This Was Then: Classic rocks

Part One: Up-Island seasoning.


Charles Hine, in his 1908 book “The Story of Martha’s Vineyard,” describes the area around Peaked Hill in Chilmark as “a wilderness of tumbled stones, and looks as though old Moshop might have dusted them out of his salt-shaker some time when the earth needed a great deal of seasoning. The numerous walls attest the number of lesser stones, while the fields are strewn thick with the greater ones.”

There are a lot of big rocks on this Island, generously left by the Laurentide Ice Sheet 20,000 years ago. Some of these “glacial erratics” that weren’t blasted with dynamite or harvested for other purposes have even earned names. One visitor in 1807 marveled at the rocks of Chilmark: “The stones and rocks, which lie on these hills, are granite; many of them are large; and some of them, of singular shapes. Several, in Chilmark, at a distance, might be mistaken for houses. One has a roof like a barn; one is almost a perfect cone, and is called the Sugar Loaf; and others of a smaller size, but weighing several hundred pounds, are hollowed out in the form of a bowl. The author has seen two of these stones, which are used for troughs, the largest of which will hold six gallons. They are entirely the work of nature.” Hine called Sugarloaf Rock “one of the most prominent features as one approaches the village. [It] is the chief diadem of a stone wall circlet that crowns a nearby hilltop.” No longer the well-known Chilmark landmark it once was, Sugarloaf Rock still stands on private land near the upper end of Middle Road.

But there are a whole lot more. (I am indebted to Casey Reagan of Oak Bluffs for much of the list that follows.) Let’s begin with some other notable Chilmark stones:

Waskosim’s Rock’s name may be derived from a Wampanoag word for “whalebones” (and thus of similar etymological origin to “Wasque”). It once marked the old Middle Line, an east-west boundary separating English-colonized Chilmark from the Wampanoag lands to the north. It also marks the north-south town line between West Tisbury and Chilmark. It’s the namesake of a popular Land Bank preserve today.

Dinah’s Rock is in the woods west of Roaring Brook, and named after a Wampanoag woman of whom little is known. (A site known as “Dinah’s Wigwam” is nearby.)

Devil’s Bed, also known as Moshup’s Bed and Pillows, is located off Middle Road, west of Peaked Hill Road. Hine described it in 1908 as “one of the most peculiar of the large rocks on the island … We find the Old Boy’s resting place with the pillows on the ground at its head and the bolster lying off by its side. The odd combination of the flat rock about 30 feet long, with its rounded edges, which was presumably rafted to the spot by ice, and the two singularly round ‘pillow’ stones that once stood on one end of the ‘bed’ is very striking.” (A later book notes that “pranksters rolled the pillows and bolster off the bed and now they lie on the ground beside it.”) But don’t confuse it with Wee Devil’s Bed at the Land Bank’s Peaked Hill Reservation. Skull Cap Rock and Stonecutter’s Rock may also be found at Peaked Hill Reservation.

Also in a valley next to Peaked Hill was Balanced or Cradle Rock a.k.a. “the rocking stone,” which was written about as early as 1823. An 1876 guide described it as “so nicely balanced on another rock, that it can easily be put in motion by a slight pressure of the hand.” One 1881 magazine even suggested this was Chilmark’s singular attraction. (“Tisbury is famous for its woodland rambles, Chilmark for its rocking-stone …”) Alas, Hine sadly noted in 1908 that “some inquisitive gentleman with a crowbar once thought to have the secret of its rocking motion, and so completely upset was the stone that it has never quite regained its equilibrium.”

Allen Tilton’s Rock may be found at Tiasquam Valley Reservation, and is known for the autograph he carved into it in 1888 or ‘89. Stephen Hillman’s Rock, off North Road, is similarly named. Also on North Road is Shade Rock.

Chilmark’s Mounting Rocks: there are at least three on South Road by this name. These were stones cut to use for mounting horses. Ram’s Head Rock is found at the Middle Ridge Reservation, and Dimple Rock is off Tabor House Road. Chilmark’s Great Rock is one of at least two of this name on the Island; this one is the namesake for Chilmark’s popular Great Rock Bight Preserve.

There are undoubtedly other named rocks in Chilmark, the mysterious Cromlech of Quitsa, and the equally controversial Black Rock of Nomans, among them. (David Seward adds, “By the way, on the top of Prospect Hill in Chilmark is a man-made pile of rocks. I believe they were placed there by a relative of my great-great-grandmother, Keziah Flanders, who once owned the hill. He placed the rocks there in order to claim that Peaked Hill was no longer the highest point on Martha’s Vineyard.”)

Aquinnah has rocks, too. There’s Mittark’s Rock, on the south side of South Road near the lighthouse, and associated with the sachem Mittark. There’s Toad Rock, where according to tradition Moshup’s giant pet toad was turned to stone. The toad’s eye was reportedly used as a traditional depository for messages. Today, Toad Rock is the highlight of a Land Bank property off Moshup Trail of the same name.

There are tales of a “ringing” or “singing” rock in Aquinnah, which rang like a bell when struck with a stick or a hammer. Bill Smith of Chilmark recalls, “When I was a kid, my father whacked it with a sledgehammer, and it rang like a bronze bell. I was 6 or 7. Had to be sometime in the mid-’60s, say. Dad drove me, and I heard the ring when he beat it with an eight-pound maul. Ringing Rock was moved, and it never rang again. Glad I heard it once.” This now-silent stone is said to be at the lookout on the Cliffs, with a tablet attached to it today.

But Beverly Wright of Aquinnah remembers Ring Rock, perhaps also known as Money Rock, submerged in the waters near the north side Cliffs. “We used to walk down from Scoville house. We would walk out at low tide and ping rocks off of it to make it ring. It had rings around it from different tides. Its ring was high-pitched like a clear bell — a different pitch according to the tide level.”

There’s Baptism Rock, in the water just west of Cooper’s Landing in Aquinnah, at the end of Pilot’s Landing Road, where baptisms were practiced until the early 20th century. Pease Rock was used to define the northern end of the Aquinnah–Chilmark town line.

Rocks were big business for Vineyard farmers. The Vineyard Haven breakwater is said to have been built with stones from Seven Gates; the bulkhead along Edgartown’s waterfront is said to have come from Manuel Bettencourt’s farm. And there are house foundations and jetties across the island whose raw materials were once wrenched out of other Vineyard farmers’ fields.

Dangerous, too. On Christmas Day 1865, sheep farmer William C. West of Middle Road in Chilmark was trying to sink a multi-ton boulder in his field by excavating a pit underneath it, but the stone rolled over just as he was exiting the pit, instantly killing him.

West Tisbury has rocks. There’s Money Rock. Not to be confused with the Money Rock of Aquinnah, this one was located near the shore north of Indian Hill. Hine suggested that treasure was buried here, although he adds “what the legend is I know not.”

Goat Rocks are a glacial outcrop in the woods on eastern side of Seven Gates. (“We would go to the Goat Rocks and Rams Hill several times a year, and on Thanksgiving with Marjorie and Grampie,” recalls Becky Cournoyer of Indian Hill fondly. “I hiked up there, and would climb the rocks.”) There’s Split Rock, the picturesque boulder on the shore at Makonikey, and Reed Rock on Cedar Tree Neck’s White trail, dedicated to well-known ornithologist Alexander Reed. A rock known as Mayhew’s Horse Block may be found in the woods at Christiantown, another stone used to mount horses.

There are other spectacular up-Island boulders whose names, if they ever existed, are still unrecorded. Bob Woodruff marvels at the unnamed massive erratic near the sharp curve on Indian Hill Road before Cedar Tree Neck. (Is it “Mountain Rock”? Or “Monster Rock”? Or something else?) Casey Reagan remarks on “the huge rock at Middle Line Preserve. It must have a name, but I don’t know it.” Another impressively massive but yet-unnamed erratic lies on the border of Polly Hill Arboretum (“We just call it ‘the big rock’” writes executive director Tim Boland.)

Do you know of other up-Island rocks with names, histories, or stories? Please email me at And what about down-Island stones? We’ll save those for the next column.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018.