Story by Susanna Graham-Pye
Passersby who pause to notice the knoll, know there must be a story woven among the grove of holly trees and their shiny green leaves. Atop a slight rise off Long Road, these evergreens stand like sentinels, spiny and strong, glistening in the early morning sunlight. The trees are old, and big; there are lots of them and their roots run deep into the earth that is now protected by the Harwich Conservation Trust.
“Oh there’s a story all right,” says Bill Shinkwin from his home in Wisconsin. “And it starts with my dad, but not where you might think.”
Shinkwin’s voice carries all the lilt and warmth of a natural born storyteller. Although he’s speaking by phone, any listener can hear he’s happily settled in to tell the tale of the holly trees, or, more to the point, the story of his dad who owned the land on Long Road, and who was, above all else a gardener.
“During World War I, my dad was in the expeditionary force in France,” Shinkwin begins. “He wrote letters to his family, to his mother, in Chelmsford.”
Shinkwin has read some of the letters. He chuckles. “All of them were about what was going on in Chelmsford; what the season meant in terms of planting. He’d write things like: it must be about the right time to plant the carrots now…or something needed to be harvested, or soil needed to be turned over.
“There was a war going on all around him,” Shinkwin said. “He never mentioned that though — it was always about the gardens at home. Even before I was born, and after, wherever my dad was, there was always a garden.”
When Shinkwin was young and living in Lowell, his mother died. Some time later, his father remarried the woman Shinkwin calls his “second mother.” “I’m not too fond of the term stepmother — she was as much a mother to me as my first. Her family was from Billerica; my family moved from Lowell to that nearby town where my second mother’s family owned nearly 20 acres,” he said.
The garden there was huge. “As a young child, I had no interest whatsoever in gardening,” Shinkwin says. “But my dad found plenty of opportunity to get me out there on my hands and knees.”
Shinkwin describes an idyllic childhood. When his father remarried, the family moved with their dog into a home that was “fun city.” There were three sisters – the oldest had moved out by this time and the two younger sisters remained. “Their young men, just out of the service, came and went, courting the girls, who went dancing at the USO, and returned home to sit outside in the evenings laughing, joking, and “having a time of it.”
“Oh, I was a lucky lad to be surrounded by pretty sisters and these fellows, who were really pretty nice guys,” Shinkwin says. All of his siblings eventually grew up, left the nest and went into the service, or to school, and onto marriage and careers.
Shinkwin says his father’s passion for gardening never waned. With the family now raised, his parents began contemplating a place on the Cape. Before making the move, however, Shinkwin says his father went out on a number of scouting expeditions.
“Cape Cod, of course, isn’t known to have the best when it comes to soil,” Shinkwin relates, and then laughs when he recalls his dad kept a shovel in the trunk. “When he saw what he thought was a nice patch of earth, and he felt no one was looking, he’d hop out, grab the shovel and turn over a clump or two to check, to see what was there.”
And here, the storyteller announces, we have arrived at the advent of Holly Knoll – an open acre of land on Long Road, which had pretty good soil and not a holly tree to be seen. “My dad knew the soil was good,” Shinkwin says. “That’s why he offered to buy it.”
And so, Bill’s parents moved to Cape Cod and grew a fine garden. They provided fresh vegetables to the Ebb Tide restaurant and people from around Harwich came to the Shinkwins’ house to buy fresh produce. Eventually, they gave up supplying the restaurant and just sold fresh produce door to door.
“They never had a farm stand out or anything. People just came right up to the door and knocked, or they’d bring it around,” said Bill.
In due time, Shinkwin explains, his dad’s focus broadened. On rambling hikes through the woods, Shinkwin Sr. took clippings of holly bushes and nursed them along in an old cold frame on the property. He planted them and they grew.
“In my mind, that was my dad’s problem,” Shinkwin says. “He over planted. There was always too much.”
Today a sizable collection of holly trees stands on the property and is only a portion of what Shinkwins’ father grew over the years. Today, many of the holly trees found around town were likely cultivated on Shinkwin’s little farm on Long Road.
“At this point, I’d gone off and been in the service, I’d found my lovely wife Judy, and had a career,” Shinkwin says. “But it became sort of a joke. Whenever I came to visit, my father would tell me something along the lines of ‘Oh, I ran into Mrs. Young and she’d like some holly. I told her when my son comes back from Milwaukee, he’ll bring you a plant.’ Before I’d even unpacked my bags I’d be up to my waist in a hole, digging out holly. Then when I got to whoever it was who wanted it, well they wouldn’t know where they wanted it planted. Now I’m digging another hole. This went on and on.
“I did finally put my foot down when I came to visit,” Shinkwin laughs. “I had to tell him ‘Look, Dad, I didn’t come 1,200 miles to work my whole vacation digging holes in Harwich’.”
Shinkwin pauses a moment. “He never sold them. Folks were just recipients of his generosity.”
With the sentiment in mind that many, many people benefited from the Shinkwins’ generosity — their holly along with the bounty from their gardens — it is fitting that the land Bill Shinkwin’s dad deemed to be good earth is now preserved with the Harwich Conservation Trust. Now folks driving by on Long Road can benefit by enjoying the view of roadside greenery graced with evergreen hollies.
After the death of their parents, and with Bill, his wife and sisters getting on in age, donating the property seemed the thing to do: The parents’ small cottage, its land, and the adjacent lot were donated to the Harwich Conservation Trust (HCT). The holly trees continue to grow and are rumored to be home to a growing family of turkeys. Cardinals and other birds flit among the branches — also beneficiaries of such abundance.
Unlike other donations to HCT or purchases made by HCT, the Shinkwins’ donation of their Cape home has not only preserved land, it currently generates income for the Trust.
“Thanks to the Shinkwins’ donated home, HCT benefits from rental income that contributes to HCT’s land-saving mission. Their innovative gift continues their family tradition of giving back to the community. I think of them every time I drive by the house and the hollies, simply wonderful people” says Michael Lach, the Trust’s director.
“Shinkwin’s unique gift inspired HCT to develop a new giving opportunity called ‘Homes for Habitat.’ When donating a house no longer wanted or needed, donors create a variety of options for the Trust and its work,” Lach explained.
Depending on the donor’s interest with ‘Homes for Habitat,’ the gift can be during her/his lifetime or by bequest (donor’s will). Gift flexibility is key and will enable HCT to:
- lease the house for income (as in the Shinkwins’ case)
- house HCT staff or interns
- “un-develop” the house to restore wildlife habitat (also an option in the Shinkwins’ case)
- or sell the house using the proceeds to preserve other important natural land.
Shinkwin says he’s unsure if he’ll ever get back to this neck of the woods to have a look at the property, yet he loves knowing his dad’s holly trees still thrive and the land continues to provide a haven for birds and squirrels. His Dad would be happy!