When my grandfather returned from the war and restarted his obstetrics practice in Boston, he wanted a home in the country. His requirements were few and his limitations many. He needed to be within a 50 minute mad dash of the hospital in the city to arrive in time for births. As a naval officer and child of Lake Erie, he wanted to be near the sea. He wanted space for his three daughters and the one on the way to run free, and projects aplenty to keep his mind sharp and hands busy. He had $11,000 dollars in savings.
When they visited the property out on Great Neck in Wareham, his heart caught in his throat. There was a great, rambling shingle style Victorian, barn red and fronting Buzzard's Bay. There was a small adjacent cottage, a 1 car shed, a barn with three stalls and a great fish mounted on the wall. The grounds had been ravaged by the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944, and the shattered trunks of trees stood in ragged copses out in the yard. It was more than 30 acres with a long drive through deep woods and over 400 ft of shoreline, and the bluff overlooking the bay had a commanding view. It was perfect. The asking price was $80,000. He told the owner, old Mrs. Fish, the full amount of his savings and drove back to the city.
Several weeks afterward, the owner of the property called my grandfather and asked if he was still interested in her land. He said he loved her land but could not meet her price. "No", she said, "I mean at your price." He was dumbstruck. Mrs. Fish continued to say that she had had an offer at her asking price but that the buyer was going to subdivide and develop the property with multiple house lots. "This land has always had children" she said. "I saw yours enjoying it as it is and needs to remain." My grandparents closed on the property in January, 1947 for $11,000.
They called it Windrock, for the great, glacial erratic perched on the rim of the bluff that generations of my family have clambered over and posed upon for pictures. It was a weekend home and a summer retreat for my mother and her siblings during the 50s and 60s, and the place my generation descended upon for entire summers in the 1970s and 1980s. Although grand in many ways, it has never been maintained as an estate. The lawn was mowed by the family goat and Shetland pony during my Grandfather's stewardship. Where some yards have cars up on blocks, our disheveled grounds have the shells of disreputable boats in dry dock purgatory. The roof perpetually leaks despite the best efforts of family carpenters, although we may have finally licked it this time around. We are all Red Sox fans, so our hopes are not limited by heavy odds to the contrary.
It was Grandpop's domain and we its happy denizens. My Grandmother the doctor's wife endured years tethered to the phone, ringing the brass bell at the head of the steps outside to summon him from the roof or messing around in boats when a patient was in need. How her days at Windrock might have been different had there been pagers and answering machines when he had his practice!
The place is the solvent that keeps our far-flung family together. I know my 1st cousins as well or better than some people know their own siblings. The family has patrician roots but scorns any notion of class importance. There are lots of over-educated carpenters in our clan, and no one has bothered to keep up a listing in the Social Register. The attic is full of steamer trunks and the accumulated ephemera of generations of letter writers. We know the stock from which we come, but put more stock in the ground beneath our feet and the paths we have chosen for ourselves.
I have too many strong associations with my Grandparent's place on the bay to do them justice here. I remember the winter day in the early 1970s when we all drove over to the canal to watch a beluga whale cavorting far from frozen Labrador. I learned to SCUBA dive in the murky waters by the breakwater off the beach, to sail and splice and shingle here. In the twilight of his Alzheimer's, I talked my grandfather off a ladder on the roof by asking him to lead me to the highest pinnacle, where all the anxiety and frustration of his ascent fell away and we stood gazing together across twenty miles of ocean.
Some families preserve family lands through primogeniture. Others split their inheritance and walk away. None of my 5 Aunts and Uncles, 14 cousins and siblings, or the 15 great grandchildren who now convene for joyous, feral reunions at Windrock want to let the property go. My grandmother is 95, her two remaining teeth framed in an ageless smile. Her loss of memory has been more benign but just as relentless as her husband's and she requires round-the-clock home care that now totals nearly $70,000 a year. The cost of running the house, heating part of its drafty interior in winter, and doing a few, much required repairs adds another $40-45,000 annually to the tally. Mt grandfather lovingly provided a trust that he hoped would maintain the property for generations to come. It has about 12 months left before we use up the remaining principal.
Placing 25 acres in the open space tax abatement program provided for under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 61B has reduced our property taxes by about $8,000, but they still exceed $20,000 a year. We are assessing ourselves until it hurts, as we are all of various means and liquidity but no one is in a position to carry the property on his or her own. Together we might be able to come up with enough capital to pay the operating costs of the property without drawing down the principal further, but it will be a stretch. We have renovated the little house next to the big one using family skills and financing, and are now renting it seasonally as a mid-term solution to provide for the carrying costs of the property. There are prime weeks available at Windrock.org if you are so inclined.
I am a professional conservationist. Preserving family lands is my stock in trade. Today, I am putting those skills in service of my own family and of our land at Windrock, trying to forestall the ultimate need to start selling off lots at the end of the driveway and working back toward the house to save the remainder. We are trying to explore a conservation scenario with local and regional land trusts that would keep the land intact and revive the family trust through the sale of a conservation easement. We have several advantages over other families in this situation. We are in close accord over the need to keep the property intact to be enjoyed by all as of old. It is a birthright but not a fungible inheritance. This is the year that will tip the balance, one way or the other, and we will not let the land go gently.