Lantern, lantern burning bright: A history of the Oak Bluffs Camp Ground Grand Illumination

Carpenter home
Today's view of the Carpenter home, which was originally located on Ocean Avenue. Photos courtesy of Massachusetts State Archives

By William Milhomme - August 9, 2007

On Wednesday, August 15, the annual Grand Illumination Night will take place in the Campground in Oak Bluffs. The event, with its traditional Oriental paper lanterns ornately hung outside the many gingerbread cottages that line the Oak Bluffs campground, is a renowned Martha's Vineyard event. The historical fact is, though the Grand Illumination is currently intimately associated with the Campground, the mid-19th century religious-inclined Campground residents did not participate in the secular event. In fact, they put up a picket fence to try to wall themselves off from the world that had risen up around them.

The organizer of the idea of the Illumination event was Erastus P. Carpenter, a businessman who hailed from Foxboro. As president of the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company he and his business associates transformed the area of Edgartown. This would become the town of Cottage City, later to be named Oak Bluffs. Under his direction Oak Bluffs witnessed the building of the Arcade, the Pagoda, the Union Chapel, the Martha's Vineyard Railroad, and the Sea View Hotel, as well as Waban, Naushon, Niantic, and Ocean Parks. Additionally, during this same era E.P. Carpenter erected hotels in Katama, Nantucket, and Shelter Island Park.

Erastus P. Carpenter family home
The Erastus P. Carpenter family home in Oak Bluffs circa 1869.

E.P. Carpenter, long and favorably known to the people of Norfolk County in connection with the straw-hat manufacture of the county, was the pioneer of this new enterprise. In his obituary in the Foxboro Reporter, dated February 8, 1902, he is remembered as "...a rather small man, with bright dark eyes, always well dressed in a way that commanded business confidence, and he had schemes which were not only grandly imaginative but soberly attainable as well." During the summers of 1864 and 1865, he occupied a cottage within the Camp-Meeting grounds, and was desirous of purchasing a site for permanent occupancy; but as this was against the rules of the Association, he in 1866 bought a lot outside of the grounds. The following year, in conjunction with other gentlemen, he purchased a large tract of wood and cleared land, southeast of the property of the Camp-Meeting Association, consisting of about 75 acres of land. He formed a joint stock company, the association consisting of Captain Shubael Lyman Norton, former owner of the land, Captain Ira Darrow, Captain Grafton Norton Collins, and William Bradley, all from Edgartown, and William S. Hills from Boston. In his "Martha's Vineyard Summer Resort," Henry Beetle Hough wrote of E.P. Carpenter during this era, "...it was he who set the new company in motion, took the proprietorship and plain outlook of Captain Norton, and the accumulation of whaling capital, added the ferment of his own promotional spirit, and merged them into a land company which knew a boom when it saw one."

The company retained Robert Morris Copeland, a landscape architect from Boston to design the first plan for the Oak Bluffs Company. He employed the same intricate plan of curving roads from the rural cemeteries that he had designed in the Boston area. Rural cemeteries, with trees shadowing little lots strung along curving roads were popular in many American cemeteries but especially in the Boston area, largely because of Mount Auburn, in Cambridge.

For sale: Oak Bluffs

It was in the July 5, 1867, edition of The Vineyard Gazette that the company placed its first advertisement for the newly named resort of "Oak Bluffs." The advertisement read, "Home By The Seaside, Oak Bluffs. A New Summer Resort. One Thousand Lots for Sale. The Martha's Vineyard Land and Wharf Company, having purchased the beautiful grove together with a large tract of land, adjoining the Wesleyan Camp Ground, offer for sale, within the reach of all, lots in their beautiful grounds, called Oak Bluffs..." The company sold over 800 lots in the first three years.

But many of the summer residents of the religious Camp Ground were unhappy with the success of this secular enterprise. In fact, historian Chris Stoddard wrote, "In the eyes of many of the people attending the camp meeting, this new group took on the form of the devil and a threat to the more serious nature of the camp meeting." ("A Centennial History of Cottage City.") The May 23, 1868, edition of the Vineyard Gazette reported, "...during the present year the number of cottages erected on 'this side of the fence,' will fully equal, if not exceed those in Wesleyan Grove.... The High Board Fence - between the grounds of the Camp Meetingers [sic] and Oak Bluffers now in process of construction. We can think that the Camp Meeting Association will never regret this proceeding but once, and that regret will be for all time. It is carrying matters a little too far, and smacks somewhat strongly of Phariseeism."

In less than seven years after the Civil War, the town of Oak Bluffs as it would be recognized today was built. The development encircled the original Camp Ground where the cottages now stood and so the main street was called Circuit Avenue. Describing the public reaction to this series of events, a historian wrote, "Inside the Camp Ground all was neighborly and hushed. Outside, quite suddenly, all was clamor and commerce - a town of skating rinks, merry-go-rounds, theatres, and hotels. It was all so contrary to the spiritual business that drew the first pilgrims there, and so bewildering to them. Eventually they put up a picket fence to try to wall themselves off from the world that had risen up around them. The speculation and energy that created the town of Oak Bluffs still animates the spirit of the place today. And though the fence did not last, the Camp Ground, right in the middle of it all, has managed to remain a place of almost miraculous stillness and peace in the midst of the bustle" (The Vineyard Gazette).

The first illumination

It was on Saturday evening, August 14, 1869, in the midst of this bustle that the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company sponsored the first Illumination Night. The Vineyard Gazette reported the events, "The illumination and fireworks at 'Oak Bluffs,' on Saturday evening last, was a very fine affair. Chinese and Japanese lanterns were displayed in abundance, suspended from cottages and trees. There was a good variety in the pieces at the fireworks. The Foxboro Brass Band, brought here by the liberality of E.P. Carpenter, Esq., of Foxboro, discoursed fine music for the occasion. Several thousands of people of both sexes were out to see and hear." The initial festivity was called Governor's Day in honor of Governor William Claflin who was on hand for the fete. Over the ensuing years, the Gazette referred to the annual event as the "Illumination," and the identification remains to this day.

The event became more popular each summer. During the summer of 1873 the Gazette reported on the "Illumination at Oak Bluffs. " Once again entertainment was provided by for by E.P. Carpenter and the Foxboro Brass Band. Among the notables present were Vice-President Henry Wilson, and Governor Henry Howard of Rhode Island. The following year, President Ulysses S. Grant presided at the event. In an article titled, "The Illumination," the Gazette reported, "In the evening the President and Party were driven around the principal avenues on the Bluffs, to witness the illumination and display of fire-works which had been gotten in his honor. The procession headed by the Foxboro Brass Band... The whole city was ablaze, or rather the Bluff's 'ward.' The cottages of E.P. Carpenter, Dr. Tucker, the Holmans, and others on Narragansett Avenue, and a host of others all challenged the enthusiastic admiration of the multitude of spectators."

Several decades removed from these events, the eulogist at E.P. Carpenter's funeral memorialized him with these words, "If you would see his monument, look around you." This statement is a poignant reminder that even though many of the physical monuments erected during our lives will outlive the names of the builders, the values and traditions that caused them to be built are memorialized in the celebrations of the living.

The monument that is annual Grand Illumination has been celebrated for more than 137 years. The early Illuminations added to the alarm of the people 'inside the fence' of the encroaching ideas of 'commercialization' and a change to their quiet, isolated way of life. With the passage of time, the wooden fence that once physically shunned out the lights and festivities of the Illumination has become like a pond ripple that each year carries anew the light and joy to all who wade into its waters.

Illumination Night is Wednesday, August 15, at the Tabernacle, Campground, Oak Bluffs. Music by Vineyard Haven Band begins at 7:30 pm; lantern lighting after dark. Free will offering accepted.

William Milhomme is the former Massachusetts Archives Field Archivist and Deputy Historical Records Coordinator, and is presently the Director of Volunteer Services for the Massachusetts Department of Correction. He lives in Foxborough.