From little things, big things grow.
A little over 50 years ago, Henry Beetle Hough became concerned that a little parcel of land in Edgartown, where he and his wife Elizabeth liked to walk, might fall prey to land developers.
Mr. Hough, then owner and editor of this paper and an author, used the money earned from sales of one of his books, Once More the Thunderer, to buy the 10 acres which had been known for at least the previous century as Sheriff’s Meadow.
But when he tried to pass it into the stewardship of one of the relatively few conservation organizations then in existence, he could find no takers for a small parcel which had no endowment for its maintenance.
So Henry Hough set up his own foundation, and named it after the piece of land.
“And,” said Adam Moore, now executive director of that foundation, finishing the story, “Sheriff’s Meadow is now the largest private land owner on the entire Island.”
It owns close to 150 parcels of land, totaling some 2,000 acres, and holds conservation restrictions over another 600-odd acres.
That is impressive growth.
But the significance of Sheriff’s Meadow — which is celebrating its 50 years with a benefit gathering on Monday evening — goes beyond those statistics.
Let the executive directors of two of the Island’s other conservation organizations explain it.
“Sheriff’s Meadow is the progenitor of all the local conservation on Martha’s Vineyard,” said James Lengyel of the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank.
“It was founded in response to a real need for a local land trust, in a time before the conservation society or the open land foundation. There was the garden club and some regional groups. There was no local land trust before it,” said Brendan O’Neill of the Vineyard Conservation Society.
Before Sheriff’s Meadow, there were conservation organizations, of course, but none local, either here or on our sister island, Nantucket.
“And,” said Mr. Lengyel, “both the Vineyard and Nantucket at about the same time realized there was about to be a lot of pressure on them that was not there before.
“Suddenly the Islands were approachable in ways they hadn’t been in the past. I would ascribe it to post-war prosperity, the interstate highway system and the rise in leisure hours.
“People here began to realize that if they did not do something quickly, while they could; the situation soon would be beyond their grasp,” he said.
So that is what the Houghs started. Not just their foundation, but an Island movement. After them it developed — with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and town zoning to manage land use, the land bank, with its publicly-funded land acquisition program, the VCS, with its mission of advocacy and education and legal defense — into what Mr. O’Neill calls “this specialized, well-developed, evolved conservation community.”
It says something about the relationship between the organizations that Monday night’s anniversary celebration will be held on the Allen Farm in Chilmark. Clarissa Allen is on the board of Sheriff’s Meadow, but the land she farms is held in permanent conservation through the land bank.
And the venue says something too about the future direction of Sheriff’s Meadow. As the 350 guests tuck into Allen farm lamb and chicken, Mr. Moore will tell them the future is not just about preserving nature, but about preserving what remains of the Island’s farming heritage.
“I will talk about a 10-year plan for the organization, and a couple of initiatives I have flagged before [in the Gazette],” he said yesterday.
“We are going to work on stewardship of our properties. Some ecological initiatives, creating more trails, opening new land to the public.
“And I’m going to talk about returning agriculture to some areas where we have prime soil. Those are the themes.”
And that pleases Ms. Allen no end.
“It’s a great thing,” she said. “There’s such a wonderful resurgence of interest in Island farming.
“For the first time in generations we have so many young people now who want to farm, but land is prohibitive, so it makes a lot of sense to use some of the conserved properties.”
So that’s the planned substance of the evening. But mostly, the event will be about celebrating turning 50.
Ballywho will play at the reception. There will be cake. Island poet John Maloney has written a poem. And Livingston Taylor will play.
It will be unlike the rather staid events Sheriff’s Meadow has put on for donors in years past. No worthy, windy speaker or organized seating. Instead, something more free. But the message will be delivered a different way: by the view across the Allen Farm’s big meadow, over the grazing animals to the sea. Unobstructed by development now, and forever.