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Promises to Keep

The Bourne Conservation Trust, the people of Cataumet, and local wildlife need everyone’s help to save an important piece of natural habitat on the shores of Squeteague Harbor, abutting Amrita Island. Not only were these 18 acres set aside to provide a home for wild animals and to preserve the beauty of the area, broken promises and legal machinations betrayed the wishes of the Baxendale family, who donated the land with specific stipulations in their last will and testament. The Bourne Conservation Trust is in a rather unique position with the new owner of the land planning to fulfill some of the Baxendales’ wishes, but time is of the essence; BCT must complete its drive to raise $3 million by this October. Through the generosity of the community and the magnanimity of an anonymous donor who has established a one-for-one matching grant up to $500,000, the effort is well underway, but this last stretch is critical—and an incredible opportunity to do what’s right for the community, to correct wrongs wrought by previous owners, and to uphold promises that date back nearly a century.

Photo by Tyler Fields

Humans exist in a paradox where they seem to recognize that land is important, and yet history is rife with conflict and broken agreements over land. The history of Cape Cod abounds with such stories, going back to the first European settlements. In the development booms of the late 20th century, it was relatively commonplace to hear tales of shady deals that countervened the desires of previous land owners, of legal wranglings that undid efforts to preserve nature and wild spaces. Although conservation land trusts have existed in the US since the Trustees of Reservations was founded in 1891, they became more common and widespread in the 1980’s. According to Wikipedia, “The number of land trusts steadily increased in the United States, with most forming in the late 20th century.” The Bourne Conservation Trust was part of this growing movement, and its website explains its beginnings:  “In 1980, during the height of Cape Cod’s building boom, a small group of residents led by Philip DeNormandie met with the idea of preserving some of the remaining large tracts of land and/or of encouraging thoughtful conservative development in the town of Bourne. Thus, the Bourne Conservation Trust (BCT) was formed; a private, nonprofit, tax-exempt organization, broad-based in its support, town-wide in its effort, and staffed by volunteers…. Ours is a straight-line response: buy parcels of land, keep them in their natural state, and make most areas available for the pleasure of all.”

The story of Baxendale Woods could make for a movie that would resonate at film festivals such as Sundance or TIFF, and the Bourne Conservation Trust is hoping that you will help write its happy ending. According to the group of community activists called The Friends of the Baxendale Legacy, Thomas Baxendale rose to fortune and fame by inventing the “box-toed” shoe, a precursor to the steel-toed workboot. Esther Baxendale was an animal lover who served as the longtime president of the Brockton Humane Society; she was also fast friends with Anne Harris Smith, founder of the Animal Rescue League of Boston. According to The Friends of the Baxendale Legacy, “The Baxendales loved music, art, travel, nature and animal and bird life. They were concerned with child welfare and educating children about nature and animals. Some Cape Codders believed the Baxendales possessed a slightly ‘mystic’ side.” On a little island a stone’s throw from the mainland of Cataumet and near the mouth of Squeteague Harbor, the Baxendales created their version of Xanadu. They constructed a mansion in the style of a Moorish villa, which they named Island Haven, and they built four other homes for their minister, their doctor, and guests—most often visiting Harvard professors. They built a stone entrance bridge that belongs in an English castle and an Egyptian-style mausoleum that bears the phrase, “Love Is Eternal.” Both Thomas and Esther were laid to rest in the mausoleum, as was their minister. On one pillar of the stone bridge is an inscription that reads “Amrita 1893,” while a second pillar holds a stone plaque with a carving of a great blue heron and the family’s motto: “Safe from Snares.” Over the years, they would add four more “cottages” as Amrita Island evolved into an intellectual/educational retreat. In addition to the island itself, the Baxendales’ also owned Lawrence Island, on the west side of the harbor bordering Buzzards Bay and 26 acres on the mainland. Cape Cod Life noted in a 2010 article that “Amrita is the Sanskrit word for an ambrosia that the Hindu gods created. When the gods drank the ‘youth renewing water’ they supposedly achieved immortality.” Perhaps ironically, the last wish of the Baxendales was to create a type of immortality for Amrita Island and its attendant lands; the Bourne Conservation Trust seeks to breathe life into this dream once again. 

The Baxendale mansion, Island Haven. Photo courtesy of Bob Taft.

As The Friends of the Baxendale Legacy reports, “After Thomas’ death in 1914, Esther established the Baxendale Foundation to further the humane education of animals and children, and to preserve the natural habitat of Amrita Island and surrounding properties…. Upon her death, Mrs. Baxendale left a detailed will stipulating that Amrita and Lawrence Islands, and the surrounding properties, be left to Harvard University.

The will instructed:

1. That Amrita Island property be the seat of the foundation;

2. That the main purpose of the foundation is educational;

3. That the principal subject of education should be the relationship between human and animal life, particularly the preservation of wild birds and animals through human kindness.

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