Published on February 26, 2014

Dudley Mystery Has Happy Ending

Stone wall on land in Dudley

We are pleased to announce the recent addition of four parcels totaling 66 acres of rocky oak upland and forested wetlands adjacent to our Pierpont Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary in Dudley. In a profession in which no two projects are alike, this one took a particularly unusual path to its happy ending.

Loyal readers of our blog know some of the background. It began with the discovery that some of the property adjacent to the sanctuary was listed by the local assessors as “owner unknown.” Such parcels are rare in Massachusetts, as generally it’s only a matter of time before the property is either taken by the town for back taxes, or someone succeeds in untangling the web of confusing deeds and poor title records to locate long-lost heirs.

Neither had happened yet in Dudley. And while the land has low economic value, with its rocky, infertile soil and lack of road frontage, it has great conservation value, knitting together several conservation parcels and contributing to the protection of a natural area hundreds of acres in extent.

Loving a good mystery, we decided to see if we could crack this nut. Dozens of hours in the Worcester Registry of Deeds, and several doses of luck, led to the conclusion that these four parcels were owned by Robert and Effie Ballard when they passed away in the middle of the last century. The parcels were the less valuable part of a large farm, and we think the executors, in selling off the rest of the farm, didn’t realize that these four parcels, with their poor descriptions, were unaccounted for.

Trail on land in Dudley

The result was that title now rested in the unsuspecting descendants of the Ballards. But who are they and where do they live? More research and luck allowed us to piece together the family tree and to identify and eventually locate 12 heirs, in three generations, scattered across the country from Maine to Oregon to South Carolina and points in between.

When we contacted them at first, telling them that they were part owners of a tract of land in Dudley, many thought we were cranks or scammers. But the credibility of our evidence (and of our name) won out. And our purpose was appealing: to acquire this last bit of their ancestors’ farm and preserve it forever as conservation land, for wildlife and people.

Today Mass Audubon owns 11/12ths of the property, thanks to the conservation sympathies of the heirs and the generosity of an anonymous donor who gave us the means to acquire their interests at a modest price. We hope to someday acquire that final 1/12 interest, but either way, protection of most of this property, and its contribution to the larger natural area of which it is a part, is happily assured.