On Chappaquiddick, an Old Farm Gets New Life in Land Bank, Trust Venture

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By C.K. WOLFSON

Nestled in the new clearing among fields, beech trees and ponds, across the road from Brine's Pond Preserve, the remodeled and expanded 1700s Chappaquiddick farmhouse bought by the late Robert Marshall and his wife Ruth more than 60 years ago can now be clearly seen from the road.

Its freshly painted walls are a glistening white. The Marshalls' area rugs are spread on the new wide plank pine floors; the artifacts from their exotic travels are displayed on shelves and mantels; their painted bureau is in place in the bedroom, and the large ornately framed oil painting of a nude by Carnig Eksergian - which Ruth Marshall insisted be kept in the barn - now dominates the wall over the fireplace in a bright open kitchen that boasts light wood cabinets from Home Depot.

And a Marshall is once again in residence.

Brad Woodger, 40, great-nephew of Robert and Ruth Marshall, and his long-time partner, Kim Bennett, have been awarded the tenancy of the historic half-Cape. They will occupy the house for a minimum of two years at rent significantly below market value in return for planning and implementing a program of small-scale agricultural activities.

It is the result of a first-of-its-kind collaboration between the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank, which bought the 43-acre parcel, and the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust, which purchased the one-acre site and the farmhouse. The intention is to preserve land and history, and create a working model of an aesthetically appropriate, producing farmstead.

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Mr. Woodger makes it a point to credit his cousin, Robert Fynbo, for honoring a promise to Ruth and Bob Marshall to keep the land and house intact.

A cordial, thoughtfully mannered man, Mr. Woodger has lived and worked on Chappaquiddick since 1987. From 1991 to 1994 he was companion and caregiver to his late grandmother (Robert Marshall's mother), Mary Marshall Kelly.

"By being around her, I learned how that generation viewed this place. Part of it was something that, despite its difficulties, was important to hold on to. She wanted me to understand that this was a unique spot. It's not this romantic vision. It's hard. She'd pick blueberries, go clamming, and show the rewards of doing the work. But it was never said out loud. It was just something she tried to show."

"I'm not even in Brad's family, but this has become a part of my being," says the 36-year-old Ms. Bennett. "Chappy is such an extraordinary place, so special. You can't buy this history."

Until a couple of weeks ago, the couple lived in the 600 square foot, semi-insulated cabin that is part of The Big Camp (built by Mr. Woodger's great-grandparents Frank and Molly Marshall) on North Neck Road. They take turns recalling their experiences there, including this past winter when they had to use a hair dryer to keep their pipes from freezing.

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They take turns starting and finishing each other's thoughts, sentences overlapping, and the conversation becomes a concert; a fugue being sung with passion in a tempo dictated by enthusiasm.

"You can't buy this identity," Mr. Woodger is continuing where Ms. Bennett left off. "What we have here and what we do is who we are."

She harmonizes: "We share a love and appreciation for this place, knowing it could never be recreated elsewhere."

And while he insists he doesn't equate them with his great-uncle and great-aunt, he does view their roles as parallel. "A lot of things skipped a generation and fell to us. We feel this is really important. I remember Ruth being very organized, the one who kept everything together. And everyone in my family recognizes that without Kim's stamina, her organization and her zest for this, we wouldn't still be here."

Ms. Bennett smiles. "It's fulfilling. It's memories. It's small things like the smells, like jumping off the dock and swimming to the neighbor's dock after a three-mile run. I know that you can jump off a dock in other places, but it wouldn't be the same. I can't put those feelings into words."

During the summer, they claim, they collectively work a 12-hour day. "We don't make a big deal about what we do or how we work. We just do what we need to do," Mr. Woodger says. "We're a typical Island couple having to work at more than one thing at a time."

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In addition to their jobs as custodians of the IBWS (Island Ball Watchers Society), the private, six-hole Chappaquiddick golf club built by Frank Marshall in the 1900s, and operating a synthetically-based mosquito repellent service for Chappaquiddick residents, they are researching the benefits and liabilities of raising various crops and livestock, studying soil conditions, interviewing Island farmers with various expertise, and conferring with the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust, whose agents they are and who oversee the grounds.

They sense the community's anxiousness to be able to observe a functioning operation, and stress the need to establish realistic expectations. Early next month, land bank and trust members and friends will be invited to an open house to see the transformation of the house. Mr. Woodger admits, "I didn't realize how much interest there was in this until we got into it."

They've occupied the house, which is not open to the public, for less than three weeks.

There are still boxes to unpack and pictures to hang.

They are still learning to understand the larger Chappaquiddick community and the workings of the preservation trust.

There are discussions to be held about outbuildings and infrastructure. Sheep or goats? Shed or barn? Who buys the materials? Kim is thinking of beginning with hay, maybe using a section of the acre to grow lavender. Maybe a cooperative garden. There might be a farmstand by next year, maybe something that could eventually generate an income for the tenants.

"But there's a lot of different things to go through before getting to that point," Mr. Woodger cautions. "Remember, it's two people living here, and we can't do a Morning Glory Farm."

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The land has to be prepared. Options clarified. Things have to happen in sequence. "We want to do this right. But what we always say, without trying to be mysterious, is to say - " the couple begins speaking in unison - "what we're going to do is figure out what we're going to do." She laughs and he adds, "And we're doing this within a set parameter."

So thinking beyond their own occupancy of the house, they plan for the future while at the same time breathing form and life into the past.

Ms. Bennett explains, "There's a framework being built which, apart from specifics, allows the land to be given agricultural use in a way that can be maintained by [future] tenants who will also have to generate outside income."

Mr. Woodger says, "But the more you make operating a viable business, the more you're getting into a situation where you're also still a tenant, still in a relationship with the land bank and the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust. So my concern is that you not create something that is so large that it becomes more about the business and less about the original intention."

It is a daunting responsibility, and as he readies to get on with the day's tasks his thoughts go back to the little cabin at The Big Camp. He remembers cleaning up the debris around the camp, dealing with the rotted wood, and every year, saying, "This is too much. We can't do it." He smiles. "And then you finish, and you have this little tape playing that's saying, ‘It's worth it. It's worth it. I know it's worth it.'"