During an afternoon trip to North Tisbury last week, Lieut. Gov. Paul Cellucci and the David H. Smith Foundation revealed an ambitious joint plan for preserving Barnard’s Inn Farm, a historic 60-acre farmstead and home to a distinguished arboretum.
The property, located on State Road near the Island’s new fairground, is considered important for several reasons, including its geological significance and its role in defining the rural character of North Tisbury.
But Barnard’s Inn Farm is perhaps best known among the public for its unique arboretum, home to about 1,500 species of trees and shrubs. Created by Mary Louisa (Polly) Hill, the farm’s current owner and a respected horticulturalist, the arboretum draws a steady stream of visitors year-round.
The David H. Smith Foundation has been interested in the property for about one year. On Friday, officials confirmed that the foundation is raising money to buy the farm, and Mr. Cellucci, flanked by top state environmental officials, promised to support its preservation.
After a tour of the grounds Friday afternoon, state officials said they will spend whatever money is necessary to purchase a conservation restriction. Such a restriction will prevent development on the farm even if ownership someday changes.
The restriction will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but Mr. Cellucci said Mrs. Hill’s gardens deserve the commitment.
“The preservation of Barnard’s Inn Farm will allow visitors to smell the magnolias and stroll among the Stewartia in Polly Hill’s garden for decades to come,” he said. “Her work ethic is an inspiration, not only to young gardeners and horticulturalists, but to all of us who aspire to protect the natural treasures of this state. This is truly a priceless jewel for Martha’s Vineyard and for the commonwealth of Massachusetts.”
Because the restriction will not be bought until after the Smith Foundation has raised funds to buy the farm, Mr. Cellucci likened the state commitment to a challenge grant.
“The success of this joint venture will depend on the continued generosity of people like you,” the lieutenant governor said.
Indeed, the numbers involved are large. The Smith foundation is attempting to raise more than $2 million before buying the property. That sum reflects the purchase price of the property and an initial estimate for maintaining the gardens.
“Anything that’s done there really needs to be done at the highest level to keep Polly Hill’s standards,” said Matthew P. Stackpole, executive director of the Smith foundation. “We really have to make sure that we have the money to do it right.”
Still, the arboretum is only part of the preservation effort. There are three reasons the land is important, Mr. Stackpole said.
First, Barnard’s Inn Farm has an unusual geology. The farmscape features both the plains geology characteristic of the down-Island towns, and the hilly, rocky geology of the up-Island region. In fact, the farm sits on the border where these two geological regions meet. The differing landscapes were formed thousands of years ago by a glacier which ended its migration on the middle of the Vineyard, across what is now the Barnard’s Inn Farm.
Second, preservation of the farm is considered a critical step for preserving the rural character of West Tisbury. The farm is “in an area where, if there are significant changes, it would have a significant impact on the rural feel of West Tisbury,” Mr. Stackpole said.
He noted that if the foundation succeeds in acquiring the land, the farm will link other protected areas. Barnard’s Inn Farm is bordered by several significant preservation lands to the west, such as Frances Wood Preserve, and to the east, such as the state forest. The farm could become part of a greenbelt of sorts.
The third factor, of course, is Mrs. Hill’s arboretum. The arboretum covers about 20 acres and “is a national treasure,” Mr. Stackpole said.
Polly Hill began her work about 40 years ago, after her mother died, leaving Mrs. Hill with the responsibility of maintaining Barnard’s Inn Farm. At the age of 49, Mrs. Hill began a gardening career that was both academic and practical. At Barnard’s Inn Farm, she planted not only native Vineyard plants, but plants from all over the world. She found success with many Japanese plants and also with flora not frequently seen in northern climates, such as magnolia trees, eucalyptus and camellias.
Today, Mrs. Hill’s arboretum is noted for its diversity and design. Mrs. Hill herself is highly regarded among professional horticulturalists. She has developed several new plant hybrids, some of which are featured at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum and at the Winterthur Museum and Gardens. She has enrolled more than 100 new plant species in a national register, and she has been honored by horticulture societies many times over the past four decades.
Her arboretum has always been open to the public with two rules: no touching the plants and no dogs. If all goes according to plan, the garden will remain as it is now. The Smith foundation will continue to nurture Mrs. Hill’s professional relationships with other arboretums, but her gardens will remain independent, Mr. Stackpole said.
Once the foundation has bought the property, the state will provide an additional layer of protection. By purchasing a conservation restriction, the state will buy the development rights of the property from the foundation. In essence, the state will buy the rights to place a provision in the deed that will permanently prohibit development of the farm.
Mr. Cellucci and Trudy Coxe, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, were made more certain of their commitment after a tour of the arboretum Friday.
The two admired Mrs. Hill’s magnolia trees, a Stewartia tree with cinnamon red bark and a rhododendron indumentum, which has leaves with velvety backs.
Mr. Cellucci and Miss Coxe complimented the garden, and in turn, Mrs. Hill thanked them for their interest.
“I can’t believe it,” said Mrs. Hill, 89. “I thank you all. Let’s just take it from here and continue on. No garden is worth anything in the first generation.”
This is not the first time the state and the David H. Smith Foundation have joined forces. Both gave sizable sums last year to purchase and preserve the morainal heathlands surrounding Moshup Trail in Gay Head. The state donated $500,000 to the effort. The Smith foundation was also a key supporter of the effort. The foundation, named for Dr. David Smith, a prominent medical researcher and West Tisbury landowner, is about five years old and is devoted to environmental initiatives on the Vineyard and elsewhere.
Similarly, this is not the first time Mrs. Hill has worked with conservationists. In 1988, Mrs. Hill and her husband Julian, who died this year, sold 18.4 acres of their land at a price well below market value to Island conservationists. The land was sold for $310,000 to the Martha’s Vineyard Lank Bank. The purchase was important because the land surrounds the Mill Brook, a body of water that feeds the Tisbury Great Pond.
Now, Island conservationists are offering praise for the Barnard’s Inn Farm plan.
“This is a huge achievement for conservation on the Island, to hear this announcement from Polly and those gathered,” said Brendan O’Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society. “It’s an amazing project.”
Mr. Stackpole said he hopes others will be enthusiastic, too, because the project is really just getting off the ground.
“This is really the beginning,” he said. “It’s such a wonderful opportunity, and it means so much to a lot of people to have it work.”