From the March 31, 1933 edition of the Vineyard Gazette:

Vineyard history is filled with mention of gatherings of various kinds, at which the inhabitants discussed all manner of things and voted action accordingly. But the written history does not have much to say about the meeting places until many years after the first settlers had passed on.

Likewise, Vineyard history mentions innovations in worship, the establishment of new churches, schools and schoolmasters, but the information as to where churches and schools stood is fragmentary and, no doubt, many of the locations have been entirely forgotten, or could be rediscovered only with difficulty from the meager description given.

So it is with up-Island schools of early origin, and the hunt for the first permanent school of Chilmark and West Tisbury has been an interesting one, with a picturesque scene and many relics of antiquity to reward the searcher.

Schools had been in existence in Chilmark and used in common by people of what is now West Tisbury, for some twenty years previous to the building of the first permanent school. Due to the scattered settlements situated at wide intervals, a moving school was desired and there is a certain amount of evidence to support the theory that the desire was granted in a literal sense.

There was a school located “west of Fulling-mill Brook” which is a tiny stream crossing South Road, but it was voted that school should be “kept at this place for three months and at Kephickon for three months.” Since the building was very small, it is quite possible that it was picked up bodily and moved with ox-teams from one location to another. The reason for this belief is strengthened by the fact that although these so-called moving schools exited from at least 1729, it was not until after 1740 that it was voted to build a permanent school, and that the vote also included the provision that “school should be kept in this building for ten months of the year, and at the home of David Butler, Cheekomo, Chilmark, during October and November.”

Samuel Cobb, Jabez Athearn, and Abner West were appointed a committee to attend to building the school “between Bureying Hill and the meeting-house,” which would locate the spot between Chilmark Cemetery and the residence of William A. Guerin. Paine Mayhew was awarded the contract for building, but for some reason the school was not constructed.

In 1743 it was voted to build a permanent school “near the Tan fats (possible misspelling of vats) by the house of Noah Abel” and this school was built. It was this site of Chilmark’s and West Tisbury’s first permanent school that was located in the search.

If any knowledge of Noah Abel remains, it would be difficult to find it. Likewise, the site of the tan fats is something that most people never heard of. But someone evidently suggested to the historian the farm of the late Captain Horatio Tilton on Middle Road and this suggestion has been duly chronicled in the volume.

The “tip” was indeed correct. Following the little brook that crosses the road, for close to half a twisted mile, the searcher arrives at the base of high, steep hills, cut through with deep, narrow valleys. The brook, still very narrow, leaps and plunges down the slopes, choked with dames of refuse, but flowing through narrow openings with a gurgle and murmur that can be heard for a long distance. First, in a small clearing on the edge of the woods that grow down the slopes and on to the level country, appears a high foundation of stone. The building it supported was small, but it was obviously something more than a farm building. A few fragments of decaying wood reveal mortices and tenons of ancient carpentry. Two planks, so decayed that they could not be lifted, had holes bored through them, in which were inserted large, round, wooden pins. Some sort of scrapping-bench was used in a tannery, on which hides were laid to be dressed, and the heavy pins may have been employed to prevent the hides from slipping. The surface of these planks showed evidence of much use, and in two places the initials “O. N.” were carved deeply in the wood.

The searcher, concluding that this might have been the tannery, resumed his hunt for the school house site, or the home of Noah Abel. The search was long, for a wide circuit of the valley was made to avoid wet spots and brier patches, not to mention heavy brush growths. The eastern side of the brook was gained, and there, at the very foot of a steep hill in a growth of young oaks, appeared stone enclosures and the tell-tale ailanthus trees that speak of an ancient home site.

It is quiet here, so distant from the highway that no sound of traffic can be heard. The wind sighs through the trees, a bird chirps and the brook gurgles nearby. What changes this spot has seen since the day when children came from miles around to attend school here!

Compiled by Hilary Wallcox