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Surf & Safari

A storied sportsmen’s club on the Vineyard is re-imagined to provide adventure for a new generation.

Around the turn of the 20th century, hunting or “gunning” clubs gained popularity amongst the titans of the gilded age, industrialists who had amassed fortunes that demanded new hobbies, lifestyles, repositories for their wealth. In many ways, these clubs tied in with the popularity of President Theodore Roosevelt, whose wide appeal drew in part upon his reputation as a frontiersman and a big game hunter, but these organizations also shared his naturalist and conservationist values. The oldest federal conservation agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was established in 1871, which coincided with a philosophical change amongst hunters and fisherman that would develop into a partnership between “sporting” and conserving the land and wildlife for future generations. Hunt clubs sprang up in the Adirondacks, around Boston in towns like Wenham, and they also took root on the Cape and Islands. On Martha’s Vineyard, from 1903 to about 1920, a handful of such hunting and gunning clubs acquired so much combined property that they occupied nearly every acre of land on the south coast of the island between Oyster Pond to the east and Tisbury Great Pond to the west.

While visitors hunted a variety of game, the clubs’ proximity to both the Atlantic and the island’s great ponds led to their particular renown as destinations for hunting waterfowl. According the Vineyard Gazette, the clubs functioned as “cherished refuges for their members, not only for the gunning but also for the beauty and bracing nature of the whole terrain among the ponds and along the ocean beaches.” The clubs also developed rivalries amongst each other, and members of the organizations delighted in playing pranks, even “blowing cigar smoke across property lines to scare away the ducks.” The heyday of the clubs crested in the 1920s, but the majority of the land has remained essentially undeveloped ever since. As some of the more enthusiastic club members reached old age, and the organizations declined in popularity, private owners bought and preserved much of the land for themselves, but over 600 acres were donated to the Long Point Wildlife Refuge, now owned and managed by The Trustees of Reservations. 

Even today, the entirety of the area formerly occupied by the clubs remains incredibly sparsely populated. It was precisely for the communion with nature and the gifts of seclusion that one family decided to purchase land upon which the buildings of a former club once stood, and their subsequent transformation of the site is both stunningly modern and absolutely in keeping with the historical foundations upon which the new home has been built. With the help of Maryann Thompson Architects and Bannon Custom Builders, the owners have created an oasis steeped in nature.

In some ways, the philosophy driving the hunting clubs was in keeping with the very roots of the land itself. For thousands of years, the forests and lands on and around the Vineyard’s south shore were home to Wampanoag People, who established settlements and farms that made use of the area’s natural resources. Ecologist Lloyd Raleigh explains the area’s history in an article for The Trustees of Reservations, published in 2000; he notes that even today, the Long Point Wildlife Refuge continues to employ a number of methods of Native land stewardship in their current “habitat management practices: prescribed burning, girdling, and clearing, for example.” Soon after British colonists arrived, Thomas Mayhew “purchased” all of Martha’s Vineyard in 1641 from two separate charter holders: Sir Fernando Gorges and William Alexander, Earl of Scotland. Thirty-two years later, Simon Athearn, a former servant boy, bought much of what is today known as Tisbury and West Tisbury, but he did so without approval from Mayhew. This led to bitter land disputes, but Athearn would eventually prevail, and the land passed to his descendents, who established farms throughout the area. At one point, Simon Athearn “grazed 302 sheep, 12 cows, two pair of oxen, six steers, two heifers, a bull, eight yearlings, six swine, and one mare,” according probate court records from Dukes County Courthouse.

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