The Athearn Family
2012 MV Medal Winners (from left to right): Hugh Knipmeyer, Tony Horwitz, Geraldine Brooks, James and Deborah Athearn.
presented to James and Deborah Athearn
Introduced by Tom Dunlop and Alison Shaw
It's much too easy to think of farmland as having always been farmland. We curve along Meshacket Road on these moist summer days, casting a glance left and right to fields ruffled with lettuce or swaying with corn, and we think that, because we see no evidence of houses or roads, that farmland is what these fields must always have been.
In this case, not so. The lands that make up the very heart of what is now, famously, Morning Glory Farm, lay – within the lifetimes of all of us here today – on the fringes of what the oldest Island maps called waste land.
A little over thirty years ago, pitch pine and scrub oak grew tangled and iron gray where tomatoes and flowers and beans and corn and sunflowers grow now. The earth on this ground was sandy and acidic, particularly thin where the hills crested, and rocky almost everywhere. Iron machinery lay rusted in the brambles – relics and ruins, perhaps, of the tar and brick kilns that once ran busily on the opposite side of the West Tisbury Road.
What freshwater there was lay in boggy, buggy swampland. A century ago, it's possible that swatches of this ground may have been hardscrabble pastureland, barely feeding what must have been the most forlorn cattle in Island history, but the original acreage of Morning Glory farm – a good bit of which we can see as we drive to and from the farm stand today – was anything but agricultural ground.
So utterly valueless was it that in June of 1943 Debbie Athearn's father, Ken Galley Senior, who just happened to be passing by in the hallway, was lured into a room at the county courthouse where an auctioneer had no other bidders for what would eventually become the first fields of Morning Glory Farm. To help get it off the delinquent tax rolls, Ken Galley placed a bid and got all seventeen and a half acres for seven dollars.
In the time allotted to Alison and me, there is no space whatsoever to account for the many ways Jim and Debbie Athearn, and their family, have earned the Martha's Vineyard Medal. (Someone really ought to do a book.) But, look, we know the reasons why. We go to the farm stand every day – and have for thirty-two years and more – on account of the why. It almost goes without saying as to why.
Except for this set of facts, which Alison and I learned something of a few years back, and which continues to astound us both even now.
That vast, tangled, iron-gray forest of scrub oak and pitch pine was pulled down by the Athearns – somehow – many years ago. The timber was cleared away by the Athearns, somehow. That rusted machinery was hauled out of there somehow. The stones were pulled from the soil, and compost was laid down, and the corn we love was conjured -- somehow -- from a hill that the family even today, despite all the nourishment you could possibly lay down upon it over thirty years, still calls Rocky Top. And suddenly what had been wasteland worth seven bucks was a field – somehow – and what I wager that you forget as often as we still do is that this work of creation where once there was literally nothing has never stopped.
Of course, the Athearns will tell you – as they have told Alison and me – that they have not done all this to earn a medal. Again, we know why they have done it. Again, it almost goes without saying as to why.
But what Alison and I wager they don't know – or at least, that they don't think about very much – is that they have set an example for all of us who love Martha's Vineyard and look to places and ideas like Morning Glory Farm to understand how and why the Island is different from other places around us.
It turns out that a surprising but fundamental lesson of Morning Glory and the family that built it from scrubby waste land is that the character and traditions of the Vineyard are not based on things that have always been here, but on people who were (and still are) capable of ceaseless amounts of imagination and daring and hard work and who found a home where they could apply their singular gifts to invent something lasting where once there had been nothing.
And so to honor this perpetual spirit of hard work and creation – as well as the tradition it has enlivened and the Island character it fortifies -- it is one of the great privileges of our lives for Alison and me to present, on behalf of the Martha's Vineyard Museum, the Martha's Vineyard Medal to James and Deborah Athearn and the Athearn family of Morning Glory Farm.
Thank you all very much for your kind applause and for this recognition. This is the family and they are all fellow farmers with us, and they have all had a role in what we do and I could go into detail extensively but they are all crucial to our success. It is an honor to be recognized by the Museum as an organization whose opinion matters very much to us. And also to be recognized along with the other honorees… in the presence of such community leaders and talented people, like the woman who wrote the book that acted as a time machine for me this winter as I went back to the 17th century in Caleb's Crossing and walked along the people that I've known all these years but never had the opportunity to meet and it's that sense of history that my father gave me as nearly anything in normal conversation as one story or another would crop up and he would refer to place names and always be shocked that we kids didn't know where they were. And also that sense of history which I think contributed to my wanting to be a farmer because I recognized as I plow and plant and tend cattle and make hay that these activities are particularly satisfying because I know that they have been done for centuries and thousands of years by the people before me. I don't know why that's satisfying, I can't put it into words, but I have a feeling that all of you people involved at the Museum have that same sense of history and why it's important so thank you to the Museum for what it does and maintaining our culture and history and archives of what we've done here and thank you again for the honor.