This Was Then: Woodpecker Hall

Beriah Hillman, Chilmark schoolmaster.


Chilmark’s first town hall was built on Middle Road in 1844, not far from Tabor House Road, on land given to the town by Capt. Nathan Bassett. Town business was conducted here for more than half a century.

The building was also used for several years as a private boys’ school operated by Beriah Tilton Hillman (1843-1925) of Chilmark.

There were four public or “common” schools in Chilmark in 1847, serving 169 children between the ages of 4 and 16; plus a number of private schools. Hillman, a Chilmark native, attended one of these public schools as a child. “Bri” was remembered by one classmate as “slow sometimes, but ‘deep’… the smartest man she ever knew.” He left the Island to attend Bridgewater State Normal School, his studies interrupted by two years of service in the Civil War. He returned to graduate in 1865.

Hillman came from an extended family of Chilmark educators. His older brother Warren, also a Bridgewater alumnus, became a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Another older brother, Francis, served briefly as a Chilmark teacher before dying of heart disease at the age of 19. His first cousin, the Rev. Dr. Walter Hillman of North Tisbury, became president of Mississippi College, as well as president of a woman’s college later named in his honor (Hillman College, ultimately absorbed by Mississippi College.) Another first cousin, Dr. Benjamin Hillman, remembered as a “colorful” character who “lived dangerously,” was described as an “instructor at a Vineyard academy.” Beriah was also the father of Anna Hillman Cottle, who would later become a Chilmark school teacher as well.

Beriah returned to the Island from Bridgewater to teach in Chilmark for a few years, before teaching in rapid succession in Easton, West Tisbury, the Boston Farm School for Indigent Boys on Thompson’s Island, Barnstable, and the Washington Grammar School at Quincy Point. The exact timing of his private boys’ school at the Chilmark town hall is unclear, but it likely dates to the late 1860s (but possibly later).

The old town building gradually deteriorated until it became popularly known as “Woodpecker Hall.” In 1897, Chilmark’s new town hall was built, and the run-down building was sold to Chilmark store keeper and postmaster E. Elliot Mayhew. Mayhew moved it to the center of town, where he used it in the construction of his barn. The property was later owned by Conrad Kurth.

Hillman was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where he served in the Committee on Education. (In this capacity in 1886, he became involved with Vineyard Haven resident William Cunningham’s petition for compensation after losing a leg while an inmate of the State Reform School at Westborough.) Hillman later became a trial judge, appointed president of the Edgartown National Bank, served as Registrar of Probate, and served on the school boards of both Chilmark and Edgartown, among other prominent positions. Among his many high-profile legal fights, Hillman is perhaps best remembered for leading the losing battle against the secession of Oak Bluffs from Edgartown.

By 1920, the Chilmark public schools, including the Cape Higgon School on North Road, the Southeast School near Quansoo, and the Nomans Land School, had been consolidated into a single organization known as the Menemsha School, which served all the children of Chilmark.

Hillman had one last battle to fight. In 1925, as former commander of the local G. A. R. post, Hillman proposed the addition of a new tablet upon the statue of the Union soldier in Oak Bluffs, in memory of the Confederate soldiers who died. This ignited a bitter controversy that garnered national attention. The Baltimore Evening Sun quoted unnamed Oak Bluffs leaders as calling Hillman “ignorant, unpatriotic, and a traitor to the ideals of the G. A. R.” Massachusetts G. A. R. Senior Vice Grand Commander Wilfred Wetherbee declared Hillman’s proposal “unpatriotic,” stating, “the G. A. R. does not approve of a memorial to any man who has proved himself a traitor to his country.” But Judge Hillman rebutted, “The Southerners fought bravely for things they believed in. There is no reason why they should not be honored for defending their home institutions.” The State Woman’s Relief Corps, siding with the state G.A.R., ordered their local chapter to withdraw support for the tablet.

But Hillman won this battle, and the tablet was dedicated in September 1925 in a grand ceremony capped with evening speeches at the Tabernacle. But Hillman himself was not present, and his speech was instead read by committee chair Herbert Hinckley, for Hillman had died of a heart attack the night before, at the age of 82.

The Kurth barn — the former “Woodpecker Hall” — was razed in 1999 to build the new Chilmark School. Hillman’s controversial tablet was finally removed in 2019.

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 June 2018.