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Pilot Hill Farm History

(Content courtesy Rob Kendall)

Columbus Iselin and Pilot Hill Farm

By Patricia Carlet, Pilot Hill Farm Association Historian, 2004

Columbus O'Donnell Iselin II, former owner of what we know as Pilot Hill Farm, and father of Marie Doebler, was born on September 25, 1904, in his family's summer home in New Rochelle, New York. He entered Harvard in 1922 planning to major in mathematics because he believed that his destiny lay in banking. His choice of a major, he claimed in later years, left him with much spare time, some of which he spent reading in the Widener library. This led him to meet Henry B. Bigelow, one of Harvard's great marine biologists, and soon all thoughts of banking for Iselin were left far behind.

Bigilow, a generous yet sophisticated man, was a shrewd judge of other men and their potentials. As later events showed, he saw in young Columbus the qualities of leadership, intelligence and dedication he needed for a great project that he had in mind. Six feet, four inches in height, straight and slim, with a classic profile and the quick strength of a sailor, Columbus was a man who never, in the years to come, thought of himself as a professional scientist. Every summer during his college years, and afterwards until 1930, Columbus went on long cruises Down-East, or elsewhere in the Atlantic, usually on a different boat each year. He was always accompanied by his boyhood friend, Terry Keogh, a wildly eloquent Irishman who was a magnificent seaman but who had developed an overwhelming thirst at an early age. In later years Columbus revealed an endless stock of sea stories, most of which centered around Keogh's drunken exploits.

Terry Keogh's cousin was Eleanor Emmet Lapsley, who was always called Nora. Nora, a beautiful woman, was as accomplished a horsewoman as was Columbus an accomplished sailor. She had known Columbus since she was a little girl in New Rochelle. They met again in 1927, married in 1929, and during the next two decades they had five children - two boys and three girls.

In 1930 Bigilow's great dream became a reality - the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was established with a three million dollar endowment from The Rockefeller Foundation. Bigilow became its first Director, and he appointed Columbus as his General Assistant. Soon afterwards, Columbus and Nora bought a 225 acre property at Chappaquansett on Martha's Vineyard (which we know as Pilot Hill Farm), where they lived for most of the next thirty-seven years. They operated it as a working dairy farm; like many sailors Columbus became an enthusiastic and competent farmer. He commuted to Woods Hole each working day, in good weather and bad, on a 40 foot launch, aptly named "Risk".

Throughout Columbus' lifetime, he was and remained an amateur of a 19th century kind. He loved the sea in all its complexity, unpredictability and grandeur, and he loved to study the ocean. Yet he believed for all of his life that oceanography was a primitive science which demanded from its practitioners devotion, hard work, and a seeing eye - but not necessarily a background of professional, scientific training. It is interesting to note that his closest colleagues in his own research were inspired amateurs who began work at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution as technicians or deckhands.

Iselin Family History

As told by Nonie Iselin to Patricia Carlet

Originally we lived in several houses in the Falmouth area, but my parents began to feel socially restricted, because they saw basically the same people my father worked with at WHOI. In addition there were few activities and poor transportation on the Cape in 1930. They looked across the sound to the Vineyard and since my father had grown up on Long Island Sound, and was familiar with many types of boats, he didn't feel that commuting by boat to work would be much of a problem. Because of the commute element, our parents focused their search for a house on the North Shore, directly across from Woods Hole.

When they found Pilot Hill, the original farm had been put together by Mary and Avery Guerin. It included three farms; the main house and area around it which is now owned by the Browns, another area with an old foundation in the pasture where the big clump of locust trees grows, and a third area we've never been able to locate. Pilot Hill did not initially include the caretaker's cottage. That was a separate purchase. The farm was purchased in 1933, but we had to wait a year before moving in because of extensive restoration work that had to be done.

Mr. Guerin was probably dead at this time because I recall no talk about him. Mary Guerin went on to operate the Mary Guerin Farm for many years. This farm was located on land just after the main bridge on the way to Oak Bluffs. All of these buildings were torn down when the town purchased this area. The cottage and the fifteen acres along the left side of the road into Pilot hill had been owned by the late Albert O. Fisher, the Father or Grandfather of several Fishers living in Chilmark and West Tisbury. They had all left this Lambert's Cove Road property for Chilmark land by the time my parents arrived. Not long after moving we bought this piece and completed Pilot Hill Farm. The cottage was closed up and we did not open and use it for several years.

The main house was renovated and improved by a contractor. However, most of the other building was done by my father as carpentry was something he enjoyed doing. When he was a teenager his father had paid a professional carpenter to teach him carpentry during his summer vacation. Besides this training, my father's oldest and best friend John Churchill, was an architect. He did the blueprints for the original remodeling and renovations. These plans were found inside the walls of the Daggett House in Vineyard Haven about three years ago.

The first project was the barn nearest the main house. It was cut in half, turned to face in a better direction and set down again on a new foundation. We had horses in one area of this barn and cows in the other. My father also constructed the hay shed where we kept two ponies and a pigeon coop. He also built all the other chicken and pig houses as well as 90% of the big garage behind the main house. The upstairs of the garage served as a classroom where Columbus, myself, and later Marie, were home schooled during W.W.II. Miss Gould was the original teacher, followed by Miss Thomas. All of the renovation and remodeling work was done before W.W.II.

In order to get the farm underway there were two major projects to accomplish. Clearing the land was the first but there were no contractors or equipment available for hire to do this work so my parents took this job on. They soon discovered that a regular tractor was not suitable so they had to buy a caterpillar tractor to get the stumps out and to do the initial plowing. First they neatened/straightened up the edges of the fields on the Fisher property, around the meadow and pasture. Two big fields off the pasture were cleaned up as well as the low "pasture hollow". I don't recall cutting down the trees so this might have been the easy part. The stumps and large rocks were pulled out with chains. Much of this work was done by my parents on weekends, though we did hire extra men to help pile up the brush and supervise the burning - fires lasted for days.

From the beginning, my parents did not personally do the daily farm work, but hired a farmer on salary. The original farmers were members of a family who migrated around during the depression. I forget but know they lived across the road beyond Cranberry Acres in a house since torn down. For many years Archie Humphries did this work, commuting every day from just outside Vineyard Haven. He went onto found Humphries' Bakery in North Tisbury.

Before the war we ran a small scale operation restricted by the land we had available. It had to provide all the hay as well as pasture for the cows. My recollections that six to eight cows was about the maximum. During this period we also raised pigs because they ate the skim milk left over from the cream-making. We butchered the pigs on the cement area in front of the small barn, heating water in a large black pot over a fire (hot water was used to get the bristles off - you non-farmers!). We also occasionally butchered veal calves. My father did not get involved with this work. My mother would do anything except actually kill. She studied government pamphlets on how to cut up meat, how to cure and smoke pork, etc. I would emphasize that meat wasn't a large operation in W.W.II because we were too small to be effected by the rationing system. I recall the US Post Office was so fast in those days that you could mail off meat in dry ice to people. We used the system for Christmas presents.

We only had Jersey Guernsey cows at this time - no Holsteins because their milk was too thin. We separated our milk via hand cranked separator (done by farmer) and set machine to make cream as thick as possible. You had to spoon it out because my mother liked it that way and she found it sold easily, We stored the milk in cans in a cooler and also kept bottle of cream there until delivered to the co-op grocery store. It was located across from the Citgo Gas Station in what is now the office of the M.V. Times. We also sold eggs at the co-op. I had to clean and weigh each egg and put it in a proper box. I have found the little record book my mother kept of sales from late 1941 through mid-1944 (the war years). Our farm produced up to 80-90 jars of cream and 40 dozen eggs a week.

The type of farming done in Pilot Hill was primarily governed by the interests and activities of the particular farmer, but always mainly involved milk cows. Since there were no farmers' markets in those days, vegetables weren't raised except for the house. Back in the thirties and early forties you could not hire farm equipment. Besides a regular tractor and a caterpillar tractor, plows, harrows, hay cutting and raking equipment were all eventually purchased, as well as a large truck (a stake truck), known as the "Red truck". If we were good we were allowed to go on the dump run and buy cool-aid afterwards. The only exception I recall was in the first year or two; an old man with a horse-drawn hay cutter came to mow the meadow. I remember sitting on the horse as it pulled the machine around the field.

After W.W.II Earnest Duarte (now deceased) came to the farm, and it was at this point we remodeled and opened the cottage, because he and his wife needed a place to live. Later the Frank Drake family - father and two sons - did this work in turn, living also in the cottage. After W.W.II we were able to hire a mechanical hay bailer. This is how Eddie Cottle got started. Now it easy to cut and bale hay at a distance. For instance - Katama - and bring it back to the farm in our truck - or use a rental/borrowed truck. Later still, Canadian hay would be purchased from a trucker who came to the Island for this purpose. You had to take a whole tuck-load which we could do after the new barn was built.

The farmers we hired were younger and more modern - they wanted to specialize and increase their income in this way. We helped start a co-operative dairy where all the milk was pasteurized and distributed. After the co-op folded, we had our own milk route. The pasteurization was done at Fred Fisher's place.

These developments led to our building the large barn and only having cows - about 16 to 20 cows, I believe. The big barn was professionally constructed after the war so that we could build up a larger herd. Now we needed all the fields for pasture and bought all the hay from outside the farm.

From a financial perspective the most we ever accomplished was to cover the hay/grain bill by selling milk. Never the farmer's salary or capital costs of land and buildings. Our parents both died in January of 1971 and we practical children had the farm shut down within six weeks.