Asking the looking glass of a single Island house: What is our economic future?

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Quansoo Farm, showing oaks and huckleberries. — Adam Moore

Glass is a liquid? It is indeed, but the liquid character of a substance that is so fragile, something that shatters when dropped, can be quite difficult to see. There are, however, two places on the Island where one can clearly see the liquid nature of glass. One is the Martha’s Vineyard Glassworks, where one can watch an artisan pluck a red-hot glob from the forge and blow the molten mass into a vase. The other is the Hancock-Mitchell House at Quansoo. Here, some of the window panes feature very old glass, original to the house. In these panes, the glass has become wavy, as over the centuries, the glass has very slowly flowed downward.

One can look at these panes, and in the waviness of the glass, see clearly the result of changes over time that are otherwise nearly imperceptible. Similarly, one can look through these panes, peering into the house, and quite clearly see distinct, economic eras of Martha’s Vineyard, as they affected the livelihood of the house’s inhabitants. In coming to learn this history, I am indebted to the work of historian Myron Stachiw, whose extensive title and probate research made vivid the lives of those who lived there, and made clear these different eras.  

More important, though, is that the timelessness of the place — the wattle-and-daub walls with centuries-old straw, the canning jars still filled with tomatoes, the broad, open plain that sweeps to the shores of Black Point Pond, and the unceasing roar of the Atlantic surf — gives one a chance to reflect upon the Martha’s Vineyard economic era of the future, and upon the common threads that bind the future to the past.

The land at Quansoo has changed rather little over the centuries. The land is flat, and an expert surveyor can still point out the traces of ditches and fences that once defined property boundaries. Seaside forests of stunted oaks and ramrod hickories grow here, yet the area around the house is primarily open field and meadow. For most of the history of the house, farming has kept these fields open.

Farming, then, is the first economic era of the Island that one observes. Farming is also one economic era that, unlike others, continues to the present day. The history of the old house at Quansoo, and its story of farming, began in 1792. In 1792, James Hancock bought one acre of “brushy stuff” from neighbor Thomas Cox, and to it he moved the western, half-Cape half of the house. Over the next 12 years he and his wife Elizabeth assembled a large and prosperous farm. They acquired abutting land, and grew hay, and oats, and flax. Neighbor Sarah Cox spun this flax into linen. Farms such as the Hancock farm at Quansoo supported the bustling Island ports of Holmes Hole and Edgartown.

Merchant shipping is the next economic era that one discerns. In 1804, James Hancock died, and his brother, Capt. Samuel Hancock, purchased the farm from Elizabeth Hancock and her five children. Captain Hancock was a captain of merchant vessels, and the signs of his profession abound throughout the house. In the borning room, when the afternoon sunlight strikes the planked walls just so, one spies the detailed drawings of square-rigged ships inscribed on the boards. There are sea charts from 1794 — of the Orkney Isles, of the west coast of Ireland, of the coast of Spain and Portugal, of the English channel — and even sea charts that were laid atop the roof and used as roofing paper.

As did many Islanders of this era, Captain Hancock made his living on the sea. Holmes Hole, now Vineyard Haven, was a busy port, and Vineyard Sound was a very busy shipping channel. As for Captain Hancock, he sailed for Skinner & Sons, a Boston company, and his work took him to St. Petersburg and Rotterdam and Cadiz. He twice found himself imprisoned, once by the French, and next — in 1812 — by the British. He met his wife Frances in Liverpool, having just been freed from the French prison. Sometime after the War of 1812, Samuel retired from shipping, and returned to Chilmark to Frances and their five children to run the prosperous farm that they had acquired and grown.

The next economic era one discerns is the least sustainable — and maybe most profitable of all: whaling. Sophronia Hancock was Samuel’s granddaughter, and she married West Mitchell. West was a whaling captain. As one climbs the worn, narrow stairs to the attic, light streams in through the windowpanes in the gable on the east side of the garret. If the sun shines just so, one can see the name “West Mitchell” etched into the wall beside the stairs.

As the elegant homes along North Water Street in Edgartown attest, whaling brought wealth to many Island families. On the other hand, it did not bring wealth to all, and it was a very dangerous business. West Mitchell was whaling during the declining years of the whaling industry. He was the captain of the bark Massachusetts, and his ship was one of the forty involved in the New Bedford whaling disaster of 1871. Pursuing the bowhead whale off Alaska, the fleet lingered too late in the year. The Arctic ice trapped the fleet, crushing and sinking almost all of the vessels. This area is now a marine sanctuary, and just a few years ago — aided by the retreating Arctic ice — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found the sunken wrecks.

Farming continued throughout the history of the Hancock-Mitchell House, and it continues today, with cattle from the Grey Barn Farm grazing the pastures. As an economic force, however, farming declined as the 19th century became the 20th. The Great Depression came, and then the Great Hurricane of 1938 toppled the barns, and that spelled the end of Quansoo as a prosperous family farm.

In the 20th century, nature, then, became the driving force in the next economic era at Quansoo, and on Martha’s Vineyard. At Quansoo, Boston financier Robert Bigelow bought land from the Mitchell family for use as a hunting camp. Later, Flipper Harris bought the land from the Bigelows, and from the Mitchells, because she appreciated the natural beauty of the antique house in an unspoiled, pastoral setting. Nature and natural beauty continue to bring people to the Island: for hunting, for fishing, for tourism, for scenery, for leisure in a lovely setting. Those who came here bought second homes or came on vacation, and required the trades and services that employ many Islanders today.

Today, we are clearly in the economic era of nature. Yet might this be changing? If we are entering a new economic era, I wonder if this will be the era of environmental ingenuity. For example, if one were to gaze out the south windows of the old house, one will soon be looking in the direction of a vast sea of Vineyard Power wind turbines, whose spinning blades will generate renewable electricity. Climb to the rooftop with a telescope, and one might spy a steady stream of ships carrying Island men and women, shipping out daily from New Bedford to service these turbines. Might Islanders become involved in every aspect of this enterprise, from mapping, to leasing, to managing, to financing? Might Islanders also learn how to harmlessly harness the energy of the waves and the tides, not to mention the sun?

If one looks to the north, one finds the world-class research community of Woods Hole, which includes the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Marine Biological Laboratory (now also a part of the University of Chicago), Woods Hole Research Center, and National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. I believe that our bonds to the science of Woods Hole will only strengthen, with Islanders serving all roles from student to scientist. Furthermore, Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard could become incubators for businesses that spring from the theories tested by the scientists. Similarly, I believe that maritime trades may strengthen, as well as the bonds that the Island already shares with the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, in nearby Buzzards Bay.

When Henry Beetle Hough founded the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation 60 years ago, he saw its lands as living museums. This vision has served admirably for the past 60 years, but for the next 60 years, perhaps we should also see the lands as living laboratories. Indeed, all of the protected lands and waters and farms of the Island can serve as a living laboratory. Farmers can try the best means of fixing carbon in the soil, and the most sustainable means of growing, and the most entrepreneurial means of marketing the crops. Oyster farmers can find the most efficient way to grow these bivalves while improving the marine environment at the same time. Fishermen can find the most sustainable ways to harvest the bounty of the sea, and can teach others how to adapt to warming waters and how to collaborate with other users of the sea. Towns can find ways to handle frequent storms and flooding. Foresters can find innovative, inexpensive ways to reduce the risk of wildfires. All that is learned in this great living laboratory can be shared, as widely as possible, so that others can benefit.

The looking glass of the old house tells us that, ultimately, one economic era will yield to another. I believe that, if we try, and if we embrace the natural changes underway with vigor and enthusiasm, the next era will be one of environmental ingenuity, and Martha’s Vineyard will be a pulsing, thriving, bustling hub.

Looking through the old window panes also reveals that there are common threads to it all. Through the eras of farming, shipping, whaling, and nature, the common threads are land, sea, and a worldly outlook. The economy may evolve in a direction different than what I envision. I am certain, however, that like their ancestors, Islanders of tomorrow will continue to look beyond the horizon, and will continue to share timeless bonds to land and to the sea.

Adam Moore is the executive director of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation.