This Was Then: The artificial pond

There were leeches in there!

A pre-1930 postcard of the "lake" at Ocean Park. Courtesy Chris Baer.

Oak Bluffs’ parks are as old as the town itself. Designed in the late 1860s and early ’70s by landscape architect Robert Morris Copeland, the Boston Globe described them this way in 1875: “The parks are five in number, namely, Ocean Park, diamond shape; Niantic Park, triangular in form; Waban Park, a parallelogram; Pettuluma Park, a semi-circle; and Hartford Park, which contains a shady grove. These parks are magnificently laid out, and of course are among the attractions of the Vineyard. The trotting park [on the far end of Circuit Avenue] is a half-mile track, less than a mile from the steamboat wharf, and affords much pleasure to those who have brought fast horses to the sea-side.” (Pettuluma Park was renamed “Viera Park” in 1968, and Waban was renamed Dennis Alley Park in the early 2000s.)

An 1880 map of Cottage City shows nine named and three unnamed parks in Oak Bluffs east of Circuit, together with another nine parks within the Campgrounds, plus a whopping 24 parks across the waters in Vineyard Highlands. (Alas, most of these are now residential home lots.)

But Ocean Park was the jewel of Oak Bluffs, the axis around which much of the early town was designed. By 1880 it was home to the fireworks and foot races of the annual Grand Illumination, and by 1885 it was crowned with a popular bandstand, where concerts were given every night in the summer. “One does not easily tire of the breezy freshness of Ocean Park,” wrote the New York Herald.

The parks were almost lost to development. While designated as public spaces by the Oak Bluffs Land Co., the company never fully relinquished its legal claims to the land. So when the deeds were purchased by Boston speculator George Abbott in 1885, he demanded an outrageous sum of $40,000 for Ocean Park alone, or he would “cut it up and build upon it.” Residents and local authorities were “somewhat depressed,” wrote the Lowell Daily Courier. But a battle was fought all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and in a decision by Oliver Wendell Holmes (later the legendary U.S. Supreme Court justice), Oak Bluffs’ parks were ruled to be forever open to the public.

A flurry of beautification followed. In 1893, the Boston Globe noted, “The improvements which have gradually been going on around this sea-girt isle for two or three years are commencing to tell, and the summer residents are rewarded  for the money which they have so spent. Especially is this noticeable by the wonderful transformation made in Ocean Park. Three years ago this was nothing but a waste of seagrass and sand. Now it is a smooth-shaved lawn, intersected with concrete walks, having a picturesque artificial pond in the center, which is bordered with tastefully arranged flower beds.”

The “picturesque artificial pond” has changed shape and style over the years — most recently in 2001 — but it has always been an important fixture of Ocean Park. Known as “the Children’s Pool,” “the Wading Pool,” “the Boat Pool,” or “the Lake,” this concrete landmark has been used for 124 years to sail toy boats, and — for the fearless, anyway — to wade.

In a recent Facebook conversation about the pool, Bert Owens of Mashpee remembered, “I used to play in that pool as a tot in the mid-’40s. I used to sail little boats in there. A lot of children did. Not much actual wading; there were leeches in there. Creepy water — it was not aerated or kept clean. We stayed at the edges. I will not forget the leeches.” Donna Honig of Edgartown adds, “In the ’50s we always sailed small boats in it. Most of the time there was water in just one-half of it. My grandmother would not let us wade in it. Everyone was afraid of getting polio.” But it didn’t stop Bonnie Ciancio Parent of Edgartown — she writes, “I played in that park my whole childhood, as I grew up on Kennebec Avenue. We had small wooden boats with outboard motors on them. We waded in if it didn’t make it to the other side. Lots of the Oak Bluffs neighborhood kids played in that park.”

Alan Muckerheide of Oak Bluffs adds, “We rode our bicycles around that sloped edge and across the little connector/bridge in the late ’60s to early ’70s. Also on occasion, we rode through the middle, hoping to make it to the other side without falling in.”
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.