From a Vineyard Gazette edition of 1931:
Everyone knows this Vineyard highway, some much better than others. Many people have written about this crooked, curving narrow road, so charming with its high banks and the overhanging mass of wild shrubbery, grapevines and occasional wild apple trees along its sides. But few people now living know the road as the “Dye-leaf” Road. The accepted name, the official name, is Tea Lane. And Tea Lane it is and has been from that memorable period in American history when outraged colonists declared the embargo on tea, taxed by Great Britain: Well-known is the story of Capt. Robert Hillman’s smuggling tea from London to the Vineyard and hiding it in the barn, so that his aunt, Mrs. Silas Hillman, could “drink it for her health” and serve it to her guests.
But this tale deals with its older name, the Dye-leaf Road. A study of this road and others which are now public ways will offer convincing evidence that the start of such a highway was along someone’s private drive, a cart-path by which the farm and the homestead were reached from a more important way.
Middle Road was opened to travel very early in Island history, a way by which some of the gristmills were reached, and at least one fulling mill. And it passed by the hewing field where timber for building was prepared. To the north the early homesteads were occupied by families of Allens, Dunhams, Flanders and eventually Robinsons. This path first brought people into the section where dye-leaves were gathered, the north end of Tea Lane, called the Dye-leaf Road.
About the dye-leaves, a great deal could be said. Some of it is inadmissable to the columns of a family newspaper according to tales of dyes and dyeing that have come down from the ancients. But this much is known, that the wild indigo was gathered here; indeed, it still may be found in some of the fields bordering the old road. There were other plants and shrubs there also which yielded the flaming red dye, and bushes, the twigs of which, steeped, would produce a sort of chocolate brown.
Men, women and children followed the path into the dye-leaf swamp, cutting the way deeper and broader as the years passed. Perhaps some man felled a tree across the brook or otherwise improved conditions for walking. But all who know this road, from Manter’s Hill to North Road know that people of years ago waged a never-ending struggle to keep it passable.
Springs, underground streams, volumes of water which welled up from somewhere, kept this portion of the road muddy for the greater part of the year, and whenever it rained, soft mud formed to a surprising depth and many a team has been stuck there. Recent residents have lived and died, chopping brush and shoveling sand to keep the Dye-leaf Road open. The dye-leaf portion was the bane of all who used it. Men went to their graves without realizing the condition could ever be bettered or sold their land, weary of trying to keep the road in repair over which they were obliged to travel. Much adjoining land has been abandoned as far as cultivation is concerned and little or no livestock graze the hills. And nobody gathers dye-leaves anymore.
Yet the vines, the shrubs which produced the dyes still grow luxuriously as they did two hundred years ago and more. It is a place where in summer the air is heavily perfumed with the scent of bud and blossom, and where the songbirds gather to nest and feed, to drink from the streams and pools and to fill the shrubbery with the music of their singing.
It is a place where in winter the hardy varieties of bird may be found, the jay feeding on the dried-up berries, flickers going about in the swamp, downy woodpeckers and nuthatches engaged in their upside down pursuits. Through the intermingled branches of maple, oak and pine, the gray squirrels leap, and the rabbits run below. And always, when the air is still, the sound of running water can be heard; rarely do winds sweep the Dye-leaf Road as they do in other places.
Walk there if you will. The mud beneath the thick carpet of leaves is cold, wet and deep and few signs of its presence can be seen. But walk the road alone and listen. Perhaps the footsteps or even voices of ancient gatherers of dye-leaves may stir the ancient echoes.
Compiled by Cynthia Meisner