The keepers of Vineyard history are leaving the heart of the whaling community for a new home up-Island.
The Martha's Vineyard Historical Society this week announced the signing of a purchase and sale agreement for the Littlefield family's Scarecrow Farm, 25 acres tucked between the Agricultural Hall and Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury.
The decision to abandon much of their campus on School street and leave Edgartown did not come easily for a 10-member board of directors that spent the last year assessing the society's current performance and future needs.
"In the last 80 years, we'd grown very comfortable with the way we were," historical society president Hugh Knipmeyer said of their campus just two blocks from the courthouse.
"We were faced with the decision of whether to maintain what we had - which was satisfactory but inadequate for the preservation of the Island's heritage long-term," Mr. Knipmeyer added.
Beginning in the early 1930s, the society patched together exhibit space, a library and offices from a few Edgartown houses - the oldest, dating back to the 1740s, was once home to Edgartown customs agent Thomas Cooke. But when artifacts such as the Cooke house became the space used to display and store the pieces that tell the story of the Vineyard's history, the society found themselves struggling to protect and fully present the entire collection.
In the Pease house, every inch of the second floor - including the bathroom and closet - is covered with Vineyard relics, from duck decoys and quilts to an eel pot and colonial pistols. A passenger door from the ship City of Columbus leans against the wall at the foot of the stairs. A wooden screen covered with yellowed newspaper clippings, once owned by actress Katharine Cornell, sits next to the toilet in a downstairs bathroom. Sheets of tissue paper shield the fragile artifacts from the light that seeps in through the windows.
"People who've come before us have done a marvelous job of collecting history. But the collection doesn't mean anything if people can't use it," historical society executive director Matthew Stackpole said.
While physical plans for the new headquarters are still tentative, climate controlled storage space, a complete catalogue system and appropriate exhibit space are on the wish list. Mr. Stackpole estimates the complete relocation to take from three to five years - largely depending on the success of a capital campaign and funds secured by selling parts of the Edgartown campus.
"We'll be expanding our presence and function to the rest of the Island and maintaining a presence in Edgartown," said Mr. Stackpole. The society will continue to occupy the Thomas Cooke House, care for the Edgartown lighthouse and Children's Memorial as well as host summer sails on the catboat Vanity. The society plans to sell the Gail Huntington Library and the Pease House.
While society leaders acknowledged that relocation would be inevitable, finding a new property was not first on their priority list.
"It was certainly out of sequence. But we didn't know when a property like this would be available again. It's also a serendipitous location - between two other groups with whom we can have a symbiotic relationship," Mr. Stackpole said.
In fact, the agricultural society and Polly Hill Arboretum have expressed interest in purchasing pieces of the property once the historical society closes on the land in October. The historical society will retain 10 of the 25 acres.
The Littlefield family never actively farmed on the 25 acres of open field and dense woods - save a much revered vegetable garden and a chicken coop. Scarecrow Farm earned its name from the intricate scarecrows the late Margaret Littlefield staked through the rows of her vegetable garden. The 25 acres did, however, once sit in the middle of a large sheep farm, property trustee Leah Littlefield said.
"The agrarian history of the Island - that's a story we haven't told well, and this will give us that opportunity," said Mr. Stackpole.
Some 120 years ago, the Littlefield family along with Benjamin Smith owned 400 acres of land just north of West Tisbury's center. The Littlefield family sold pieces of the property for the Polly Hill Arboretum and wildlife refuges through the years. The historical society's purchase absorbs most of the family's remaining property.
"The property meant a great deal to my father, as he was born there," Ms. Littlefield said. A family of public servants, both her parents and her grandfather together offered more than five decades of service to the West Tisbury board of selectmen, conservation commission and finance committee.
"The family … searched for a way to transfer ownership of this property to a nonprofit organization in a manner that would honor their parents and be of service to the West Tisbury community. We are very happy the historical society is purchasing the family property and plans to handle it in a way that will be of service to the entire Island," Ms. Littlefield said. Ms. Littlefield said her mother, Margaret, was a longtime member of the historical society and delighted in taking her children to the new exhibits each season.
"Mom would certainly be pleased to support the historical society," Ms. Littlefield said. Margaret (Peg) Littlefield died in February, and Albert Littlefield now lives in the Windemere Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center.
The society discussed renovating and expanding their operation on the Edgartown site, but such extensive work still would not have addressed access issues - the inevitable outcome of being located next to the bustling village center.
"Accessibility has been a real problem for our guests and members. In West Tisbury, we'll be located 20 minutes from anywhere on the Island," Mr. Stackpole said.
The historical society is tackling this project with a sense of duty and a positive outlook.
"It's thrilling to start again with a clean sheet of paper. We are the stewards who happen to be here at this point in time. This move positions us for the long term," Mr. Knipmeyer said.