“Circle of Faith” tells history of Oak Bluffs Campgrounds


“Circle of Faith,” by Sally Dagnall, Vineyard Stories, 2010, 160 pp. $24.95.

One hundred and seventy-five years ago, the 34-acre Methodist summer retreat — tents and a preacher stand surrounded by woods — established in Cottage City. Eventually, acreage was added and rules established. The Tabernacle was constructed in 1879, a horse-drawn railroad was replaced with electric railroad service to and from Edgartown, a Bible School was organized, events held, and Carpenter Gothic cottages replaced tents (the last tent was removed in 1882), and arranged in concentric circles around parks. President Ulysses S. Grant visited in 1874. In 1931, Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association became interdenominational. Cottages sold for around $55 after the Depression, and for more than $600,000 in 2006. What began in 1835 as a temporary religious retreat was designated a National Historic Landmark by the United States Secretary of the Interior and National Parks Service in 2005.

It is a unique story, captured and told in fascinating and tender detail in Sally Dagnall’s latest book, “Circle of Faith, The Story of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp-Meeting,” published by Vineyard Stories.

In fact, it is told twice — in text, filled with historical details, anecdotes and pithy explanations; and in wonderfully preserved sepia-toned archival photographs of people, places, and events. In each case, like the braiding of threads, form is created — something generally essential about the Island, and something specifically essential about the Martha’s Vineyard Campgrounds.

The Campground’s de facto historian, Sally Dagnall, authored “Martha’s Vineyard Camp-Meeting Association, 1835-1985” in 1985 (timed for the Campground’s sesquicentennial celebration), and “A Child’s Book of MVCMA” in 1994. True to her well-earned reputation for style and thoroughness, “Circle of Faith” is the meticulously compiled story of both the concrete and intrinsic aspects that comprise the Campground: buildings, traditions, religious observances, landmarks, families, growth, and spirit.

Included among the archival records is a journal entry kept by a visitor to the retreat in 1869. He notes being assigned to a tent filled with straw, fed daily portions of chowder, and paying 15 cents to wash his face at the community pump.

The book is a keepsake unique to the Vineyard — and who better to have created it than Ms. Dagnall.

Sally Wortman Dagnall and her husband, Russell Dagnall, the past Camp Meeting Association president, live in the cottage that belonged to Mr. Dagnall’s parents. Both of their families came to the Island in the early 1900s. The Dagnalls were married in the Campground, and although they spend the off-season in Ohio, they consider this their home. They know it intimately; know the generations that preceded them, families like the Rutherfords, Husses, Longs, Merrills, Shabicas, Lawrences, Halls, Freys, Harts, McKechnies. They understand its pace and tempo and what it is that contributes to the closeness of its community, and it all comes through in Ms. Dagnall’s book.

Even the “List of Firsts & Important Dates” that precedes the Bibliography and Index at the end of the book is chocked with little facts that tell a big story: 1835, First camp-meeting; 1840, the name Wesleyan Grove was formally adopted; 1856, First tax for grounds maintenance, 50-cents for each tent; 1863, street lamps installed; 1871, First child born on campgrounds, Wesley Grove Vincent. The list continues to 2006, when the Oak Bluffs Water District installed new water mains.

The photographs illustrate look and style: side-by-side tents; cottage interiors and cottages being moved from one spot to another (they were light and had no plumbing or electrical connections); prayer gatherings with groups of formally dressed gentleman and hoop-skirted, corseted women with serious faces; views of the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company’s wharf and first hotel; the cottages and street around Trinity Park; people in prayer, at leisure, and in celebration.

Whether of not one has visited the Campgrounds, “Circle of Faith” is hand-held history at its best.