History of the Farm

The Teaching Farm is the education and public access wing of our small sustainable farm, Native Earth. 

We are located in the town of Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard Island, Massachusetts. The Paint Mill Brook on the west edge of the farm runs into Vineyard Sound on the Island’s north shore, while the vernal pool at the edge of the sheep pasture drains into Mill Brook which runs into the Atlantic by way of West Tisbury Great Pond on the south side.

Four or five thousand years ago, during the time when most of the arrowheads found in the fields were made, Paint Mill Brook was a wide river flowing into a large delta filled with fish, shellfish, waterfowl and marine mammals. It was a manufacturing area for the white quartz points, and may have been a winter camp. 

We like to think that by growing tobacco and the three sisters, (corn, beans, and squash,) we are carrying on traditions with deep roots, however changed. 

The same is true when we feast upon local produce, most especially when we share it with those in need. While we can only guess about the cultures of long ago, recent research into our Island’s Wampanoag history emphasize that the principles of consensus decision making and community responsibility for the poor have always been centrally important. 

These principles, along with the idea of representative democracy and women’s rights, had a profound influence in shaping the futures of both the United States and Europe. 

During the colonial period the farm was a corner of a much larger sheep farm overseen by the Allen family. Parts of it were worked by African slaves and indentured servants, both European and Indigenous people. 

This is the time when most of the stone walls were built, and the footpaths became horse tracks and then wagon roads. Later the house, along with several more in the neighborhood, belonged to the Tilton family. 

Zeb Tilton, captain of the coasting schooner Alice Wentworth, was born here. Zeb’s brother, the renowned whaling captain George Fred Tilton and his wife Lucy lived here until their deaths, at which point the house was sold at auction.

It was bought by Rebecca’s grandparents, James and Cecil Gilbert. James was an impressionist painter who had fallen in love with the light here, and who painted that light every day with great gusto. Cecil was a musician and natural dyer interested in anti-racism work, for which the Island town of Oak Bluffs was already famous. Also, with no illusions about the earning power of Art, she wanted to be able to grow most of her own food. 

Rebecca’s earliest Island memory is of sitting in Grandma Cecil’s garden being handed leaf after fragrant leaf and being passionately urged to, “Smell that!” 

Now she says the same to visitors…the Teaching Farm was opened to the public in 2002.

Another long time dream was finalized when the property was protected under a conservation restriction, and the money from this used to replace the roof and save the 250+year old farmhouse, the 67th in Chilmark.

What’s next? We are exploring, while moving towards our long term goal of community farming. We welcome your support and ideas for the future!


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