For the Creatures of the Earth - Cape Cod LIFE Publications

For the Creatures of the Earth

When Thomas A. Baxendale and his wife purchased Amrita Island in the late 1890s, they must have envisioned erecting their own little principality. Crossing the stone-pillared bridge to the island, one half expects to find a medieval fortress on the other side. The ivy-covered towers more closely resemble the entrance to an English castle than the gateway to an island on Buzzards Bay in Cataumet. The ivy hides inscriptions that allude to the island’s history. At the first pillar on the left of the bridge, a panel reads “Amrita Island, 1893” and the name “Baxendale,” while the right-side pillar bears a carving of a great blue heron and the declaration, “Safe from Snares.” The Baxendales created their own version of a kingdom at the turn of the century, but their shared love for wildlife meant that the island was, and hopefully always will be, a safe domain for the area’s birds and animals.

At the island’s tip stands the mansion-like home the Baxendales built more than a century ago and named Island Haven. The eccentricities of Mr. Baxendale and the expert craftsmanship of a Portuguese mason, Manuel Brazil, are evident in the architecture of the Moorish-style house and the surrounding properties. Baxendale designed Island Haven after traveling with his wife throughout the Middle East and Europe. The architecture he admired abroad influenced the design of the structures on the island, including the stone bridge, four other homes named Stonehenge, Sorrento, Castle le Mere, and Guardian, a mausoleum where he, his wife, and their minis- ter are buried, three bathing pavilions, a gazebo, and smaller cottages. Standing at the crest of the island and overlooking Buzzards Bay, Amrita seems the perfect name for the island. Of Sanskrit origin, amrita is the word for an ambrosia the Hindu gods created. When the gods drank the “youth renewing water,” they supposedly achieved immortality.

Although the Baxendales had no children of their own, they were rarely alone on the island and were often accompanied by their minister and physician, visited by academics, and always surrounded by the animals they adored. Mr. Baxendale apparently built the additional houses on the island with the intent of inviting professors from Harvard University to come and tutor him in a variety of subjects. Although he traveled extensively and was highly respected in business and civic circles, Baxendale never received any formal education. Coming to the United States from England as an orphan, he worked in a shoe factory in Brockton, Massachusetts. It was in Brockton that he invented the box-toe shoe—a predecessor of the steel-toed boot—which made his fortune.

After the death of her husband in 1914, Mrs. Baxendale was deeply concerned about the welfare of children and animals and established the Baxendale Foundation to further humane education. The will stipulated that Island Haven, Amrita Island, and some adjacent property on the mainland be left to Harvard University. Mrs. Baxendale, who died in 1926, detailed the conditions of the couples’ bequest, which asked Harvard to preserve the island and adjacent mainland property as a permanent Baxendale memorial and establish a free summer institute for the promotion of education in child and animal protection. Mrs. Baxendale was a longtime president of the Brockton Humane Society and was a close friend and associate of Anne Harris Smith, the founder of the Animal Rescue League of Boston.

Finding the provisions of the will cumbersome and inappropriate for its curriculum, Harvard transferred the trust to the Animal Rescue League of Boston in 1934. The league gladly accepted the trusteeship and continued the work the Baxendales had begun with the establishment of the Baxendale Foundation. Carlton E. Buttrick president of the Animal Rescue League of Boston for 28 years, attended many of the conferences. “People concerned about animals came from all over the U.S. to Amrita,” Buttrick recalled in an earlier Cape Cod Life story on the Baxendales. “All the bedrooms in the summer homes were rented out and we conducted seminars and meetings during the days, sometimes out on the lawns. By holding these seminars, we were carrying out the wishes of Mrs. Baxendale.”

The Animal Rescue League, under the terms of the will, established a free summer school for the training of public and private school teachers in humane work on the island. For a while the island home was used by the league for conferences, with some of the buildings on the island and the mainland being used for educational purposes. A summer school for younger children was also established. The Baxendale Foundation’s mission is described in an article “Our Four-footed Friends,” a 1944 publication of the foundation and the Animal Rescue League. The foundation wished to, “undertake a human educational program on a broader scale than has ever been visualized . . . this and other nearby property was bequeathed in trust to Harvard University upon condition that it be maintained as a permanent Baxendale memorial, and that a free summer institute be established for the promotion of human education.”

In about 1951, the school was moved from the island to the mainland, into two farm-style buildings. Eventually, the island’s properties became too expensive for the Animal Rescue League to maintain, and the land on the island was divided and sold. The homes are now privately owned, but the mausoleum on the island, the school buildings on the mainland, and the land beneath each is still owned by the trust.

Just over the stone bridge on a scenic spread of nearly 20 acres, the Animal Rescue League continued to run a summer camp for inner city children between the ages of seven and 14 for many years, where they learned animal care, dog obedience, pet shows, nature study, and woodworking. The camp ran until the summer of 2007.

With the closing of the summer camp, little remains of the Baxendales’ legacy. As the result of rumors that have been heard locally about the possible development of the remaining property, a small group of interested local citizens from nearby Cataumet and Megansett neighborhoods has been created called The Friends of the Baxendale Legacy. The group hopes to help preserve the Baxendales’ intent and also protect an invaluable educational and environmental resource treasured by many on Cape Cod and beyond.