Rooted in History, Alive Today

A young filmmaker captures the ancient story and traditions of Island agriculture, inspired by the people he’s descended from, and the homes and land he knew and loved as a boy.

Matt Taylor knew he wanted to be a filmmaker from the start. “I could have told you that when I was eight,” he says. He was a decent student and a pretty fair athlete growing up – he played baseball, basketball, and he swam. But “people in the Boston area are so rabid about sports,” even high-school sports, he says. “It wasn’t fun for me.” All he wanted to do was tell stories and make movies. But in Bridgewater back in the early 1980s, there was no one to show him how. So he wrote short stories, drew comic books, watched horror movies on Creature Double Feature on television, and read every history book he could find (Of Plymouth Plantation, the journal of William Bradford, was a favorite).

Storytelling, history, filmmaking: You can see the bits and pieces from which Matt drew together the idea to make a documentary about Crow Hollow, his ancestral family farm in West Tisbury. But to really understand where and how the whole project began, you must start with the end of the Civil War and a veteran named Eliashib Athearn.

In Cold Mountain fashion, Eliashib – who was descended from one of the founding English families on the Vineyard – walked home from his last battle of the conflict, and according to a 1920 Vineyard Gazette profile, settled in a family home by Mill Pond. There he “hung up his knapsack and sharpened his scythe preparatory to resuming his farm labors,” and from that point forward “never wearied of telling the tales of the battles fought in the Southern swamps, the fording of rivers with horse artillery and wagon trains and the various episodes which made up one of the bloodiest wars in history.” Yet Eliashib always minimized his own role: “Oh, I just went along,” he said to anyone who asked.

Matt Taylor knew better. When Matt heard stories in his boyhood about the war and his great-great-grandfather – from Doris Nevin, Eliashib’s granddaughter – she told him things that families don’t much like to see in the newspaper and that weren’t in that Gazette story: Eliashib had suffered “terrible shell shock” during the fighting, and long after the war when he was overcome by memories of the battlefield, his daughter Elsie was the “only one who could calm him down, take him out for a walk in the woods, get him out of that,” says Matt.

“I heard one family story about him from the Civil War” – and this one he thinks might mix apocrypha with legend – “that they had to dive down on the ground when cannon fire was going off, they were terribly stressed and crying.” Shells were detonating all around the soldiers, and one of the men, trying to make light of the siege, asked another what he was doing lying face-down in the mud. “Digging for potatoes,” the soldier answered. Matt says, all the men around him “started laughing as they’re laying there on the ground and explosions are going off.”

For Matt, who turns thirty-six in May, it wasn’t just hearing about the Civil War directly from the daughter of the daughter who had shared the post-traumatic burden of the conflict with her father – it was living in that veteran’s house near Mill Pond during his boyhood summers. “His discharge papers are framed on the wall,” says Matt. “Nothing was mummified. His stuff was all there to be used. I remember being a little kid, eating my modern breakfast cereal out of a bowl and with a spoon a Civil War veteran used. It was very real, not sequestered behind glass. I’m sitting there watching TV on a couch a Civil War veteran sat on. All very real, all very natural.”

Matt pauses, pondering his passion for history, for the living museum of Eliashib’s farmhouse, and for Crow Hollow, the homestead and tract of agricultural land his great-uncle Leonard Athearn worked half a mile away. He’s trying to connect that love to the expensive, bumpy effort to put Crow Hollow and the people who’ve worked it at the center of his new documentary, Vineyard Roots. For three years, he’s been delving into Vineyard agriculture and the traditions that, here and there, still run through the rural yet oceanic life of Martha’s Vineyard. “Nobody ever made a big deal about it,” says Matt of that childhood experience in Eliashib’s home and of how closely his ancestors – mostly Athearns and Looks, both prominent up-Island family names – were tied to all the oldest traditions of post-colonial Martha’s Vineyard. “I sort of did that on my own.”

Matt Taylor readily admits that his education was a prolonged and distracted affair, and he is rueful about it now. From grade school onward he was a daydreamer. “Sitting in class in school, all I wanted to do was write fiction and draw,” he says. He wrote short stories and sequels to his favorite movies, created comic books along the lines of Conan the Barbarian, copied posters of favorite football players for friends to hang up in their lockers. He loved Jaws and the Halloween movies and the double bills he saw on Creature Double Feature. But Bridgewater was a cow town in those days, he says, and there was no one around to show him it was possible for a kid to lay hands on a camera and learn how to write the scripts and shoot the movies he so fiercely wanted to make.

“I can remember before I knew anything about movies or making movies, I’d start daydreaming about movies – I’d be sitting there sketching out shots from movies I’d be imagining, how I’d make this shot look, and how I’d have that shot look,” he says. “What I didn’t realize at the time was, I was storyboarding. I can remember when I actually found that out by reading The Jaws Log. I was like, ‘Whoa! That’s what I do!’”

When Matt graduated from high school, the one thing he was sure of was that he didn’t want to go back into an academic classroom any time soon. He went to an art school in Boston and later enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he tried to sign up for film classes at partnering schools nearby. But the waiting lists for those classes were too long. Desperate to learn the rudiments of the craft, he put up fliers on campus saying, “If you’re a filmmaker, I’ll pay you to come teach me how to use a 16-millimeter Bolex.” One respondent showed him how to load the camera. Another showed him lighting. To pay for all this, he worked at a Whole Foods Market, cutting meat and gutting halibut, “standing in a pool of water in a 35-degree refrigerated room, daydreaming about screenplays or shots I wanted to get or film stock I should be using. It’s amazing I didn’t cut a finger off.”

As friendships with these hired guns strengthened, they stopped charging and began serving as loyal guerillas as Matt shot his first short films. “I had to sneak a lot of stuff around, had people sneak me out a camera, lighting, whatever. Very stressful. I remember having to sneak into the film lab [at UMass] to watch my footage, get those projectors out, and set up my reel. I’d hear footsteps coming down the hallway, and I’d have to turn off my footage and duck down.”

He finally graduated from UMass with a degree in history in the fall of 2003. He was thirty-one. In the next two years, he wrote two horror screenplays – a Halloween prequel and Fear of the Dark, the story of a woman terrorized by the reappearance of a man who’d raped her years before. (Matt signed away his rights to the Halloween movie when he sent his script to producers to read, and a prequel was recently released showing only traces of his original work. Fear of the Dark has earned praise from a couple of industry people, but it has not been made.) He wrote a screenplay based on a novel he’d written years before, then planned to rework the novel based on the dramatization. In other words, until the idea came to him to make a documentary about the Crow Hollow land his Athearn and Look ancestors had worked going back to the time of English settlement of the Vineyard, Matt Taylor’s life, like his education, did not have much direction at all.

Matt remembers that the inspiration for the film came at a moment of sadness. “My grandfather” – Elmer (Mike) Athearn, Leonard’s older brother – “died in January of 2005. It was a shock to my system, because it suddenly dawned on me that I’d never recorded him [on film],” says Matt. Since his boyhood in Eliashib’s house, he’d wanted to film the oldest inhabitants of West Tisbury telling their stories, but in the case of his grandfather, it was now too late. “It dawned on me that I’d spent too much time thinking about documenting these old-timers, that I’d better do it.” Matt would start with Leonard. The first goal would be to make a half-hour documentary of his great- uncle at Crow Hollow, “fixing up the tractor and helping out with the haying in his eighty-ninth or ninetieth year.”

Leonard had worked Crow Hollow his whole life and owned it since the death of his mother Clara Look Athearn back in September 1963. He was a shy and quiet man who never married, and Matt loved him. In summer, Matt and his sisters had visited the farm as often as they could and helped Leonard bottle the “bootleg milk” he sold raw to neighbors.

“I can remember being two years old and coming to get the milk,” says Matt, who was standing in the dark, still chilliness of Leonard’s barn last winter. “It didn’t look like this back then. It’s starting to get kind of dilapidated. There wouldn’t have been these cobwebs. He was very neat, had everything working like apple pie, you know. He’d be crouched down right over there. Here’s his little stool right there – that came from his grandfather. He’d be sitting there, the cows would be lined up here, and he’d be milking. We’d go over and crouch down next to him and help him; he’d do it by hand, and he’d take the buckets, and they would be spilling a little, walking through here and walking through here. We’d follow him up. I have vivid memories of him with one of these in each hand, the milk spilling on the barn floor.”

Leonard was also as devoted a storyteller as Leonard’s own grandfather Eliashib had been and as searching a historian as his young great-nephew was turning out to be. Leonard kept a record of where the oldest houses in town had been moved from. He served as the town fence viewer (an honorary post whose responsibility, when called, was to verify boundaries and make sure fences were secure), tended the village cemetery, and as a ninth-generation Islander knew how all the oldest families were related to each other. Leonard would have called himself nothing more than a Vineyard farmer who grew hay, raised oxen, and sold milk, but to Matt he was much more. Leonard, like Matt’s grandfather Mike, “could tell stories about things that had happened in the 1700s like it had just happened on July Fourth,” says Matt. “They knew the story of every stone wall, every brook, every stepping stone. They knew who put it there, who their parents were, who their grandparents were. They knew everything about up-Island.”

But in the spring of 2005, just two weeks before Matt was set to begin principal photography on his half-hour documentary about Leonard and Crow Hollow, his great-uncle died. And with him went whatever organizing principles Matt Taylor thought he could rely on as he shot his first real film.

His grandfather and great-uncle had died just three months apart. Now the star of Matt’s film was gone, and with him had vanished a natural, cogent way to bring an old, inland way of Vineyard life to the screen. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Matt needed a new story – or stories – to dramatize how the traditions of Vineyard agriculture that Leonard Athearn embodied live on. He would have to turn to other old-time farmers for that narrative. And with Mike and Leonard dying so recently and so closely together, Matt could see that all his filmmaking challenges had grown both more complex and much more urgent. “When he died,” says Matt. “I had to suddenly document thirty other farms to get all the great footage I would have gotten just with Leonard.”

With his girlfriend Carrie Fyler, Matt hurried down to the Vineyard from Northampton and moved into Leonard’s home at Crow Hollow as the summer of 2005 rolled in. He tried to cobble together the ancient story of Vineyard farming by filming other longtime farmers, but many of them found the pace and repetitiveness of shooting profoundly aggravating. “It was really bad. I mean, really bad. I’d get yelled at every day. People looking at their watches.” He wondered, “How am I going to get any backbone to this thing? It just wasn’t happening. The stuff I was getting was so surface level.”

Meantime, the move into Leonard’s farmhouse – built in 1878 by his great-great-grandfather Freeman Allen Look to replace a home built on the same site, probably by Freeman’s own grandfather, the Revolutionary War veteran Lot Look – was turning into a drama all by itself; like the barn, the home had fallen into disrepair. “I was falling through floorboards,” says Matt. “Every time I opened a cupboard, dead mice would fall out.” Matt and Carrie did what they could to make it into a home – scraped and painted, emptied old cupboards and drawers, found old farming journals and family albums and recipes going back generations. It was like Eliashib’s house from Matt’s boyhood (which is still in the family), but run down. As they searched and repaired, it occurred to Matt that here, at last, might be a story he could tell from the heart. “Suddenly that became the backbone – me moving into the place, sort of discovering my Vineyard roots.”

But how to make one story out of the many he was now trying to collect? He had footage of his cousin Daniel Athearn plowing the fields from a tractor at Crow Hollow after Leonard’s death, and he had interviews about how it was done when oxen pulled the plow. When he began his documentary, it sprawled across the outdoors – pastures in Chilmark, growing seasons in Edgartown and West Tisbury, and hard work under vast Vineyard skies. But now his camera was moving indoors, and rather personally too, as he and Carrie explored the Crow Hollow farmhouse and discovered an LP from a family musicale recorded in 1950, a calendar from 1946 that Leonard had never taken down from a bedroom wall, and a pair of 1915 dungarees hanging from a peg in a closet. How to bring together stories both broad and familial? If you’re Matt Taylor, and you want to animate the traditions of Vineyard farming in a documentary, and personalize it too, what better film to draw inspiration from than the 1972 cult-horror classic The Legend of Boggy Creek?

Well, it’s not quite so spectacularly ironic as all that. In fact, Matt wasn’t aware of how much he was borrowing from Boggy Creek when he began to shoot the documentary he would come to call Vineyard Roots.

The Legend of Boggy Creek sets itself up as a docudrama, and the “legend” concerns a Sasquatch-type creature that for decades menaced the swampy margins of an Arkansas crossroads town. What thrilled Matt when he saw Boggy Creek back in his Creature Double Feature days was how the old men of the town, with their Jefferson Davis faces, reminded him of the ancients he knew through his great-uncle and grandfather in West Tisbury. “I’ve always wanted to shoot footage of these old, beat-up farmers with their gravelly voices, talking about local yarns – getting close-ups of their hands all weathered, fixing their tractors, and the sun going down [behind] a barbed-wire fence.

“There’s this scene in Boggy Creek where these farmers go out – they’ve heard this creature howling off in the woods – and apparently they’re near a coal-mining town, and there are these guys with the helmets and the head lamps, and they’re going through the woods very seriously – it’s not cheesy at all – with their shotguns and .22s. And I have a scene with my Uncle Jim” – Jim Athearn, Mike’s son, who now runs Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown and with his sons farms the Crow Hollow land – “who always goes out at night before sundown and looks for deer in the fields with his shotgun.” (Farmers are allowed to shoot deer if their crops are threatened by foraging; they notify the police after firing any shots to reassure neighbors who call in.) “And I totally reenacted that old Boggy Creek footage. I never told Jim this. I can’t wait to put music to that.”

From sequences edited so far, it’s clear that Vineyard Roots puts the family’s love of the farm, and their effort to preserve it after Leonard’s death, at the very center of the film. “I enjoy working Leonard’s farm,” says Jim, standing next to a tractor in front of the family homestead. “When I come here, it’s kind of like a vacation from my other farm work. And as I make my operations around and around the fields, I know that I’m going in the same path as my grandfather and my uncle and my other grandfathers before him went. And it’s something particularly good about that feeling.On this land, I feel a connection to previous generations of my own relatives, and I kind of feel my grandfather and Leonard driving along with me when I drive around in the tractor.”

At press time, Matt is renting a small house off the Edgartown–West Tisbury Road while the family homestead at Crow Hollow is more fully renovated. He’s struggling with a balky, Microsoft-based editing program as he wraps principal photography. He hopes to finish Vineyard Roots in June or July. The idea is to screen it at Island theaters first, then perhaps on PBS, which – through WGBH, its Boston affiliate – often broadcasts regional documentaries. Though he has received small grants from the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council and the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, and a larger one from a lifelong supporter of the Agricultural Fair who wants to remain anonymous, Matt has invested everything he’s got – something like $50,000 – in the film. During the day, he makes deliveries for Chilmark Spring Water Company and spends every non-delivery hour getting his movie in the can.

He makes one other point about the movie and the traditions it seeks to celebrate. On camera, Jim Athearn remembers his father saying that this family land once extended three miles in every direction. Now Crow Hollow encompasses twenty-three acres. At a family gathering at the homestead in 2006, Jim announces the first steps that will allow the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission to purchase the development rights so that the property can remain a working family farm forever. (The agreement, concluded that year, requires among other things that Crow Hollow be actively farmed. Any future sale of the fields must be at a price based on crop potential only, so that the land be affordable to future farmers.) Right now the fields are mostly in hay – the family hopes to restore Leonard’s barns and bring back milk cows before too long – and Jim and his son Daniel have in recent seasons filled two up-Island barns with the alfalfa, timothy, clover, and other field grasses that grow verdantly there.

But change encroaches on Crow Hollow from all quadrants. Houses rise over the tree lines. Land that was worked nearby turns into lawns. “Crow Hollow, the last ten years or so, has sort of become an official name” for the whole area, says Matt. “There are streets and housing developments around here named ‘Crow Hollow this’ and ‘Crow Hollow that.’” Matt was talking with a Look family relative a few months earlier, and they agreed, he says, that “we both feel kind of funny about that – it’s sort of like our family’s nickname is catching on this way....It’s like, ‘Wait a minute.’” Elsewhere on the Island, on land that, until not long ago, was worked as Crow Hollow still is, neighbors in new subdivisions complain that behind certain houses, chickens and roosters cluck and crow. These neighbors go to the board of selectmen to argue for the peace and quiet of what’s supposed to be now rather than what once was. If Vineyard Roots accomplishes anything up there on the screen, says Matt, it will be to show that on Martha’s Vineyard, an older, working Island lives on despite all of that.