September 23, 2018

Conservation Land Donated to the Rehoboth Land Trust by E. Otis Dyer

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In December of 2017, Everett Otis Dyer of Rehoboth donated 433 acres of wetlands and uplands to the Rehoboth Land Trust for permanent preservation. Much of the area is the historically and ecologically important Squannakonk Swamp that occupies the central part of Rehoboth. It was the largest singly owned property in Rehoboth at the time of donation and effectively tripled the holdings of the Land Trust. Dyer requested that the property be named for his late friend and mentor, Roy Wheaton Horton:

The Roy Wheaton Horton Preserve Rehoboth Land Trust

How that property came to be purchased by Dyer, why he thought it was worth preserving and why it was named for Horton is a story worth telling.

Everett Otis Dyer moved to his family’s farm, in Rehoboth in 1949, just after graduating from University of Maine and also serving aboard a submarine in the Pacific at the close of World War II. Great Meadow Hill Farm, in the family since 1818 presented many challenges to Dyer, who at age 22 was soon to be married. The buildings of the farm had begun to deteriorate and fields were beginning to grow up in brush. The homestead built in 1746 needed significant restoration. Dyer was fortunate to find mentors in Rehoboth, wise in the ways of fields, pastures, and woodlots and farm buildings. One of these was Roy W. Horton whom Dyer met in 1958. Horton (then in his late 50’s) was from an old Rehoboth family (distantly related to Dyer’s) and was an old-time “swamp yankee.” Rehoboth abounded (and still does) in historic cedar and maple swamps, often divided into small parcels used as family woodlots especially when frozen over in winter. Roy had worked in many of those swamp lots with teams of horses and oxen.

Dyer ended up writing a book in 1994 Swamp Yankee mostly about Roy Horton and his various activities in the historic swamps of Rehoboth. Dyer described swamp yankees as those who reside near the swampy wooded areas of southeastern New England and who whose subsistence activities include maintaining active woodlots. And before those swamp yankees arrived from Europe and Great Britain, Wampanoag native Americans lived on the wild game, plants, and wood of the swamps. The largest in Rehoboth is about 400 acres and named Sqannakonk Swamp which is Wampanoag for wild goose. At a northerly edge of Sqannakonk Swamp is Anawan Rock, a landmark of the King Phillip Wars at which a final battle was lost by Chief Anawan.

Dyer was also an avid reader of Henry David Thoreau who is considered by environmentalist Rod Giblett a sort of “patron saint of swamps” . Among the many quotations from Thoreau is this:
“my temple is the swamp… When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most impenetrable and to the citizen, most dismal, swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place, a sanctum sanctorum… I seemed to have reached a new world, so wild a place…far away from human society. What’s the need of visiting far-off mountains and bogs, if a half-hour’s walk will carry me into such wildness and novelty.”

One of several favorite poets of Dyer was Robert Frost, who also wrote about swamps in “The Wood-pile”, excerpted here:

Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day,
I paused and said, 'I will turn back from here.
No, I will go on farther—and we shall see.'
The hard snow held me, save where now and then
One foot went through. The view was all in lines
Straight up and down of tall slim trees
Too much alike to mark or name a place by
So as to say for certain I was here
Or somewhere else: I was just far from home.

In the 1980s, Dyer became fascinated by Squannakonk Swamp and surrounding areas such as Roaring Brook Woods, which at that time was highly divided into mostly small parcels, some having been in families for many generations and some others with owners unknown, having been forgotten. It would be a daunting task for anyone to find dozens of old descriptions and deeds, research the titles and trace the owners of every parcel. Yet Dyer, a land surveyor was in a unique position to be able to do just that, albeit laboriously as a sort of avocation over the course of almost four decades. Eventually Dyer’s son E.Otis Dyer Jr joined the business and also joined the project of researching and buying piecemeal, nearly every parcel of Squannakonk Swamp as well as some adjacent areas. It was a labor of love for both. It was also an enormous puzzle that took the form of a large map that covered a table upstairs in Dyer’s survey office. Each parcel, was outlined with colored pencils and filled with hand written notes concerning the histories of ownership. By the end of the project around 2016, Dyer was 90 years old and the owner of about 450 acres wetlands and uplands including Squannakonk Swamp , Little Squannakonk, Bad Luck Swamp and Roaring Brook Woods. Some of it was co-owned with his son E. O Dyer Jr who died unexpectedly that year at age 56. Perhaps the project would have gone further as at the time of his death, EOD Jr was beginning to acquire parcels in Munwhague Swamp. It had always been the intent of father and son to donate the entire assembled property for conservation in perpetuity. And so in 2017, the time was right and negotiations were begun with the Rehoboth Land Trust.

Look at any topological map or satellite photograph of Rehoboth to see what a significant part of the town is comprised of Squannakonk and the surrounding undeveloped property. Dyer, an historian by avocation, loves the area for its historical importance. However I (his daughter and a biologist) can attest to the extraordinary ecological importance of any area of that size that will remain protected from development. The donated land includes wetlands and uplands with diverse forest habitats, and is a uniquely unfragmented refuge for biodiversity. Southeastern New England was once mostly farms and woodlands but now is filled with suburbs, towns and cities and fragmented natural areas. There are few properties of the size of Squannakonk remaining and far fewer that are destined to be donated and preserved.

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