Oak Bluffs “History on Tap”

Martha's Vineyard Museum Chief Curator Bonnie Stacy shares Oak Bluffs history with diners at Offshore Ale. — Photo by Maria Thibodeau

On Thursday, Feb. 5, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum hosted “History on Tap” at Offshore Ale Co., where Chief Curator Bonnie Stacy gave a presentation about Oak Bluffs history.

The history of Offshore Ale dates to 1997, before which it was a Laundromat, but the town of Oak Bluffs, only called that since 1907, has a long lineage.

Offshore partnered with the museum for the event as part of their Dine to Donate series, which donates 20% of all food sales from lunch and dinner at the restaurant on that day to the institution, in addition to sharing time, space, and intake for the presentation. Ms. Stacy said the event was a success, although final figures for the night’s fundraising were not yet collected.

She read a log of the community’s background, which will be presented at other congenial sites around the Island over the next several months, similarly collecting money for the museum.

What we now know as Oak Bluffs was first called Nunnepog until it evolved into part of Edgartown. It developed from being an agricultural porch for Edgartown, until 1890, when it became Cottage City. That name, which still lingers in some districts and business names around town, addressed the growing communities of cottages, as it developed as a seasonal religious retreat, finally taking the more familiar name of Oak Bluffs in 1907.

In deeper history, before it was incorporated into any sort of town, in the 1650s the Nunnepog people shared their land there with several Anglo families, including the Daggett, Butler, Norton, Luce, and Smith families. Around 1660 many of those lands were joined when Joseph Daggett married Ahoma, a granddaughter of the Nunnepog Sachem Wampanoag, first uniting the natives of that region with the settlers.

During this time the other clans were very much in evidence. As early as 1673 there were Nortons working Farm Neck, the fields between Squash Meadow Pond — later called Lake Anthony, and eventually Oak Bluffs Harbor — and what would become Majors Cove, so called to honor Major Peter Norton, named to that rank with the colonial militia in 1761.

While Nunnepog had pockets of agriculture, Eastville was the first actual village of the region “East of Holmes Hole.” Eastville, where the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital resides today, was settled by the Claghorn family in 1730, when they opened their Claghorn Tavern.

The tavern was a focal point in Eastville, as was the eventual Eastville Inn, but the lifeblood of the village was the Norris family with their wharf, located at the sand spit where the base of Eastville Avenue meets the beach today.

At that time the boats went from Cottage City to Eastville Wharf, to Holmes Hole, as there was no bridge tying the ports together for another century. With Holmes Hole — which later became Vineyard Haven — an active port, and Norris’s Wharf a vital shipping hub, Eastville rapidly became more than just a village. It had commerce. It had sailors spending, and it had access to exotic wares.

But early Oak Bluffs was not built on trade. It was built on faith. In 1799, when a pair of itinerant preachers in Western Kentucky overflowed their structure and moved their revival meeting outside, the camp meeting was born.

That extended outdoor ministry was the cornerstone of Oak Bluffs, along with the teachings of the theologian John Wesley. He founded the Methodist faith in England midway through the 18th century, and it moved to this Island shortly thereafter.

In 1787, John Saunders, a former slave from Virginia, began to preach “The Method” in Eastville, and he was joined in 1795 by Jesse Lee, a former Wesley missionary — but it was not a popular movement at the start. In 1800, there were only about a dozen Methodists on the Vineyard. But camp meetings would change all that.

The tented or outdoor religious festivals were increasingly popular around the Northeast, and soon the camp meeting came here. And while most of that era’s Islanders were Congregationalists, a development from Puritanism, the balance was distinctly moving in the direction of the Methodists’ meetings.

Around 1820, John Adams — “Reformation John Adams,” not the U.S. President — a Methodist circuit rider, preached at the funeral of a prominent Islander and, in doing so, drew the attention of another prominent Islander, Jeremiah Pease.

So when Adams’ religious circuit brought him back to the Island in 1827, Pease again attended a Reformation John Adams service, was inspired by its passion, and entered his soul into the Methodist Society.

That was the new beginning. In 1835, Jeremiah Pease had sought out a striking location on Butler family land, on Squash Meadow Pond, at the base of what is now East Chop.

There, at “the place of the great [oak] trees,” or the grove, land was cleared for the first camp meeting in late August of that year with literally a handful — fewer than 10 — of tents, but that too would soon change.

The Wesleyan Grove group leased Butler land for five years starting in 1840, and by 1841, some two dozen preachers arrived and ministered to the occupants of some 20 tents and nearly a thousand other assembled worshipers. Their numbers swelled to more than twice that for the big August revival.

By 1855, some 5,000 Methodists came ashore at Norris’s Eastville Wharf and walked to their village of some 200 tents for four services a day. By 1859 the grove had its first building, a small, gingerbread-trimmed office, very much a prototype of current Campground design.

Cottage City was off and running. In 1864, the association paid a little more than $1,500 for 26 acres of Wesleyan Grove, and the first 40 cottages were built — arranged in a circle, the same protective positioning favored by wagon trains — joining the 500 assembled tents.

In 1870, the Methodist association cleared Trinity Circle for a vast tent of sailcloth, while Wayland Grove in the Highlands was cleared to host another meeting, the New England Black Baptist Association. That was an early stage of the Highlands’ unique place in history.

In 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant visited Cottage City, and stayed the night in the Campground, where he and his wife Julia attended an influential camp meeting and went to bed to a quartet of singers beneath their window. Years after that, a close friend of Grant’s said he believed “the President had found God and a quiet heart in Wesleyan Grove” that night.

Meanwhile, the Black Baptist Association was at the core of America’s first resort for prominent African Americans. Charles Shearer, born into slavery in Virginia in 1854, and an 1880 graduate of the Hampton Institute, and his wife, Henrietta Merchant Shearer, also a Hampton graduate, bought what blossomed into the Shearer Cottage in the Highlands of Oak Bluffs. Paul Robeson stayed there, as did Adam Clayton Powell. Lionel Richie and his original group, the Commodores, stayed in the Highlands to prepare for upcoming tours and shows.

The Shearer Cottages were established at the core of African American society, in land cleared by the Methodists, after the first English settlers had wed with the people of Nunnepog, where Oak Bluffs now thrives as the heartbeat of the Island.

Today the high school, hospital, and a legion of parks and beaches join to make up the community and town of Oak Bluffs.