Ann Bonner Hopkins of West Tisbury, mentor to generations of Vineyard farmers, died Sept. 7 at Wampeche, her hilltop Christiantown farm, after a brief illness. She was 70.
Born in Cambridge, she was a daughter of the late A. Lawrence Hopkins, a Boston banker, and Mary Bonner Hopkins, who first came to the Vineyard in the 1920s as residents at Barn House, a cooperative summer colony of eclectics - writers and artists, doctors and judges and busnessmen - who established themselves in an old Chilmark farm just off the South Road. There, on the rolling Chilmark hills beside the Allen Farm, Ann spent many happy Island summers. Allen Farm sheep grazed on Barn House lands and the little girl and the woolly sheep soon were fast friends. When Roger Allen was haying, Ann, if she was on the Vineyard, was sure to be at his side.
But winters, she was doing studious things - attending the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, the Putney School in Vermont and Buckingham School in Cambridge, from which she was graduated in 1950. She went on to Radcliffe College where she majored in history and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year. She was graduated from Radcliffe magna cum laude in 1954. After graduation, she completed a teacher training course at Shady Hill and did graduate work in England at the University of London. When she returned home, it was to become executive assistant to the late Prof. Howard Mumford Jones in the Harvard English department.
But the love of fields and sheep nurtured in those Chilmark summers could not be displaced by any amount of academic learning. In the early 1960s, she moved year-round to West Tisbury, renting the Davis House from the late Everett and Jane Whiting. On the Whiting Farm, there were animals aplenty for her, as well as warm, intelligent, stimulating human companionship. That was just the kind of life Ann Hopkins sought.
She also, in those early Island years, served as the late Lillian Hellman's private secretary. Later, at various times, she sold real estate, tutored Latin and worked as a paralegal. She was a member, too, in the 1960s, of the West Tisbury finance committee and served, for a year, as town clerk and registrar.
Increasingly, however, her interest had been turning to having a farm of her own, and in 1963 she bought 18 acres at the end of the Christiantown Road in North Tisbury. The land she bought was heavily overgrown and contained no buildings except an old stone house foundation set into a south-facing hill. The next year, she built her own house nearby - doing much of the carpentry work herself. She set her home into the hill, as the old one had been, so she would have passive solar heating. To prepare the land for her house, she had followed the advice of Island builder Alan Miller, who urged her to use goats and sheep to clear the brush from the land. So it was that she acquired her first animals.
Almost all of her animals were named - sometimes with literary names, sometimes with silly ones. She called two of her pigs Ham and Cheese so that, in winter, when it came time to eat them, she could kid herself into not feeling so badly about consuming them. Along with the pigs she had from time to time, and the sheep and goats (always a favorite with her for their sense of humor), she had Mario the burro, who protected the sheep from marauding dogs. There were border collies as well, to herd the sheep. Their forebear came from Ron and Sue Silva's Arrowhead Farm. And there was a series of orange barn cats and of other-color barn cats that transformed themselves into house cats.
To the rainwater pond across from her barn, she welcomed wild fowl of all sorts - mallards and Canada geese - notably a Canada goose she named Jeffrey that refused ever to leave. She also raised chickens and barnyard geese and Muscovy ducks and willingly accepted virtually all abandoned birds and animals. Many came to her from her good friend Gus Ben David of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary whenever he had what Ann called a "critter" that needed a home. "She was one of the last of the real Island farmers," he says. "She was an individual of real character of the kind you don't see anymore."
Not only birds and animals in need were welcomed at Wampeche. Many a young person finding his way after high school or college was offered food and shelter in exchange for doing farm chores. Although she had little and lived frugally, she was known for her generosity. She would mow fields for friends who were not well off either and forget to send a bill, When, in recent years, she sold her key to the Quansoo Beach, she promptly used some of the money from the sale to help a friend in need to buy a piece of land. She enthusiastically welcomed visits from children whose parents took them to see her animals and always tried - remembering her teacher training - to impart a little knowledge about the animals to the children.
Virtually no one on the Island who decided to raise sheep could have done without her. She would lend out her ram. She was ready at any time of day or night to direct a budding shepherd trying to assist in the birth of a lamb. If the owner reported that the ewe was grinding her teeth, Ann would knowledgeably reply, "Well, that's a high-pitched scream in human terms," and say what needed to be done to alleviate the pain. Even Island veterinarians called her for advice.
Always lean and rangy, she tended to dress in blue jeans and faded over-sized men's shirts and wore a pith helmet to protect her from the sun. For awhile, she had a long braid down her back, but her back was injured by a horse and she never could do the braiding easily afterward, so she kept her hair short. But Clarissa Allen remembers how natty she looked in a smart suit when she appeared once at a Boston land court hearing in Clarissa's behalf.
Regardless of her appearance, the moment she opened her mouth, it was a superbly educated patrician who spoke. Her accent was Boston Brahmin, but when she answered the phone it was with a questioning "Yey-ah?"
Although she had a series of cars and trucks, she rarely drove them, for the cost and bother of registering and insuring them and renewing her driver's license was more than she wanted to deal with. When going to the market, she would drive to the end of the Christiantown Road, park her car at her friend Susan Fieldsmith's and walk the rest of the way. In recent years, she had attended classes about human nature that Susan taught and Ann's sharp wit and erudition made her a favorite in the group.
She rarely went off-Island but when, a half-dozen years ago, she was invited to Washington state, to the bat mitzvah of Alexis Rabinowitz, daughter of her neighbors, Eric and Caroline Rabinowitz, she flew out with great excitement and found she thoroughly enjoyed herself.
She read indefatigably - everything from T.S. Eliot to Thornton Wilder to Farley Mowat to Agatha Christie. She particularly enjoyed English mystery stories. She did the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle each week and was never stumped by anything but the names of rock stars. When friends wanted to give her a gift they knew she would like, it would be a crossword puzzle book.
In the same way that she liked reading stories, she liked telling them and did so with great flair - tales of the old Island, tales of her forebears. A particular favorite was of a 19th-century seagoing ancestor who, as a sick, feverish cabin boy, was saved from drowning by his African gray parrot. The bird pecked him on the ear to rouse him from sleep after the ship had foundered off Nantucket. Another, recounted to her Vermont sheep shearer, Andy Rice, when he was on a recent Island visit, was about her mother, whose hearing aid began to pick up strange pulsing signals during World War II from an experimental radar station at Peaked Hill. When Mary Hopkins called the station to report the interference, the Army sent an unmarked car to drive her around the Vineyard to find out where else her hearing aid got the strange signals. Just last month, Ann had begun remembering old Vineyard times for Linsey Lee's oral Island history. But it was far more than Island lore, organic farming and sheep raising about which Ann could discourse. Literature, politics and ancient history were also topics of thoughtful discussion at Wampeche.
Tom and Catherine Vogel of West Tisbury, with whom she often exchanged information on chicken raising, call her "the Island's most widely loved recluse."
At lambing time last spring, she came down with what seemed to be a persistent case of pneumonia. After some months, it was determined that it was an advanced stage of lung cancer. She had long been a heavy smoker. Thanks to the help of many friends, she was able to spend her last days at home and died peacefully, surrounded by family and friends. Three of those friends, Beth McCormick, M.L Healy and Barbara Allen, will continue to operate Wampeche, making available, as always, its products.
Ann is survived by a nephew, Samuel Hopkins of West Tisbury, his wife Sue, and their children Kevin, Alice and Benjamin; two nieces, Mary of Somerville and Elizabeth of Oak Bluffs and their mother, Anne Moser Hopkins of Kent, Ohio. Ann is also survived by her sister in law, Elaine Hopkins of Cleveland, Ohio, and Elaine's daughter, Jessica Ancker of New York city. Ann's brother, Amos, predeceased her.
A memorial service will be held at the farm at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 28. Donations in her memory may be made to Hospice of Martha's Vineyard.