hills were home to thriving industries. Docks extended off the rocky shores, and schooners from the mainland loaded up on paint, clay, iron ore, and bricks; all produced in an area that is now dominated by summer houses and conservation land.

Last Sunday, The Trustees of Reservations organized a walk over some of the land between the Menemsha Hills Reservation and Great Rock Bight. The Trustees’ winter walk series allows visitors to see some private properties on which they hold a conservation restriction. Kate Conde and Allison Colarusso of The Trustees, along with several members of the Harris family, led the walk and introduced their 20 guests to some of the history of the area.

The group gathered first in a cold, sunny field, somewhat protected from the winds. P.G. Harris explained that the stone walls around these fields marked the boundaries of the Great Field, which was about 140 acres going down to the water, where the native Wampanoags grew corn and squash until the early 1800s.

Nathaniel Harris, a Boston banker, bought the brickyard and its surrounding land and mineral rights in the 1860s. The original property remained in the family until the 1960s, when they sold several parcels and donated a large piece to the Trustees of Reservations, creating the Menemsha Hills Reservation. The Trustees also hold conservation restrictions on the properties of Flora Harris Epstein, who died last summer.

Downhill from the Great Field, bog iron was mined from the late 1700s and into the following century. In “The History of Martha’s Vineyard,” Charles E. Banks wrote: “during the war of Independence, the product of this mine … was smuggled across the Sound to the forges of Taunton and converted into ammunition when the supply of lead became diminished.”

The swamp continued to furnish iron for military use through the War of 1812. According to Mr. Harris, iron from the property was used to make cannonballs and contributed to the construction of the USS Consititution, Old Ironsides, which was built in Boston and launched in 1797.

The Harrises led their guests to the old farmhouse on the hill, which stands beside the foundation of an old, two-story brick barn. Two arches still stand, leading into what was the basement of the barn. “They built the barn out of rejected bricks,” said Vida Poole, daughter of Flora Harris Epstein. “Because of the way bricks were fired, in a block, only some of them get to the right temperature and stay there for the right amount of time, so there were a lot of rejects.”

The barn was destroyed by the hurricane of 1944. “My grandmother was here alone,” says Ms. Poole, “and she couldn’t get the doors open herself, they were so heavy.” The force of the wind caused the barn to collapse.

The story of the Norton-Harris house beside the barn stretches back even further. It originally stood beside the pond at the center of Nomans Land. “Jacob Norton bought Nomans in 1713,” P.G. Harris said. “Traditionally, the house was already there, but who had it, nobody knows. The Norton family were pilots, and they would pilot people through the Sound. There was a hurricane in 1815 and it destroyed pretty much everything on Nomans.”

Following that hurricane, the house was floated over to Jethro’s Landing, beside the brickyard, in 1815. It came in pieces, on rafts, and was reassembled at its current site, overlooking the brickyard at Roaring Brook. The house’s construction dates it to before 1715, although no one knows exactly when it was built. It once had a thatched roof, and was built using a technique called plank framing.

From the old house, the walkers ventured into the bright, cold sunshine and down a winding path to the site of the brick mill. Its tower, visibly crumbling, is deemed too dangerous to approach.

In 1902, Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet docked here on its return from the Spanish-American War. “My grandfather, Sydney Harris, asked them to fire a shell into it and knock the chimney down,” says P.G. Harris. “People were climbing inside of it, and we were afraid that someone would fall.” The chimney’s structure is so unstable now that it is dangerous to even walk too closely under it.

Around the chimney are more relics of the brick works — an iron wheel, rods, and the stone banks of the canals which diverted Roaring Brook onto the overshot water wheel. Three separate companies produced bricks on this site: Smith and Barrows, The Boston Fire Brick and Retort company, and finally the Vineyard Brick and Tile Company. After local timber was exhausted, and the company had to import fuel wood from off-island, the brickyard became less profitable.

Upstream from the brickyard was a grist mill. Charles Gilbert Hine, writing “The Story of Martha’s Vineyard” in 1908, reported that it was built in 1849 on the site of an earlier mill and was used to grind corn, paint, and clay for soap makers. It was in operation until around 1900.

“Aunt Rebecca [Hillman Manter] put a candle in the second floor of the grist mill for ships to use as a lighthouse,” said Robert Elliston, the current owner of the property. “So much activity existed at one time in this area, it’s pretty unbelievable.” Mr. Elliston says that he has found many parts of old wood stoves and shoes around the foundation of the mill, from when William Manter ran a grocery store there at the beginning of the 20th century.

Slowly, all of the mills along Chilmark’s shores shut down. The clay and kaolin industries went on until the 1920s, but sand and rocks were gathered here all the way up until the 1970s. The Vineyard Sound had grown quiet, no longer the busy shipping channel it was in the 19th century.

It’s quiet onshore too. Ospreys recently nested on the crumbling chimney, a landmark of the brickyard that can be seen from the lookout on top of the sand cliffs at Menemsha Hills, which is open to the public year-round.