From the May 4, 1962 edition of the Vineyard Gazette:

Martha’s Vineyard is a place of landmarks, not of importance for the most part but of significance to those who know them, or perhaps it is more correct to say, to those who once knew. For the great majority of such landmarks have been forgotten, this majority lying off the main-tavelled ways.

Of such, is the Ochre Bars, or Barway, once well known and duly significant, although the name lies so far back in antiquity that much of the significance has been lost to most people as well as the location of the bar-way.

The Ochre Bars barricaded one of those old cart-paths which served Island people before public highways were laid out and accepted. It was a way that had its beginning somewhere in the neighborhood of Chilmark Pond, from which it wound and wended its way parallel to Tea Lane, but farther west, to the present location of the North Road and thence to one of the commonly used boat landings which dotted the Sound shore a century and a half ago.

This way, like all others of the variety, was barred at frequent intervals by bar-ways or gates, the latter being in the minority for reasons unknown but probably perfectly logical to the ancients who built them and installed the bars. It closed a passage-way through a stone wall which, in turn, was a line fence between two properties. A century ago, Benjamin Hillman, Zeno Tilton and possibly others, owned on the south side of Ochre Bar, and John Tilton and Alvin Flanders owned properties on the other side. Exactly who or which of the group owned the bars themselves, only a search of the land records and a survey would actually show. As to the road, it was winding, as described, of a width that would accommodate an ox-cart, and it was pitted with mudholes, crossed by two or three small brooks, and wound past a bottomless pond, so-called, into which an ox once vanished, according to tradition.

The sides were thickly bordered by a heavy but low growth of birch trees, pepper-bush, wild honeysuckle and wild apple trees. It skirted one door-yard, following the stone wall closely for a number of rods, passed through one house-yard within feet of the door-step, and through two barn-yards, in the course of its windings.

At the height of its period of use, it was indeed a real traffic artery, as the carts passed and repassed, with seaweed, grist for the mills, occasional funeral processions, horseback riders and pedestrians, and all passed through the Ochre Bars, or climbed over them.

This climbing of the bars brought about the name. There were deposits of ochre, red, sticky and abundant, to be found in the locality. Red ochre and yellow, both were prized by ancient Vineyarders, back to the days of the original Indian inhabitants, for the making of paint and other uses not fully understood. Men went to this place of bogs and swamp-growth to dig the ochre, and with their hands smeared with it, they opened and closed the bars, leaving the marks of their muddy hands on the rails to befoul the garments of the next pedestrian who climbed them. A pedestrian observed to have red earth stains on his pantaloons, was marked as having climbed the Ochre Bars.

Up to sixty years ago, perhaps somewhat less, there had been someone to keep these bars in repair and to see that they could be opened and closed should it be necessary. The visits of men to the place for ochre were infrequent by that time, and paint put up in tin cans being easy to come by and far less trouble to prepare and supply.

Certainly there were a few die-hards of an older generation who declared that nothing lasted like red ochre, and in consequence, painted their barn trim and other outbuildings with this home-made paint. Red ochre was difficult to remove from clothing of any kind, and only vigorous scrubbing could remove it from the skin.

Today there is no road. Here and there a trace may be found by way of deep ruts where cart-wheels once turned on their bumping way. The little brooks have been choked until they have flooded broad areas and have turned them into swamps. The cedar rails and chestnut bar-posts of Ochre Bars have long since vanished, rotted and sunk into the soft soil, and no spotted cattle ranging the pastures, there has been no need for the barricade for many years.

All traces of the digging for ochre have long since disappeared, along with the men who dug, and those who remembered the digging. But the ochre is still there. The person who braves the greenbriars and brush, and fights his way through the tangle to the opening in the stone wall, will find, if he looks at his footprints in the soil, the telltale red smears where the soft turf is broken. He will probably call it clay, and it is a clay of sorts. He will likewise call in other things when he tries to remove the red smears from his shoes, and he may then realize, if he has heard the story, why this barricade was once called Ochre Bars.

Compiled by Hilary Wall