Of mink and Mink Meadows

From mink rent to mink ranches.


Mink once lived on Martha’s Vineyard. When writer James Freeman made an inventory of the wild animals he found on a visit to the Island in 1807, he listed: “Besides domestick animals, the quadrupeds which are found on Martha’s Vineyard are these which follow: the skunk, the musquash; the mink; four or five species of ground mice; the mole; the rabbit: four or five otters have been killed during the past ten years, and are supposed to have swum over from the Elizabeth Islands across the Sound. There are no deer, foxes, nor squirrels.”

Mink remains have been found in Wampanoag middens dating back hundreds of years before European contact, together with beaver, muskrat (“musquash”), otter, raccoon, and skunk. Many naturalists believe that in addition to the common mink, a second, larger and now extinct subspecies known as the “sea mink” also existed on the Island, possibly as late as the 19th century.

Mink was also used as currency. Matthew Mayhew, governor of Martha’s Vineyard during the late 1600s and early 1700s, paid seven lambs to the governor of New York each May to maintain possession of Quanaimes, Quansoo, and Cape Higgon, together with “two mink skins for the said land called Nashawaqueedse” — today known as Quitsa — “to be paid on the first day of May yearly forever.” Mayhew, in turn, demanded quit-rent from his own tenants in the manner of a feudal lord. His requirements, written into the deeds and collected for generations, included annual payments of items such as “a good chees,” “one nutmegg,” “six peckes of good wheat,” and “one Lamb.” But of “his beloved brother John,” he demanded “one mink skin” to be paid yearly “at my mannor house in the mannor of Tisbury” on the 15th of November each year, in exchange for permission to occupy his lands.

Mink (mustela vison) are common to most mainland Massachusetts wetlands. The nocturnal mammals exist in the same family as weasels, otters, and ferrets, and can be found near stream banks, ponds, freshwater and saltwater marshes, and by the shore. They eat fish, frogs, snakes, voles, and other small animals. While they have few natural predators, mink were trapped for their pelts, and their habitats destroyed by development.

According to Allan Keith, author of the 1969 booklet “Mammals of Martha’s Vineyard,” the last native Island mink was exterminated before 1825. But was it? Bow Van Riper, research librarian at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, unearthed a stuffed mink in the museum’s collections with a label stating that it was shot by Frank J. Perry on the plains of Edgartown about 1885.

Mink Meadows is synonymous with Vineyard Haven’s premier golf course and its surrounding neighborhood, but in 1770s and 1780s maps, “Mink Meadow Pond” was applied to the body of water we now call “Tashmoo.” And during the 1800s, the name all but disappeared from the maps and records. (The latter estuary became known as “Chappaquonsett” during most of the 1800s, before it finally became “Tashmoo.”) While 19th-century cartographers referred to “Meadow Pond” (today, Mink Meadows Pond) and “Meadow Rock” (a submerged offshore hazard nearby), the mink seemed to be gone, even in name.

But not completely: In 1887, sisters Sophronia Peakes and Virginia Luce, elderly daughters of 18th-century Tisbury residents Thomas and Abigail Manchester, sold land “lying West of the County road in ‘Holmes Hole Neck’ (so-called) and East of a road called the ‘Mink Meadow Road’ in said ‘Holmes Hole Neck’.” It’s unclear where this was exactly, but it was definitely in the direction of West Chop.

The name was repopularized in 1928 with the development of the nine-hole Mink Meadows Golf Course by New York City banker Robert Bigelow, opened for play in 1937. It was not our first golf course — there was a six-hole course near West Chop Light in 1893, and a nine-hole course at Tashmoo Overlook in 1898 — but it is certainly Vineyard Haven’s longest-lived and most successful golf course. (There were initial plans to expand it to 27 or even 36 holes before wartime austerity scaled it back.)

The club’s name, however, remains shrouded in some mystery. “LeRoy Goff writes in his memoir ‘Dee Dee Boy,’” reads the club’s published history, “as a West Chop boy in 1911, he explored through the woods behind West Chop. One day he came across a footpath leading deep into the woods, and when the path stopped, there was a great open space covered with water. Suspecting it was a fresh water pond, he and his boyhood friends tasted it, and yes, it was fresh! Eventually they saw a man with a wagon full of small stones from the beach, and he told them the name for the pond was Mink Meadows. No one of any authority or with surety can say where the name emanated, but one story is that when the wind blew the grasses in the meadows in different directions, it reminded one of a mink’s fur.” But another obvious theory remains on the table: there may once have been a meadow on the Western shores of West Chop where mink lived. The original wetlands and string of ponds along our Northwest shore would make an inviting mink habitat.

In the 1930s, the national market for silver fox fur — the ultra-fashionable conspicuous consumption item of the 1920s and 1930s — collapsed. So by the end of the Great Depression, luxury fashion turned its eye toward mink, and prices for farmed mink fur boomed. Popularized by Hollywood stars like Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Bacall, and Marilyn Monroe, thousands of small-scale mink ranches sprung up across the country during the late 30s, 40s, and 50s. Massachusetts became #7 in the country for mink ranching by 1940.

Atherton Smith (1896-1978) of Vineyard Haven, an Island native who dabbled in everything from school teaching and surveying to house painting, was reportedly the first to bring mink back to the Island, in 1938. At the time he also worked for the Animal Rescue League in Edgartown. He set up cages in his yard on Franklin Street, near Tashmoo Avenue, and by 1943 was said to have 45 “breeders” that he was struggling to feed under wartime rationing. Smith “now finds it so difficult to get meat,” reported one 1943 news item that was picked up by the nationally syndicated newspaper column “Odd Items from Everywhere,” “that unless he can obtain extra points, or buy another horse, he may have to kill off the valuable animals and go out of business.”

“I think he kind of did what he liked to do all his life,” recalled the late Basil Welch about Smith in a 1982 interview. “I mean, he didn’t use what he was educated for all the time, that’s for sure!”

In the late 1940s, Dr. H. Van Arsdale Hillman (1891-1957) tried again. He raised imported mink at what was later Nip & Tuck Farm on State Road in West Tisbury. He was a well-respected, semi-retired osteopathic physician from New York City. “I actually do not know why he chose to raise minks,” writes his granddaughter Anilise Hyllman. “Though he had moved from New York, he had a practice on the Island and hospital privileges there. I think the mink endeavor ended when they all got sick. I never saw any mink, but I must confess we have a couple remnants of full mink in a box somewhere…” Rusty Gordon of Ghost Island Farm confirms that some of the old mink cages, long abandoned, still rest on the property. Sandy Fisher adds, “There was a shed out back filled with the cages. We cleaned it out to make a clubhouse when we were kids.”

Smith’s and Hillman’s mink ranches were both short-lived; evidently, the Island’s winter weather isn’t cold enough to produce good pelts. But at their peak, their operations reportedly had a total of about 300 breeders between them. Despite precautions, some mink escaped, and a feral population lived in West Tisbury for years afterward. Like the raccoon, skunk, deer, and others, an extirpated native animal had been reintroduced to its wild Island habitat. But unlike those others, the mink disappeared once again. Keith spotted what may have been the last in Lambert’s Cove in 1960. But was it? The nocturnal animals are notoriously hard to find. A dead mink was mysteriously found in 2007 near Oyster Pond Road, which has never been satisfactorily explained.

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.