I wasn’t sure what I’d find on Mockhorn Island. I knew there was a chance there would be odd artifacts since Mockhorn had once been the secluded retreat of the Cushman family, heirs to a New York bakery fortune, and later Yale University football coaching legend-turned-businessman T.A.D. Jones. Nevertheless, what greeted me when I first stepped on the island’s sandy shores took me by surprise: a tomato plant.
It was a fecund little plant with six healthy fruits a couple weeks shy of ripeness. There was a fat, green hornworm gorging itself on the plant’s leaves. The scene was not in and of itself that unusual, probably repeated in thousands and thousands of gardens the world over at that very moment. But here on Mockhorn Island the tomato plant was out of place, unplanned, incongruous, and it dawned on me that this wild vine was a good example of why all the time, effort and money that rich and well-connected residents put into taming Mockhorn Island–including miles of concrete–are now a jumble of ruins melting into the scenery.
Wild tomato plant
Mockhorn is one of Virginia’s long-deserted barrier islands. It has been uninhabited for more than five decades. I tagged along recently as Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologists Ruth Boettcher and Jeremy Tarwater made a trip over choppy water to the island, now managed by the commonwealth as Mockhorn Island Wildlife Management Area.
For centuries, Mockhorn had permanent residents. There had been saltworks on the island in colonial times. Pirates (including Blackbeard) and Confederate soldiers hid from authorities there. Mockhorn was a favorite retreat of hunters, too, for all the migratory and shorebird habitat. But the island had never seen major development; much of the terrain is vast flats of cordgrass and the thin upland hummocks suitable for building were patches scattered along the western edge and vulnerable to overwash from high seas.
In the early 1900s, Larimer Cushman and his wife Caroline bought the island and in the late 1920s retired there. They invested a lot of money not just to make the island livable, but to make it a self-sustaining homestead, too. They upgraded a hunting lodge built by the landowner before them, replete with all the trimmings of the well-to-do: a gazebo and portico, three fireplaces, curved paneling, electricty.
The ruins of a once-splendid home
Their solution to Mockhorn’s barely-above-sea-level elevation was concrete. Lots and lots of concrete. They built miles of seawalls. They buffered their home and cordoned off pastures with roughly-four-foot-high barriers. Their many outbuildings were made of concrete. Feed troughs, walkways, the shingles on roofs and sidings, all concrete.
Cedar ran a close second as a favored building material on Mockhorn thanks to the species’ remarkable resistance to rot. Cedar trunks supported the main home. They held up the seawalls, the concrete poured into a mold around them. Those pilings are still standing decades after workmen sunk them.
Left: Cedar post with concrete poured around
The Cushmans’ drive and heavy-duty landscaping allowed for a fully functioning farm where scrubby island habitat had been before. They tended pastures of alfalfa grass and kept a herd of Angus cattle. All their effort, however, was little use against storm surges that spilled over the lip of their seawalls and poisoned their green pastures. When Mr. Cushman died in the late 1940s his widow sold Mockhorn to T.A.D. Jones.
No telling if Jones hoped to resurrect the Cushmans’ agricultural pursuits when he bought the island in 1948. He did, however, build a well-framed, over-sized barn certainly capable of housing a herd of livestock or hosting spectacular parties. The latter seemed more Jones’s style. While coach of Yale’s football team in the 1920s, Jones embarked on a career as an industrialist shipping fossil fuels. He gave up the gridiron to pursue business full-time in 1927, and did well for himself. He founded New Haven Terminal in 1940. After Jones bought Mockhorn, he would ferry the elite of D.C. business and military circles out to Mockhorn for a little R&R, some duck hunting and, no doubt, a sales pitch or two.
The barn and “duck” or amphibious vehicle T.A.D. Jones used to ferry guests around Mockhorn
When Jones died in 1957, however, all those hunting trips, the concrete walls, the efforts to tame a wild and remote island became history. And that brings us back to the tomato plant. It’s a good example of how, bit by bit, imperceptibly almost, nature worked to take back what Jones, the Cushmans and others before them had worked so hard to domesticate.
The tomato plant undoubtedly started as a seed that passed through a bird pecking through the tomato fields of the Eastern Shore. The bird did his business and it landed in a fertile patch of dead marsh grass. The plant grew, a timeless process that happened with a hundred other species thousands of times all over Mockhorn Island, covering the traces of history left there without regard for all the effort expended there. Nature is not sentimental.
Without the Cushmans there to tame vegetation the plants became feral. The cedars the Cushmans admired for their beauty, endurance and sturdiness have completely choked their splendid island house. The English ivy and wisteria that once adorned the Cushmans’ home grew inch by inch, year by year into places they were never intended to grow.
Inside the old home
The concrete shingles fell from the roof, letting in water, rotting floorboards. Cracks appeared in the endless lines of concrete. Rain and seawater fell into the fissures and froze, cleaving them slowly apart until whole chunks fell from the walls.
The ceaseless waves of Magothy Bay took a few more grains of sand from beneath the seawall each time they struck. Eventually that buffer between home and sea surrendered and toppled into the very water it was meant to keep out. Now overwash leaves its traces well inland and eats away a little more of the shallow bank each time it rises.
The elements have already claimed the optimism that brought the Cushmans and Jones to this tenuous island to begin with and will soon enough take all the evidence that they were once here.
(Here is a link to Mockhorn’s ruins on Google Maps)
Scenes from abandoned Mockhorn Island