From Canvas to Gingerbread
After the first camp-meeting, news of the Vineyard site’s virtues—including a convenient landing, a shady grove, and abundant water—spread quickly. By 1837, the one-week August encampment featured 12 “society tents” representing specific Methodist churches on the island and the mainland, one or two boarding tents, 17 preachers, and 2,000 attendees, says Sally Dagnall in her history, Circle of Faith: The Story of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp-Meeting (2010). Dagnall and her husband, Russell, own two homes in the campground neighborhood, and their family connections to the area date to the early 1900s. In her book, Dagnall writes that by 1848, the camp-meeting had grown to 64 tents, and attendance at Sunday services approached 3,000. Since many families returned year after year, the gatherings began to take on a social function as well as a religious one.
The tents, meanwhile, were becoming larger and more ornate. Old photographs show many with draped and scalloped flaps, as well as wide canvas overhangs, which allowed family members to sit outside while remaining protected from the elements—an obvious precursor of the porches that are such a prominent feature of the cottages today.
In 1859, the association constructed a building for offices and storage, launching a 26-year building boom. The association also bought the camp-meeting property, convened an organization of laymen to oversee business affairs, and adopted the official name: Martha’s Vineyard Camp-Meeting Association.
For the most part, cottages replaced tents; like the tents, they were small and laid out close together. Some were built directly on the wooden tent platforms. Local carpenters produced the distinctive filigree, and the cottages’ unique style came to be called Carpenter Gothic. In Unbroken Circles: The Campground of Martha’s Vineyard (2000), Mary-Jean Miner describes the style as follows: “The houses look like tiny little churches. Windows feature pointed or round arches, and the main entrance is usually a double door of similar style, opening inward. The cottages are embellished with unique jigsaw decorations of almost endless variety.”
At one point, the campground held more than 600 cottages; today, there are 314. The original cottages had one or two bedrooms, and over the years some were combined to create larger dwellings. Others were moved, and some fell into disrepair and were torn down. Residents own the cottages and lease the lots they are built on from the association.
Jody Graichen, a historic preservation consultant from Athens, Georgia, who spoke at the campground last summer, is impressed by how well the cottages have survived. “It’s remarkable that so many of the cottages are still there and have maintained so much historic integrity,” she says. Graichen attributes their longevity to the fact that most are family owned and have been passed down through many generations.
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