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Behind the Headlines: Blue Heron Farm

Obama's Chilmark vacation home has a long, sometimes sad history—and not a few brushes with presidents, too.

Much attention has been given to Blue Heron Farm, the Chilmark estate where President Barack Obama and his family have set up camp during three consecutive-year vacations to Martha’s Vineyard.

But what exactly lies beyond the security checkpoints, down a long dirt road, at the more than $20 million, 28.5-acre estate?

Quite a bit of history—some of it sad, some of it presidential—real estate records and past reports reveal.

The Blue Heron Farm property, where the Obamas have stayed during thier past three vacations to Martha's vineyard, consists of some nearly 30 acres of lush meadow and saltwater access with several restored and renovated structures. The farmland on which it is now located had been in the Hancock family of Chilmark— descedents of John— for some 200 years.

Today, the place at 41 Cobb's Hill Road, and 99 Pond View Farm Rd. in West Tisbury, boasts a white, five-bedroom, Victorian farm house, a vast holiday of gardens, a reconstructed, 150-year-old, Pennsylvania hay barn and an equally aged, oversized shed from Vermont. Additionally, there is beach access on Squibnocket Pond and a vista of Tiah's Cove, a particularly charming offshoot of Tisbury Great Pond.

The farm began as such in 1991, when Manhattan real estate developer and philanthropist M. Anthony "Tony" Fisher, of Menemsha and New York, and his first wife, Paula, began to assemble the pieces of property. Fisher named the property for a great graceful bird that landed on the place about the same time they did.

Improvements never stopped at Blue Heron Farm. Besides the buildings, Fisher and his second wife, Anne, continually added to and improved the property. The compound also boasts a swimming pool, elaborate riding ring, a golf practice tee, an orchard, a basketball area and a volleyball court.

Blue Heron Farm had received its share of notoriety even before Obama’s first visit to the estate in 2009. In the summer of 1998, the Fishers hosted small dinner party for then–President Clinton and his wife, Hillary, in the summer of 1998.

On April 4, 2003 the estate grabbed headlines for a sadder affair.

Fisher, 52, his wife Anne, 41, the pilot, co-pilot and two passengers died when their chartered Beechcraft King Air B-200 crashed in Leominster. Only Tora Fisher, then 13, one of the five Fisher children, survived the crash.

The Fishers were en route to Cushing Academy in Ashburnham. Fisher, a graduate, had been a trustee of the private, college preparatory school for 30 years and the president of that board for 16 years. Cushing was one of the family's countless civic beneficiaries.

In 1990, the Fisher Family established the Fisher House project, residential facilities at which relatives are able to visit their wounded and injured military family members. The Fisher House project has grown into the Fisher House Foundation, with 54 Fisher Houses located on 21 military installations and 17 VA medical centers. Eight more houses are under construction or in design.

Among Fisher’s other patriotic identities, he was chairman and chief executive officer of the Intrepid Museum Foundation, which maintains the retired, display aircraft carrier the USS Intrepid.

The family was also instrumental to Vineyard economics. In the late 1990s, Fisher was essential to the financial rescue of the Martha's Vineyard Hospital as a member its emergency board of trustees, who are credited with saving that institution from financial collapse. The Fishers also gave money to fund the Martha’s Vineyard Arena, Agricultural Society and Martha's Vineyard Community Services.

Following the death of the Fishers, William and Mollie Van Devender of Jackson, Miss. Purchased Blue Heron Farm for $20.35 million in 2005.

William Van Devender is a timber and paper products executive and avid environmentalist. A member of the Mississippi Commission on Environmental Quality, he has served as president of the nonprofit Mississippi Fish and a member of Wildlife Foundation, and of the Pearl River Basin Development District and the World Forestry Center.

The Van Devenders are active Republicans and though they have welcomed Obama to stay in their Vineyard home during vacations, spent considerable money to keep him out of the White House. 

During the 2008 presidential election, William and Mollie Devender each donated $2,300 to Republican candidate Fred Thompson’s campaign. When that effort failed, William Van Devender paid out an additional $2,300 to John McCain’s presidential campaign. In 2004, he donated $25,000 to the Republican National Committee.

The Van Devenders rent out Blue Heron Farm through Wallace and Company Sotheby's International Realty.

Julie Wesolowski August 27, 2011 at 02:26 AM
Nice story Jib! Lots of interesting facts that I'm sure many folks never knew!
Peter Barker August 28, 2011 at 03:14 AM
Dear Mr. Ellis, About time someone summed the Who, What, When, Where and Why of this place. Nice, tight and timely. Thank you.
Elizabeth Norcross August 28, 2011 at 01:54 PM
The first comprehensive synopsis of the Blue Heron Farm; the Fishers and what they contributed to the Island. Thank you, excellent as always Jib.
Charlie Matthews August 30, 2011 at 02:49 PM
Just an FYI, but the property was never owned by the Hancock family. For well over 100 years it was in the same family. It was originally owned by the Inlsee family out of Boston which passed it down the their only child. She married a Purdom from Blackshear, Ga. Upon her death it was split up by 4 daughters. The oldest daughter, Cynthia Matthews acquired the current acreage and home. She lived in Florida. Upon her death, her son Jordan and daughter Cindy sold it to the Fisher's in 1991. I know this because I am Cynthia's grandson and spent most of my childhood summers there. Just felt like the truth should be heard.

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