Our lives on Martha’s Vineyard are enriched by numerous landmarks, both natural and manmade. The cliffs at Aquinnah; the Flying Horses; the Old Whaling Church; Lucy Vincent Beach; Wasque Point; West Chop Light. These and other locations add aesthetic and historic depth to our experience.
Another monument to the Vineyard’s colorful living history is the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs. As centerpiece of the Campground and iconic symbol of another age, it is a favorite destination for Islanders and visitors alike. The next time you find yourself sitting in this sturdy, unembellished structure — whether for a graduation, Illumination Night, a kids’ magic show, or a celebrity performance — take a close look around you. Correction: under you. A lot has been going on.
In recent years, Camp Meeting Association leaders have been concerned about the condition of the 67 benches inside the Tabernacle. The adverse effects of 156 years of use and weather — as well as countless patchwork repairs — were taking their toll. In 2015, the association began raising money for a complete overhaul of the Tabernacle benches. And they knew just whom to call to do the job.
You may not know Rob Gatchell, but you probably do know where he lives. Rob and his wife Lynn own the “Christmas lights house” on County Road in Oak Bluffs. The annual light display and resulting donations to the Island Food Pantry offer a glimpse into Rob’s character. He is a craftsman, he gives back, and he cares about Martha’s Vineyard and its history.
“I started coming to Martha’s Vineyard in the summer as a young child. My family had owned a house on Roque Avenue (now Rock) here in the Campground since 1927,” he said during a tour of the Tabernacle. “I spent my childhood summers in that house. I moved here full-time in 1968, at the age of 18.”
A year later, facing the draft, Rob enlisted in the Navy. He returned to the Island in 1972 and signed on with the Steamship Authority. Thirty-one years later, in 2004, he retired. Along the way, Rob acquired the fine carpentry skills and precision woodworking tools that would figure prominently in his life and, indirectly, in the lives of others.
While still with the Steamship Authority, Rob began working part-time in the Campground, primarily for individual cottage owners.
“I was hired to either fix the existing gingerbread adornments on a house,” he said, “or to replace modern gingerbread with the original look. I often used stereo-optic photos to find what a house used to look like. With computer enhancement, you can get a very close look.”
After some negotiation with the Camp Meeting Association, Rob began work on the bench restoration in the fall of 2016. Given his state-of-the-art workshop, extensive historical knowledge, and passion for the job, all that remained was the math. And there was plenty of that.
Instead of the estimated 139 uprights — the 30-inch vertical boards that support the benches — needing to be restored or replaced, there are 253. To date, Rob has completed 189. In addition, Rob has replaced 15 seats, ranging from 12 to 30-plus feet in length, and 20 backrests. All new seats have an increased thickness (2 inch) and width (12 inches).
Meanwhile, he has pulled 10 to 12 original 5-inch cut nails from each seat, or about 175 in all. (One plan is to sell these four-sided, tapered nails at the Campground Museum to help support the project.) Rob has also cut notches of varying lengths into the bottoms of the uprights to prevent water rot.
All wood replacements have been made with reclaimed heart pine, a dense wood that is approximately four times heavier than most other construction woods per square foot. A 12-foot heart pine replacement bench, for example, weighs about 85 pounds.
Never mind the calculations required to determine the correct angles of a heart pine backrest that must attach to five uprights over a diagonal span of 30 feet or more. Too complicated.
Progress of the restoration job can be visibly measured. Of the four bench sections, one is completed and already painted the traditional steel gray. The middle two sections, fully restored and stark in their sanded whiteness, lack only paint.
By contrast, the fourth section — facing the stage, far left — still bears signs of wear and decline from more than a century of exposure. Strips of plywood hide old holes; screws and nails of a modern vintage hold loose boards in place.
“Remember,” Rob explained, “these benches go back to the 1860s, and were exposed to the elements year-round. After the Tabernacle was built in 1879, the benches still sat on dirt.”
That fourth section, along with its 64 uprights, will have to wait until the fall for its restoration. Once the middle sections get their gray paint and Rob wraps up some loose ends, the project is on hold until the summer crowds have come and gone.
So, enjoy your next Tabernacle event. Take a moment to consider the 140 years of history surrounding you, and the ongoing efforts to ensure another 140 years of wonder.
And if you happen to have a tape measure with you, you might want to measure the backrest you’re leaning against. One of those backrests comes in at 31 feet, four inches. It is one single board — no splices — and it is the original. Rob Gatchell knows; he measured them all.
(Hint: The 31-foot, 4-inch backrest is in an even-numbered row.)