Leonard Baker Athearn Was a Practitioner of the Old Ways

West Tisbury lost one of its most recognizable faces on Tuesday, April 12, when Leonard Athearn died after a short illness. His brother, Elmer (Mike) predeceased him by only two and a half months.

Leonard Baker Athearn was born at home in West Tisbury on June 8, 1918, and other than service in the military during World War II, spent his entire life on Martha's Vineyard. He was the son of Clara Look Athearn and Horace Athearn. A ninth generation Islander, he stuck with gentler traditions of the old ways, never feeling the need for up-to-the-minute equipment and methods.

He continued farming on his family's homestead in Crow Hollow after his father's death in 1954. His teams of oxen were well-known around the Island and always drew a crowd at the Agricultural Fair.

Many friends, family and neighbors enjoyed the taste of fresh milk from his small dairy herd, milked twice daily without the aid of machines. His nephews all learned the art of milking at an early age and looked forward to helping him with milking, haying and other farm chores. Jim Athearn discovered his love of farming from his uncle and continues the tradition today at Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown.

Leonard attended the West Tisbury elementary school and Tisbury high school, graduating in 1937. He took time away from farm life for duty in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He was trained in the states as an airplane mechanic and sent to India to work on C-47s. He was discharged from the military in 1945, having attained the rank of staff sergeant.

He returned to the Island after the war to work at The Sheep Ranch (now Misty Meadows), then as manager at Vineyard Downs (now Rainbow Farm), one of the larger dairy farms selling milk through the Martha's Vineyard Cooperative Dairy during the 1940s and '50s. There they raised 110 acres of feed crops for the cows including silage corn, hay and oats. After the cows were sold in 1961, Leonard continued to raise hay and oats at Vineyard Downs and at Herring Creek Farm in Edgartown.

In his spare time Leonard enjoyed working on his classic Model Ts. He would find parts in fields and barns, do some trading, and make what he couldn't find. Eventually the parts would be a car, a car reminiscent of dirt roads and flat tires, engine-cranking and Sunday drives. He frequently displayed his cars at various events. He was a member of the Antique Power Show.

Many will remember seeing Leonard daily on the front porch of Alley's Store along with his brothers Clif and Mike, trading sage advice and the news of the day as well as reviewing the fine points of local history. He was active in the West Tisbury Fire Department in its infancy and held several town positions over the years, among them fence viewer and veterans graves officer, a position held by his father for many years and now held by his grandnephew, Brian Athearn. Leonard's classic stature struck Stan Murphy who included him in several of his paintings.

He was a man of quiet dignity, yet as quiet as he was, he loved a good time, especially with his family. He never missed a Christmas, July Fourth or wedding celebration and enjoyed hosting when he could. He and his brothers were always quick to share tales of times gone by with other members of his family. He loved music and played the banjo and mandolin in informal musicales. He continued to enjoy farm work on his land until the end of his life. He baled 500 bales of hay one day last summer and always kept his antique tractors and machinery in excellent working condition. Leonard had a lively, dry sense of humor, coming up with a few, well chosen words to quietly make a very funny story out of one of his experiences. To many who knew him, he stood for a plain and simple lifestyle of a previous era; steady work, careful craftsmanship, close to the land and self-sufficient. He was always there.

He is survived by his sister, Louise (Athearn) Kernick; brother Clifton Hillman Athearn; nephews Charles Kernick, James, John and George Athearn; niece Constance (Athearn) Taylor; grandnephews Simon, Daniel and Brian Athearn, Tyler Kernick, Matthew Taylor, and grandnieces Prudence Athearn, Susan Parsons, Kellee Simoes, and Morgan Taylor.

All are welcome to attend a memorial service and celebration of his life on Saturday, April 30, at 2 p.m. at the Agricultural Hall on Panhandle Road in West Tisbury. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Farm Equipment Museum of the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society P.O. Box 80, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568 or the charity of one's choice.