Special paths of West Tisbury

The W.T. Byways Committee presents an entertaining history lesson.

Harriet Bernstein, chairwoman of the West Tisbury Byways Committee. —Mila Lowe

More than 100 people filled the events room of the West Tisbury library to get a glimpse into the Island’s past. Apparently our love for this beautiful land on which we all reside — or visit regularly — includes a protective impulse towards the many old roads, cart paths, and grooves produced by generations of trailblazers.

Landscape architects have a term for these out-of-the-way, almost accidental trails: paths of desire, they’re called, a quaint denomination for trails carved out by notions of scenic beauty rather than the industrial pragmatism that forms our “real” roads.

This past Saturday afternoon at the West Tisbury library, the West Tisbury Byways Committee sponsored a lecture about the ongoing care of these treasured old routes. Harriet Bernstein, chair of the committee, spoke of the “living history” these paths represent for all of us. She explained how these trails are deemed legally protected “special ways,” even when they zig and zag through private property. Not that this doesn’t create conflicts with property owners, but once a path is named ‘special,’ that particular trail allows the public to hike it, although for those passing through, ironclad rules apply: Do not litter, do not deviate from the path.

Next to speak was Ann Bassett, talk show host on MVTV, whose Island family roots go back to the 1700s. She described growing up in Edgartown, most of her childhood years spent with her backside affixed to a pony. She and fellow riders roamed on Island trails as far as Menemsha. These far-ranging rides nourished in her the plan to one day live in West Tisbury which, of course, she now now has done for decades.

Ms. Bassett spoke glowingly of her friendship with the late historian Hollis Smith, who extensively surveyed every town. Old property boundaries, he told her, had vague descriptions such as, “From the large rock to the fencepost.” He described how he’d address the problem of fenceposts that were long gone: “Look for a line of cherry trees,” he told her. Birds nibbled cherries over fields and stream, he said, then perched on fences to digest. The birds excreted the cherry seeds and, voilà! a lovely line of cherry trees, with their fragrant pink blossoms, marked an old boundary.

Native American historian Linda Coombs, originally of Mashpee, now working with the tribal council in Aquinnah, explained her family attachment to the Island via a slew of second cousins. Her uncle, Milton Jeffers, who grew up on Chappaquiddick, was the “keeper of the stories” in the last century, and a favorite go-to man for historians and journalists. Ms. Coombs admitted, “I don’t know a whole heckuva lot about West Tisbury,” so she recently dove into the early 20th century history books of Charles Banks. The experience was discouraging: “He wrote often of ‘savages’ and ‘our Indians.’”

Ms. Coombs recommended some favorite historical books including “The Common Pot” by Lisa Brooks, “Indian Converts” by Experience Mayhew, and “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

A scion of the multigenerational West Tisbury Alley family, native John Alley — storyteller, justice of the peace, and former selectman — guided his audience on a virtual walking tour from his childhood, which began in 1946 at his family’s original house, still standing today near Mill Pond. From there he guided us to the Garden Club cottage, to his grandmother’s house down the road apiece, then up the hill to a site called Brandy Brow, in the old days an actual tavern, the name derived from drinking brandy at the brow of the corner.

Mr. Alley also shared fond memories of what was once his family’s store — still named

for them, but now belonging to the Wampanoag tribal council. As they do today, people sat on rocking chairs and benches lining the porch, but back in the day they had more amusing entertainments, to whit counting cars with different licence plates. More memories: It was young John’s job to weed the space that now contains the paved parking lot. Mr. Howe had a store on the side of his house (now the Howes House). Mrs. Howes smoked Regent cigarettes, shaped into delicate ovals. The mail arrived promptly at two o’clock. Also, a certain Bert Calhoun was invariably called “poor Bert”. Why “poor Bert?” Well, the sad truth was he happened to be a Democrat.

Mr. Alley wrapped up, “I’ve never lived anywhere but here, and I’d never want to live anywhere but here.”

Next up was ecologist David Foster, who mobilized a PowerPoint presentation of the myriad maps of easements and access trails, deep-seated ancient ways as they become sculpted like small canyons from foot traffic over the decades, or centuries. There were maps of pre-European sites concentrated near bodies of water, as well as post-European maps such as a busy one of “Buildings between 1850 and 1951.” Pie charts revealed the decline of sheep, cattle, and agriculture, and the return of woodlands.

Finally, cartographer Cynthia Aquillar described the many years of work she invested in her map of 1892 West Tisbury, the year of that city’s separation from Tisbury. A large poster of the map will continue to be on display at the library for the foreseeable future. New information is always being revealed to Ms. Aquillar in the way of roads and trails changing from mud, puddles, downed trees, multiple names over time for a single road, and new development. “I keep correcting,” she said with a grin, “but I’m obsessed with getting this map completely authentic.”

At the library, too, you may pick up a brochure put out by the Byways Committee, with maps and descriptions of the most notable special ways, including Roger’s Path, originally a cart trail connecting Middletown and Christiantown, and running past an old town cemetery dating to the Civil War. For water lovers (and who among us does not love water?), there’s Old Tiah’s Cove Road, linking Scrubby Neck and Tiah’s Cove to Sepiessa Point.

It’s clear that once you get started, you’ll want to hike them all.