Scorton Creek, known as the game farm in Sandwich, has a rich history dating back 3,000 years. Today, the Thornton Burgess Society hosts educational tours and nature classes on the 133-acre property, while volunteers maintain the trails.Text and photography by Marina Davalos
Some people call it the game farm; others call it Scorton Creek, referring to the largest of the creeks that runs through it. It’s a place of rich biodiversity—freshwater ponds, salt marsh and forest are joined together by a trail system totaling 133 acres. On any given day, joggers, walkers and kayakers can be seen enjoying all that this unique land has to offer.
Evidence shows that people have enjoyed the natural resources there for thousands of years. “Every square foot has been occupied. All of the land was used, it was a rich area to live [in],” says historian John Nye Cullity, director of the Benjamin Nye Homestead. He adds that chips from arrowheads have been found in the mud. Ramona Peters, director of historic preservation for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, says there are signs of Wampanoag campsites and workstations at the game farm dating back approximately 3,000 years.
In 1635, a man named Benjamin Nye sailed from England on the ship Abigail with his wife-to-be, Sarah Tupper. They were among the first white settlers in Sandwich, and Nye, an active citizen and builder, acquired much of the land between the 1660s and 1675, building a dam, a mill and a fish hatchery there. The Nyes had eight children, and much of the family eventually spread out west—but the house and property were kept in the family and occupied by seven generations of Nyes. In 1911, the property was sold to Ray Nye, a distant cousin from Freemont, Neb. Ray Nye began leasing part of the property to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife for use as a game farm, where pheasant and quail would be raised for hunting. “He was a businessman,” says Cullity, a direct descendant of the Nye family. “Men back then were nuts about hunting and fishing.”
In 1924, Ray Nye donated the house and property to the Commonwealth “for the purpose of protecting any species of useful wild birds, quadrupeds or fish, and for aiding the propagation thereof,” according to Cullity.
The Nye family’s acreage bordered the Hoxie farm, which was owned by descendants of mid-19th century whaling captain Abraham Hoxie and sat to the west of Mill Creek. Sometime in the early 1930s, the Hoxie farm was acquired by the Commonwealth and the game farm was expanded. Various buildings, feed storehouses and acres of pens were constructed, sprawling across the property. Mill Creek again became a boundary, this time the boundary between pheasant and quail, as it was a necessity to keep the two species of birds apart in order to prevent the spread of disease. John Prouty (1915-2013), a local resident, became the game farm superintendent and worked the property for 50 years.
Cullity worked the farm in the summer of 1970, feeding and maintaining the birds. “That summer, some 20,000 pheasant and 5,000 quail were raised for release,” he says.
In November of 1987, the game farm was closed due to economic factors. Vegetation flourished and much vandalism ensued.
Jeanne Johnson, the former executive director of the Thornton Burgess Society, saw an opportunity when she learned that the game farm was no longer raising fowl, according to Gene Schott, who is the Burgess Society’s current executive director. Johnson approached the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife in 1996. “This led to an agreement in which the Burgess Society would manage the property. They negotiated a contract, which is renewed every five years.” With a tremendous amount of volunteer effort, the Burgess Society cleaned up the property and began restoring it for wildlife and recreation purposes. “It was a miracle, the way the Burgess Society cleaned it up, with the quantity of debris and broken glass there was,” says Cullity. “Jeanne Johnson is a hero. It wouldn’t be what it is today without her.”
Today, the Thornton Burgess Society hosts educational tours and nature classes at the game farm through its Green Briar Nature Center, and volunteers maintain the trails. For a self-guided tour of the property, visitors arriving from the main entrance off Route 6A can borrow a “Take a Tour of the Game Farm” sheet with detailed descriptions of flora and fauna to be found at nine different numbered posts. Volunteers also maintain about 60 birdhouses scattered throughout the property, which were built for nesting.
“You can tell the species of bird that’s been nesting from the type of nest they build,” says Ed Houlihan, a volunteer leader with the Burgess Society. “For example, tree swallows line the insides of their nests with white feathers. We try to get bluebirds. They come around March, but for some reason they don’t stay.”
Whether you’re traveling by foot or kayak, there is much to learn about the natural world at the old game farm.
Five Walking Trails at Scorton Creek
Most of the trails on the game farm property intersect, with the exception of the bridge trail, which sits to the south near the railroad tracks. All trails are maintained by the Thornton Burgess Society.
Main Road – Visitors can follow this paved road, the remnant of the game farm entrance, as it meanders through the property for 0.75 miles. It parallels the oak ridge trail for a time, meets up with the Hoxie trail, and finally, connects with the bridge trail.
Oak Ridge Trail – Oak ridge is the first trail from the
parking lot from Route 6A. It snakes for 0.8 miles through a forest of oak trees and winds around to the Hoxie trail.
Hoxie Trail – Connecting from the main road, the Hoxie trail winds for 0.6 miles through the woods, up through a small field, and eventually, to Hoxie Pond.
Bridge Trail – The bridge over Mill Creek is an important structure, according to Ed Houlihan, “as it links together both sides of the creek.” The Nye family used to own the eastern part of the farm, while the Hoxies owned the western part, and Mill Creek was the divider. Later, it divided two bird species: pheasant and quail. The trail winds for 0.6 miles through woods and overlooks the marsh.
Marshview Trail – On the opposite side of the main road, this trail takes visitors through the woods for 0.7 miles, with picturesque views of the salt marsh.