This Was Then: Here and there

The Wast(e) Land, the “fabulous pond,” and the Pond People of Pohogonot.


The English settled Martha’s Vineyard from the outside in; early colonial settlements clustered around natural harbors and mill-powering streams, mostly near the periphery of the Island. The dry interior — that scrubby triangle formed by the highways connecting Vineyard Haven, West Tisbury, and Edgartown — remained virtually uninhabited for centuries. Modern inland developments like those on Dodgers Hole Road in Edgartown or Otis Bassett Road in West Tisbury were not even conceived of until well into the 20th century.

In 1794, the Massachusetts General Court resolved that every municipality in the commonwealth must draw and submit an accurate town plan. So Benjamin Smith, the sheriff of Dukes County, dutifully prepared three detailed maps — one for each of the three towns on the Island at that time (Tisbury, Chilmark, and Edgartown). In the middle, he simply wrote “Wast Land” (wasteland). For that’s what it was considered.

And for good reason. Massive wildfires swept through every decade or so, incinerating vast swaths measured not in acres but in square miles. One 1916 fire incinerated more than 18 square miles — nearly one-fifth of the Island — in two days. And yet only one house was destroyed, for these blazes were usually confined to the Vineyard’s uninhabited midsection. Experts are still not entirely sure why these blazes have diminished since the 1950s.

Early Tisbury settler Simon Athearn labeled the central portion of the Island “a barren ragged plain of no town” in a crude 1698 map. James Freeman, visiting the Island in 1807, noted, “All the houses are within a mile or two of the sea coast: The internal parts of the Island will probably always remain without inhabitants.” Geologist Nathaniel Shaler remarked in 1874, “In one direction we may journey through the woods for 10 miles without a trace of habitation or culture.”

But these “great plains covered with acorn bushes,” as Thomas Dunham described it in 1831, were cut through with dozens of useful paths, some of them undoubtedly Wampanoag trails predating the English settlers by thousands of years. Many of their names and locations are forgotten, or nearly so.

There was Will Lay’s Plain Road (variously referred to as Willie’s Plain, Willis Plain, and Wallace’s Plain), which ran east toward Edgartown from Little Pond (that small pond near the State Forest entrance). “Will Lay” was believed to be the English name of an Edgartown Wampanoag named Pannunnut. Historian Charles Banks wrote, “In his youth, [Pannunnut] lived in the family of Gov. Thomas Mayhew, and in later years became the principal Indian magistrate. He preached at the Indian church at Chilmark about 1690.”

Toward the east was the Tarkill or Tar Kiln path, which led to the section of Penny Wise and Dark Woods in Edgartown where tar, pitch, and turpentine were extracted from pitch pines using temporary, earthen kilns. (From this natural ingredient, rosin, industrial grease, and rigging tar could be manufactured.) Running southwest from a curious landmark known only as “the Broom” near Willis Plain was Farm Path. A very short section of Farm Path still bears that name, off Buddy’s Drive in Oak Bluffs, but it once terminated miles away at Deep Bottom on Tisbury Great Pond.

Dr. Daniel Fisher of Edgartown famously improved and conjoined many of the east-west roads in a short-lived circa 1860 scheme to connect his mills in West Tisbury to his successful hardtack factory in downtown Edgartown. While his flourmaking business didn’t work out, his name was afterward associated with many of these roads.

Then there was Little Pond Road, referring not to Duarte’s Pond (where a section of the road still bears that name in Oak Bluffs) but to Little Pond in Edgartown, at its other end. The southernmost stretch of modern Barnes Road wasn’t built until the 1940s, so for centuries Little Pond Road was the main access to Little Pond from Edgartown Road.

Of Little Pond, much has been written. James Freeman, visiting in 1807, described it: “It has never been known to be dry … it seems to be placed here by a benevolent Providence for the refreshment of the thirsty animals, by which it is surrounded.” He goes on to repeat the “marvelous” story “that in a wet summer it is two feet lower than in a dry summer” but then dismisses the tale as “fabulous”; they “have probably been too much pleased with the wonderful tale, to give themselves the trouble to examine into its truth,” he concludes.

But writer Samuel Devens, in 1838, seemed to accept the tale: “In the vicinity of Edgartown is a pond which is said to rise in dry weather and fall in wet. Do you doubt it, reader? Many of threescore years and 10 declare it upon their honor, and would testify to it upon oath. You may be incredulous if you will, but such is the testimony.”

Running due south from Willis Plain was a well-traveled road that followed the frost bottom known as Quampache. At one time, you could drive a wagon all the way from Eastville to Oyster Pond on the south shore without having to turn appreciably east or west, by using this well-traveled road. Much of the Quampache road can still be followed on foot through the State Forest today. According to Banks, the name is derived from the Wampanoag word for “forsaken swamp or marsh.”

Between Tisbury’s and Edgartown’s Great Ponds during the 18th and 19th centuries lived the Pond People, as they were once known — settler families remembered for their guns, feuds, and fervent religion. They formed small communities of extended family relations, like Athearnville on Watcha Pond, and the Smith family’s Pohogonot on Oyster Pond. The Rev. Harry Butman of Edgartown described the Pond People as “a breed of farmer-fishermen … They farmed the thin soil, raised sheep with a superior brand of wool, and fished the ponds and the open sea beyond them.” Author Joe Allen described them in his book, “Tales and Trails”: “They were hardy and hard-boiled, and feuds and altercations between the various factions of the Great Pond people always marked each epoch in the Island’s history.”

But Pohogonot (also written as “Pohoganut” and a dozen other spelling permutations) was no forgettable backwater. Today a seldom-tred, private enclave well-studded with “no trespassing” signs, Pohogonot once held a school (one of the four public schools in Edgartown), the town poorhouse, stores, and, for more than a century, even the Dukes County Registry of Deeds. If you lived in, say, Holmes Hole (today’s Vineyard Haven) in the first half of the 1800s, and you needed to register the deed to your new property, you would first have to figure out how to get to Pohogonot.

And how did one get from Holmes Hole to Pohogonot? Well, the opening to the Lagoon wasn’t first bridged until the early 1870s, so the only option would be to start on the old County Road, that well-traveled old highway which is today the Edgartown–Vineyard Haven road through much of Tisbury. Near the head of the Lagoon, about where Goodale’s Pit is today, they might turn right onto the old road named for Ben Luce, whose grave is believed to be on what’s now called Duarte’s Pond. From there, they’d turn southeast onto Little Pond Road into Will Lay’s Plain.

Alternately, they might continue on the old County Road toward Edgartown, paralleling the modern Edgartown Road through Oak Bluffs, and preserved in the Land Bank’s Southern Woodlands property as a walking trail. Turning right at the old Farm Neck School (about where Quantapog Road meets County Road today), they would pass by what would later become the Wilbur farm, and then plunge into the heart of the wastelands to the south. Near the southern entrance of the modern site of Mahoney’s garden center, the road from Farm Neck continued and forked — the left fork became Quampache, and the right became Farm Path. Near Willis Plain, the Quampache road intersected with the Willis Plain Road (later Dr. Fisher’s) in a curious confluence involving some eight different intersecting roads.

The center of the Island, long ignored, became a hot commodity in the 1870s, when swindlers and developers tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to capitalize on the newfound popularity of Cottage City — and by extension, Martha’s Vineyard — by selling lots in phantom communities like Oakland Grove or Glenwood, at sometimes exorbitant prices. But in the end, nobody built anything. The central plains remained virtually uninhabited, other than the occasional hermit and a fabled German spying operation.

But in 1892, Elisha Smith sold a lot near Willis Plain to Antone Andrews nearly a square mile in size. It included Little Pond, virtually all of Quampache Bottom, and a vast swath of land stretching all the way to the West Tisbury–Edgartown Road. Andrews, a 25-year-old native of the island of Santa Maria in the Azores, had only been in the U.S. for about seven years. Here he built a farmhouse, began clearing fields, and started planting and selling vegetables in an operation he named Little Pond Place. Soon he built a second home nearby, and moved his parents into it. Andrews’ home still stands, used today by the staff of the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest.

But farming wasn’t easy. In a 2001 interview with Linsey Lee of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, Antone’s son Joseph recalled, “He had trouble with the heath hen. He’d plant, and the heath hen, several hundred of them, would come and root up everything he planted. So the older boys would shoot the heath hen whenever they got a chance, and they ate them. They were delicious. That’s the only way he could farm, was to keep the heath hen out of the garden.”

But by the early 1900s, with the last of the heath hen species found only on Martha’s Vineyard, Little Pond Place became an unofficial heath hen preserve. Rather than hunting them, the Andrews family was assigned to protect them. Finally, in 1908–9, the state acquired the 564-acre Andrews farm by eminent domain, and the family left for Vineyard Haven. But despite tremendous efforts to save it, the heath hen became extinct in 1932, and the property became part of the new State Forest.

After the Martha’s Vineyard airport was built in 1942, Barnes Road (named after Wallace Barnes of the Innisfail Hotel development) was extended past Edgartown Road, past the old horseracing track known as Girdlestone Park, past Little Pond, and all the way to the West Tisbury–Edgartown Road. Known as Airport Road for decades, the name was changed to Barnes Road in the early 2000s.

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.