Farm Talk

From a Spring, 1948 Gazette:

Since 1908 Frank Norton has lived and worked on Buttonwood Farm, one of the most beautifully situated farms on the Island. In the Lambert’s Cove section of West Tisbury, its rolling acres are bordered by the rocky spines of stone fences and are hemmed in by the neighboring woods. The fields of the farm are emerald green, though the adjacent land is sere and brown, where tracts of pasture cleared long ago have been allowed to go to seed. “This shows the advantage of working the land,” said Mr. Norton, and he added that just the presence of a few cows on a pasture will maintain the fecundity of the ground. On his hayland Mr. Norton uses nothing but animal dressing as fertilizer, yet grows a crop of hay sufficient to take care of the herd of 25 cows.

For the major part of the direction of the farm Frank Norton relies on his son, Robert, whose earliest memories are of coming to Buttonwood Farm. He recalls being bundled in a wagon, and looking back at the cows which came plodding after. These childhood memories are strong, even though he was only three and the whole event took place 40 years ago. For him it was an important moving day, for his roots are deep in the soil and he never wanted to leave it or work anywhere else.

For Frank Norton the most wonderful thing about the farm is its water supply. He turned on a tap in the milk room and under a rapid flow a milk bottle filled in a matter of seconds. Holding the bottle up to the light, one could see that except for a few swirling bubbles, the water was crystalline and clear as air.

“We had a man come in and try to find water on the place, Mr. Norton said. “He poked around with one of those forked sticks, and told us where to dig, but we never found water. I knew about the spring back on the hillside, and from there we ran a pipe 2,000 feet to the farm. Now I think there is no better water on the Island.” There is no need to pump the water, and it rushes out of the tap with great force, both summer and winter. The reason this abundance pleases Mr. Norton is that he considers it to be one of the chief ingredients in the diet of his cows. “They can’t seem to get too much of it,” he said, “and will drink four or five buckets at a time.”

The herd is composed chiefly of Guernseys, though some of them show signs of Jersey or Ayrshire parentage. Perhaps the oldest cow on the Island is the 15-year-old matriarch of the herd. She is still hale, and regards the passing scene with an eye almost as bright as any of her granddaughters. At full strength the herd numbers eighteen milking cows, which send about 200 quarts of milk a day to the co-op dairy.

Under the high peaked roof of the barn is a spacious loft for storing hay. Last year for the first time the Nortons made use of a rented baling machine and they consider that the baled hay was a great success, both for the ease of handling the hay and the convenience of storage. Frank Norton broke open one of the bales and showed that the hay was still fresh and had a sweet pasture smell to it. “It was cured just about right,” he said. Robert Norton said that he thought that barn-cured hay was probably the best of all, and offered a great deal of promise for handling hay on the Vineyard. The fact that it would cost $11 to get a ton of hay from New Bedford is another reason he is happy that he has grown enough hay to fill his own demands. He considers that because of the steep freight rates, the difference between profit and loss in Island dairy farming can be reckoned in whether or not a farmer raises his own hay.

There are 60 acres of cultivated field and pasture on the farm, and 40 acres of woodland, plus the land which is rented or borrowed from neighbors. It is a wise policy of Robert Norton’s to rotate his pasture and cropland. Every five years he breaks his pasture and seeds it in corn or other crops before replanting it in hay and clover.

Frank Norton says that he bought the farm in inches. Although he took it in one piece, it was years before he was able to make the last payment. He bought it forty years ago from the son of the Congregational minister in West Tisbury, and has never regretted the purchase.

When asked if it would be possible to write a story about the farm, Frank Norton said, “That would be fine, only don’t spread it on too thick,” and then went on to tell about a farmer who asked a real estate agent to sell his farm. When the ad appeared in the newspaper giving a luscious description of the place, the farmer was so impressed that he felt it would be a shame to sell such a splendid farm. He took down the “for sale” signs and continued living there himself.

But no such fable could apply to Buttonwood Farm. The land is not for sale, and no description which they could ever read of their place would convince the Nortons that the farm is one bit better than it really is.

Compiled by Cynthia Meisner