Methodist Campground Cottage Tour celebrates 17th year

Proving that people can never get enough Gingerbread.

The last three houses on the tour faced the harbor. One of them was bought in 1916 for a dollar. — Photo by Larisa Stinga

Have you ever wondered what those dollhouse cottages look like inside — over 300 of them clustered together, like a village for upscale hobbits? Perhaps you’ve had the good fortune to know Campground chums who invited you to dinner, and you found yourself thinking, “This is far grander than I thought it would be. You can even stand up straight.”

But still you wonder about the other itty-bitty homes, with their cheek-by-jowl porches, and nighttime glimpses into interiors that reveal a tiny front parlor and no more.

Your curiosity may be satisfied: Each summer you can purchase a ticket to see a hand-picked six of these charmers during the annual August Cottage Tour of the Campmeeting Association, proceeds to benefit the Tabernacle Restoration Fund. Guests gather at the entrance to the steel-beamed Tabernacle, where part of the team of 50 volunteers — led by co-chairs Hazel Allen, Lynn Freeman, and Trish Hahn — are on hand to pass out guides, and to wave you toward the cottages.

First, however, you’ll be happily waylaid by a table of munchies, coordinated by Diane Lowe. Make no mistake about it, this is Church Lady Food. You can muscle aside the Anthony Bourdains and Ben deForests when Church Lady Food is on offer. And it doesn’t mean only ladies had a hand in it: Someone’s husband may have whipped up a tray of cunning little sandwiches. The woman who expressed caramel nougat into strawberry meringue cookies may be the CEO of a large tractor plant. Point is, it’s still Church Lady edibles through and through: an array of cookies, tiny cakes, and chocolate chip “crunchies” for which managers of fast-food companies lie awake at night wondering how they can discover the secret ingredients.

Once you finally pry yourself away from the treats, you follow the arrows toward the chosen cottages.

At 2 Wesleyan Grove, built in 1871, white walls and Victorian filigree lend neutral background to pink and lavender trim around railings and windows, and a cat painting that reads “Please wipe your paws.” And something else marks the cottage: a love story. In 2004, a single woman bought the house — actually two cottages welded together — and she hired a contractor to help her spiff it up. The two fell in love, and found the spirit of adventure to marry, so now the cottage belongs to Lorna and Brian Welch.

Across the quiet oval park of Wesleyan Grove sits No. 11. Built in 1869, in 1931 the cottage was purchased by the Capello family, and it’s been in their safekeeping ever since. Through the double Romanesque (rounded instead of sharply pointed like the Gothic lines) doors, you recall that the great pleasure of cottage ownership is that no amount of cuteness is ever deemed too much. So whereas, for instance, the Welches at No. 2 have bright floral curtains and paintings of cats under their upstairs sloping walls, the Capellos have pillows with their dueling zip codes, on- and off-Island. They’ve also picked up such treasures as an ancient dark blue wood cabinet from an early Vineyard jail, a tin ceiling in the kitchen and, where a dishwasher might conceivably be popped in, a fetching wine cooler in its place.

The joke here is that back in the original days, when Methodists took their neo-Puritan rules rather seriously, if a neighbor was caught red-handed with a bottle of white, out he would go, although he was allowed to take everything with him, including his cottage. Whenever you spy an empty lot on Campground property, it’s a safe bet a churchgoer was found with a stein of beer or a snifter of brandy.

Next is a short march to Montgomery Circle (behind Sharkey’s and the Locker Room), once the business plaza of the Campground. Now the sole retail outlet is the art studio of the late William Blakesley, illustrator of many children’s books, whose paintings are still for sale today. “Look for the Open sign,” says his widow, retired teacher Liz Cornell. Elegant living quarters, with an industrial-motif kitchen, are situated behind and above the studio.

The final three cottages on this summer’s tour face the Oak Bluffs Harbor. 22 Rock was newly purchased by Erin and Thomas Underwood. They’ve made it a mission to restore the home to its original Victorian luster and to recover furniture true to the period, searching for it high and low in Vineyard flea markets and estate sales. Unlike most of the cottages, the lower porch remains uncovered, and the upper balcony with its wooden gingerbread looks the way it did when it was first constructed in 1866.

Next door, and side by side, are two cottages owned by three generations of the Duffy family. Although No. 38 was built in the post–Civil War period that saw a flurry of Campground cottages arising on the platforms of the original tents, this particular abode was purchased in 1916 by Grandfather Duffy. His Boston tenant was in arrears on his rent, and offered his seaside cottage as payment. The price? $1. In the 1980s, the much-enlarged family bought No. 40 next door, and since then the family of one grandfather, three brothers — Jimmy, Marshall, Dennis — and their wives and kids has enjoyed successive summers, along the way buying some, but not all, new furniture — hanging needlepoint objets d’art crafted by Grandma Duffy, knocking out ventilation holes to cool the upstairs in the summer, and reveling in the upstairs and downstairs sets of porches with their views of the ever-changing light and motion of boats in the harbor.

If there’s any particular Campground decorating ethic, it’s this: Paint in a wide palette of colors, buy adorable tchotchkes, but otherwise keep the beautiful old bones of the original cottage. Sit on the porch or out back on the patio, and let the magic soak into your pores.