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From Canvas to Gingerbread

After the Civil War, the association purchased land to expand the camp-meeting site to 35 acres, roughly the property’s size today. With many families spending the entire month of August at the campground, an assortment of services sprang up, including barbershops, bakeries, tailors, drugstores, and furniture vendors. Boarding houses catered to increasing numbers of visitors who didn’t have their own tents or cottages. Two of these—Attleboro House and Wesley House (now the Wesley Hotel)—are still in business today.

In her book, Dagnall notes that one, time-honored tradition long associated with the campground actually began as a way to promote the burgeoning seaside resort beyond the campground’s boundaries. In 1869, the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company, developers of homes and cottages outside the campground staged an illumination with decorative lanterns lighting new cottages, a brass band concert, and fireworks. Later, Illumination Night became part of the closing ceremonies of the annual camp-meeting. Today, Grand Illumination Night is usually held on the third Wednesday evening in August; this year, it is scheduled for August 19. As in the early days, the event includes a band concert, singing, and colorful Oriental lanterns decorating the cottages.

Martha's Vineyard gingerbread cottages

Photo Courtesy of: Doug Ulwick

The most visible landmark on the property is the iron tabernacle, an architectural and engineering marvel and the largest covered venue on the island. In 1879, the association budgeted $7,200 to build a wooden tabernacle to replace its worn canvas worship structure. When it turned out that a wooden structure would cost a minimum of $10,000, Dagnall says the association turned to J.W. Hoyt, a camp-meeting attendee affiliated with an iron construction company in Springfield, Massachusetts who said his company could build an iron tabernacle for $6,200; the association accepted.

From the outside, the tabernacle appears oval, but looking up to the rafters from inside reveals it is actually a square structure consisting of four main trusses. Sun shines through stained-glass clerestory windows, throwing bands of color across the benches and floor. With seating for up to 2,500 people, the tabernacle is now used for non-denominational religious services as well as musical and other cultural activities. In 2000, it was declared a federal “Save America’s Treasures” OVA project.

Martha's Vineyard gingerbread cottages

Painted by: Hayley Roderick

The campground has seen its share of distinguished visitors over the years. President Ulysses S. Grant stayed at the Bishop Haven Cottage in 1874. The story goes that Grant got locked out when he stepped off the property to enjoy a cigar and brandy—at the time, the entire campground was enclosed by a high fence and was locked up promptly at 10 p.m. President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton attended services at the tabernacle in 1993.

Today, visitors are welcome to stroll the campground and enjoy the cottages’ unique architecture. The association offers guided tours on Tuesday and Thursday mornings in July and August. Guides such as Jodie Falkenburg, who has been visiting the campground for more than 50 years and now lives there year round, point out interesting and whimsical details: semicircle flourishes over windows are called “eyebrows,” Falkenburg says, and a line of lacy filigree that peeks out from under a porch roof is known as a “petticoat.” The Cottage Museum offers exhibits on daily life across the decades, from period wedding dresses, to toys, to a program from Illumination Night 1883.

Beyond its eye-candy architecture, the campground is still a place apart, distinguished by a slower pace, a neighborly feeling, and an air of history shared. “The sense of community is the thing that has probably changed the least,” says Dagnall, speaking from her winter home in Ohio. “When you come back, it’s like you were never away.”

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