Promises to Keep

Cape Cod Life  /  September/October 2021 /

Writer: Chris White / Photographer: Tyler Fields 

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.

Harvard University transferred the trust to the Animal Rescue League of Boston in 1934 as the provisions of the will did not align with the school’s curriculum. Under the terms of the will, the Animal League of Boston established a free summer school on Amrita to train teachers in humane work. The league used Island Haven for conferences and constructed buildings on the mainland for educational purposes. Animal lovers and advocates came to Amrita from all over the United States. A free summer school/camp for children was also established. Over time, the island’s properties became too expensive to maintain so the property was divided up and sold. The league continued to operate the school for children on the mainland where they learned about animal care, dog obedience, pet shows, nature study and wood-working. The school was closed in 2007.”

And this is where the story takes its turn to the dark side. As the Animal Rescue League ceased to fulfill its non-profit mission, the Town of Bourne required that the organization begin paying taxes on the property in the ARLB trust. The buildings of the summer camp were shuttered, abandoned, and allowed to deteriorate. According to Bourne Conservation Trust president Steve Ballentine, “Groups had tried to talk with them about using or renting the property for projects with the Oceanographic Institute and the Coalition for Buzzards Bay, but the ARLB wouldn’t budge. We as an organization would write to them to express interest in the outcome of the place—interest in purchase or some sort of charitable use. Because of the past history we had established, we expected them to tell us if they planned to sell.” Instead, the Baxendale property languished, first in the courts from 2007-2009, when the town prevailed in its desire to collect taxes, then as unused space. Legal battles continued in Boston. As George Seaver of The Friends of the Baxendale Legacy wrote in a letter to the Cape Cod Times, an appellate court ruling on August 12, 2020 stated that: “The ARLB did not offer any evidence that it had been maintaining the parcel as conservation land or even as refuges for animals. The evidence instead was that the ARLB only periodically addressed routine maintenance issues on the parcels and exclude the public through no trespassing signs. There was simply no evidence that the ARLB was pursuing funding or taking any other step to reopen the summer camp.”

Rather than uphold its mission and honor the stipulations of the Baxendales’ will, the ARLB quietly used the legal system to change the rules, remove any encumbrances on the property, and to sell 21 acres of land to a private developer. “It was weird how this thing happened,” Ballentine muses. “There was no word from them, and we had written to them as recently as February 2021 with no response. After we started seeing survey flags go up, we learned they had sold. There had been no communication from the ARLB, but they’d been in the process of liquidating from December of 2020. The only word came when a plan for development went before the planning board for an 8-lot subdivision on Megansett Road. This was the first notice to the village, the town, and everyone was in an uproar.” And these eight lots on the woodland, stream, and vernal pools were to be just the beginning. A second phase is anticipated on the remaining ten acres of woodland, extending back to the railroad tracks, which could potentially include higher density housing such as townhomes and condominiums. 

Aerial view of Baxendale Woods, Amrita Island and Squeteague Harbor.

While Cataumet villagers and other concerned residents organized, petitioned, and protested against the emotionally charged land deal, Steve Ballentine, along with the BCT, decided to speak directly with the new owner. 

“I met with Michael Intoccia and made it clear that people in Cataumet were very upset and felt betrayed, as a result of the sale of these sensitive properties. There was universal sentiment that the property was and should be protected. There is a great deal of emotion involved, and the opposition to any development plan would only increase. We were very fortunate that he agreed to work with us; he didn’t have to, and he certainly could have done better otherwise, financially.” Intoccia graciously agreed to sell the full 18-acre parcel of Baxendale Woods to the BCT, and he will keep a three-acre piece across the road, on the shores of Squeteague Harbor overlooking Amrita Island. This is where most of the old summer camp buildings still stand, and the future site for his family’s home. Bourne Conservation Trust is deeply grateful to Intoccia for the agreement. Says Ballentine, “As soon as I had the full purchase and sale, we went public and have been in full fundraising mode since July 4th. We’ve been trying to get the word out, talking to people, trying for the broadest public appeal.” And while the ARLB sale came as a surprise to Cataumet and Bourne, the timing may actually have been fortuitous. As the BCT winter newsletter points out, “There has been a big lesson learned from this pandemic: the importance of open space. With the quarantining and social distancing rules, people have been flocking to places where they can safely get out of the house, into fresh air and nature. The BCT trails are the perfect escape, and they have never been busier.” 

Photo by Tyler Fields

The Friends of the Baxendale Legacy released a video entitled Safe From Snares, in which filmmaker Laura Taft states, “The Baxendales donated their entire fortune in exchange for a promise. The promises have not been kept. We wish the Animal Rescue League would go back to fulfilling the Baxendales’ wishes—or give the remaining trust to somebody who will.” The time is now to help the Bourne Conservation Trust resuscitate that promise, to help them meet their goal of raising $3 million dollars before their October deadline, and to bring what’s hopefully the final act in this drama to a happy conclusion. In the words of Thomas Baxendale: “We depend on our heartfelt prayer and the prayer of each friend assembled here with us today that our good All Father may bless both bridge and island to all that is highest and best in life for all its future—faithfully yours as voices of the past.”

Chris White is a freelance writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.

To learn more about the Bourne Conservation Trust’s mission or to donate by the October 2021 deadline, visit https://www.bourneconservationtrust.org.

Chris White

Chris White is a frequent writer for Cape Cod Life Publications and has written on topics ranging from the history of Smith’s Tavern on Wellfleet Island to the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria off Nantucket. Chris also teaches English at Tabor Academy in Marion.