Oak Bluffs connects historically with a couple of surprising places. Brooklyn, N.Y., is one. Nearly a thousand Brooklynites came to town in the summer of 1887 just to hear religious superstar DeWitt Talmage speak at the Tabernacle, and a disproportionate number of Brooklyn families summered in Oak Bluffs well into the 20th century.
Fitchburg is another. The Fitchburg Military Band was the house band at the grand Sea View Hotel in the late 1880s; they gave concerts every morning at eleven o’clock to swimmers at the bathing beach, and regularly led parades down Circuit Avenue. The Baptist tabernacle was designed by a Fitchburg architect, many Island teachers received their degrees from Fitchburg Normal School, and the first recorded swimmer to successfully cross the Sound was from Fitchburg. A Fitchburger also named our town. Well, kind of.
Hiram Albro Blood of Fitchburg was among the first big wave of summer visitors in the early 1870s to buy real estate and build a “cottage” on the secular side of the massive picket fence the Methodists erected to preserve the holy from the honkytonk. Blood had created the Boston, Clinton, and Fitchburg Railroad in a merger, among his other ventures. And as superintendent of this railroad, one of his principal commercial goals was to bring more paying visitors to Oak Bluffs.
The first appearance of the name “Cottage City” was in the summer of 1872. An anonymous letter printed in the Fitchburg Sentinel on July 20 titled “Oak Bluffs. The Cottage City,” gushed over the beauty of the town, especially the architecture, and noted that “the handsomest place on the island was owned by a Fitchburg man, H.A. Blood.”
The Sea View Hotel was opened days later in a grand celebration attended by (and organized by) Blood and some of his Fitchburgian friends. A speech was made by George Towne of Fitchburg, whom the newspapers described as “most delicious of wits and most humorous of natural orators.” In his speech, Towne “complimented Mr. Carpenter upon making this the cottage city of America.” Towne was a longtime business partner of both Blood and Erastus Carpenter of the Oak Bluffs Land & Wharf Co. The three served on the board of directors of various railroad lines, and Towne and Blood also owned a chair company together.
By the end of the month, Blood began running newspaper advertisements declaring, “Oak Bluffs, the Cottage City of America” offering excursion tickets six days a week on his railway from all over eastern Massachusetts directly to the steamboat landing in New Bedford, with bags checked through on the “the splendid steamers” River Queen and Martha’s Vineyard.
Described as a “staunch Republican,” Blood served as mayor of Fitchburg during 1875-77, but he continued pursuing civic and commercial interests in Oak Bluffs throughout the decade.
By the late 1870s, the residents of the new summer colony were actively seceding from Edgartown. But the name of the new town was, as historian Charles Banks wrote, “a bone of contention during the agitation.”
“Logically, perhaps, Oak Bluffs should have been chosen,” wrote Henry Beetle Hough in his 1936 book, “Martha’s Vineyard Summer Resort After 100 Years,” “but this was the name of a land development which the Camp Meeting Association had seen fit to place on the opposite side of a high picket fence. The Post Office at the resort had been called Vineyard Grove for a period, and this, too, was a possibility. Bonaire and Marthasburg had adherents, but fortunately few.” Banks added, “Both sides were unyielding in this matter, and the dispute threatened to disorganize the divisionists.”
So Mayor Blood proposed a compromise name: “Cottage City,” the name he had used for years in his advertising. “He claimed that through his extensive exploitation of this name throughout the country, it was already known as Cottage City to hundreds of summer visitors,” wrote Banks, “and that it would be good policy to adopt it officially.” On Feb. 17, 1880, they did. The new town of Cottage City was born.
But the name had trouble sticking. “The citizens of the town of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard,” reported the New York Tribune in 1887, curiously using its old name, “want to have its name changed to Martha’s Vineyard.” Their proposition was understandable. Cottage City was the center of the universe in the 1880s; the other Island towns were mere backwaters in comparison. But this effort was quickly thwarted.
By 1906, the push to rename reached a boil. The Boston Globe reported, “After much agitation over the changing the name of this town from Cottage City back to its original one, Oak Bluffs, the originators of the idea have at last made a definite move in the form of petitions which are being circulated about town. The project is gaining in favor daily, and the petitions have been signed by a large number of taxpayers, particularly among the summer residents.” By January 1907 a name-change bill advanced to the floor of the Massachusetts Legislature, and passed. “Joy at Oak Bluffs,” declared the Globe. “Marked enthusiasm greeted the news that Cottage City was hereafter to be known as ‘Oak Bluffs.’ Bells were rung, salutes fired, and flags and bunting displayed.” The Cottage City Post Office was formally renamed “Oak Bluffs” a month later.
“The new name — or the old name revived — is somewhat more distinctive than the old one, but not much,” concluded the Globe a few months later.
But then it could have been “Marthasburg.”
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released June 1.