How it began: Grand Illumination
President Obama and his family will spend the last week of August vacationing in Chilmark on Martha's Vineyard. In response, the news media will focus a great deal of attention on aspects of the Island's rich and relevant African-American history. But there are other historical tidbits worth noting about the Island's storied history.
In 1880, Oak Bluffs, a part of Edgartown, was incorporated as Cottage City. The town was not named after an ancestral home in England but rather for the economic and social development and vision of off-Islander Erastus Payson Carpenter from Foxboro, Mass.
Born November 23, 1822, Mr. Carpenter attended a Methodist Camp Meeting on Martha's Vineyard in 1864 - the initial step towards the founding of Oak Bluffs. During the summers of 1864 and 1865 Carpenter occupied a cottage within the Camp Meeting grounds on Martha's Vineyard. In 1866, he organized a joint stock association and purchased 75 acres of wood and cleared land southeast of the property of the Camp Meeting grounds. The association was soon incorporated as the "Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company."
Mr. Carpenter hosted the first Grand Illumination Night on August 20, 1869, a celebration of glowing oriental lanterns, fireworks, parades and music provided by the Foxboro Brass Band.
Mr. Carpenter was elected to the State Senate in 1872 and served as the chairman on the Committee for Railroads. In February 1874 a call was issued to the Edgartown residents in the interest of a new railroad. Mr. Carpenter was the first signatory. At the Edgartown public meeting held a month later, residents voted to subscribe to the capital stock of the Martha's Vineyard Rail Road Company for the sum of $15,000. Mr. Carpenter was elected president, and that summer he supervised the construction of the narrow-gauge steam-propelled railroad, which connected Oak Bluffs to Edgartown and Katama, where he also built the Mattakesett Lodge. Later that summer, on August 27, 1874, Mr. Carpenter hosted a procession led by the Foxboro Brass Band, and a reception at the Sea View House for the first president to visit Martha's Vineyard, President Ulysses S. Grant.
But the era's economic prosperity and popularity of Oak Bluffs, poetically referred to at the time as the "Cottage City of America," also resulted in an ever-widening disagreement between the residents of Edgartown and the non-resident taxpayers of Oak Bluffs. The first noteworthy mention of secession was revealed in an August 15, 1872, letter to the Vineyard Gazette: "You have heard, probably, of the secession movement in this vicinity. Well, Mr. Editor, more fuss than feathers are the result thus far, and the advocates of the movement are as scarce as Greeley Republicans."
Over the next several years, sentiment continued to grow, to the level where the Boston Globe would report, "But when two sections of a town hate each other as badly as these do, it seems as if it would be better to separate them."
The matter finally resulted in two unsuccessful petitions to the Massachusetts Legislature in March 1878 and February 1879. A third petition in 1880 was successful and on February 17, the town of Cottage City (renamed Oak Bluffs in 1907) was incorporated from parts of Edgartown. Many members of the state legislature who were also supporters of secession went to Cottage City to celebrate, but noticeably missing from among the celebrants was E. P. Carpenter.
Mr. Carpenter's Oak Bluffs legacy may be a side bar in history today, but his public absence at the Cottage City celebration caused one reporter to write, "Not present was Erastus P. Carpenter, the man most responsible for the celebration. He and his associates had opened up acres of pasture land, created a lively village that now had 1,106 taxable buildings valued at $1,212,527, among them 18 hotels and 44 stores, shops and restaurants. The village had been paying 60 percent of all tax money collected by the old town of Edgartown. Now a separate town, Cottage City was ranked in the top half of 306 towns in Massachusetts in real-estate valuation - that's how much it had grown in a dozen years."
Now, nearly 129 years later, Oak Bluffs and Martha's Vineyard have flourished into a nationally renowned retreat and resort area.
Annual Grand Illumination Night, Wednesday, Aug. 19, Campground, Oak Bluffs. Community sing kicks off the festivities at 7:30 pm at the Tabernacle.
Bill Milhomme divides his time between Foxborough and the Vineyard.