From Canvas to Gingerbread
The sweet history of a Martha’s Vineyard neighborhood.
Step into the historic “campground” in the Martha’s Vineyard town of Oak Bluffs, and the bustle and glitz of this resort island fall away. In season, tourists amble along the shaded paths, ogling the famous “gingerbread cottages;” residents chat with their neighbors on cozy porches; the iron tabernacle in the village center buzzes with activity. But even after the season, when most of the cottages are boarded up and the museum is closed and the tabernacle is tethered with guy wires, there is a sense of community here, a sense of harmony, a sense that something is shared in this place.
The “gingerbread cottages,” so named for their decorative architectural trimmings, or gingerbread, are a legacy of a community that took hold on the island during the Second Great Awakening, a time of great religious fervor that swept across the country in the early 1800s.
On Martha’s Vineyard, Jeremiah Pease and six men from Edgartown—all Methodists—organized a camp-meeting during the summer of 1835 in a grove of oaks on a sheep pasture a few miles outside Edgartown center. The six-day meeting began on August 24, and the proceedings were serious business: participants pitched tents and slept on straw; smoking, drinking, and card playing were prohibited; and religious services were held three times a day, with additional prayer meetings and hymn singing scheduled.
During the 150 years that followed, much would change at the Methodist campground: the tents would give way to cottages built in an entirely new architectural style; the preachers’ wooden platforms would be replaced by a unique iron tabernacle—still in use today; and the exclusive focus on religion would expand to include recreation and other aspects of community life. And Wesleyan Grove, the home of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp-Meeting Association (MVCMA), would become a tourist attraction and listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its unique architecture, remarkable state of preservation, and importance as a shining example of a 19th-century religious retreat.