Cottage City stroll

History and beauty come together in an Oak Bluffs walking tour.

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Strollers and tour participants enjoy the cottages and hotels of Lake Avenue on this pristine day. — Dena Porter

It was a glorious day for a tour, making Oak Bluffs that much more picturesque. Gathering at the information booth at the bottom of Circuit Avenue last week, Jennifer Jones McIntyre and Clint Arrigoni from Simi Valley, Calif.; Cindy Stone from Destin, Fla.; Times freelance photographer Dena Porter, and myself were in for a real treat. We were in the capable hands of Jim Rivard of M.V. Tours, who’s called the Island home for some 33 years. Rivard knows his stuff and how to deliver it.

One of the reasons for conducting tours, Rivard told us, was that he would sometimes overhear people being told mistruths, and he wanted to set the record straight. For instance, how Martha’s Vineyard got its name: According to Rivard, we were originally “Martin’s Vineyard,” named after John Martin, who sailed with Bartholomew Gosnold in his explorations of the Islands and Cape Cod. He says Martin’s Vineyard is what’s on the early charts, and on early legal documents that went to the colonial governor’s office in Boston. 

We left the noise of Oak Bluffs Harbor behind and took a walk back in time into the huge circle called the Campgrounds. “This is where tourism started on Martha’s Vineyard, at the Camp Meeting Association, and the town pretty much grew around it,” Rivard explained. Every summer, people poured into the area for religious services and fellowship. Making our way to the Tabernacle, Rivard pointed out how much of the original structure has been well-maintained over the years. Interestingly, the gorgeous glass windows were donated anonymously, and we don’t know by whom to this day.

The Tabernacle is still used for services by many denominations throughout the summer. While it’s easy to walk into the Campgrounds from the rest of the town, this wasn’t always true. It was surrounded by a stockade fence in hopes of keeping the riffraff out and the religiously observant in, away from any of the alluring vices on Circuit Avenue. It’s fascinating to think about how the two very distinct cultures existed side by side. Rivard, as was typical throughout the tour, let us in on an amusing tidbit. Supposedly, a younger preacher was discovered trying to get out by digging under the fence. Rivard reflected, “Some people will do anything to get a drink.”

Particularly enchanting was our stroll among samples of the Campground’s 318 or so candy-colored, gingerbread-ornamented camp meeting cottages, which sparkled in the dappled sunlight. Rivard had us looking, too, at how smaller houses were sometimes attached together to make them larger, pointing out how it was easy to move houses then because there wasn’t any plumbing or electricity to disconnect.

Another blast from the past during our tour was coming upon the only remaining rails from the trolleys that used to ferry folks from the docks to the Campgrounds. I could imagine the men in their suits and women in their Victorian long dresses passing by on the cars.

One of the important characters we heard about often was the wealthy mover and doer Erasmus Carpenter. He started the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Co. with some of the whaling interest money, since that industry had gone kaput. Others invested with him, and Carpenter started buying up tracts of land and subdividing them around the Campgrounds. He was responsible for, among other things, the green open parks nearby — all in an effort to make it a tourist mecca.

We first walked to Wabam Park, recently renamed Dennis Alley Park. Although empty that morning, I could hear echoes of the men over a hundred years ago playing both croquet as well as amateur baseball, which, as Rivard pointed out, didn’t mean there wasn’t betting on it. The likes of Paul Robeson and Walter Camp, the American football player, coach, and sportswriter known as the “Father of American Football,” were some well-known figures recruited to come play on the Vineyard.

We headed over to the green expanse of Ocean Park, then to Inkwell Beach, where we learned that it acquired its name because authors such as James Baldwin and Dorothy West, a longtime resident of Oak Bluffs, would come down to write, which in those days would have been with fountain pens that required … well, ink.

With the water lapping at our feet, Rivard told us how Edgartown, in an effort to profit off Cottage City’s bustling tourist trade, built a railroad, insisting that the tracks run along the beach. Not the best municipal planning, as the constant winter storms damaged the tracks frequently enough that the endeavor closed down. Since we’re still not in high season, the area was fairly quiet. But he conjured up the hustle and bustle of the large and famous Seaview House, which swarmed with tourists and housed restaurants, a ballroom, roller skating rink, and the like.

We also learned about, as Rivard described it, “the Oak Bluffs Civil War.”

“There was no bloodshed the way they were able to wiggle free of the throes of Edgartown,” Rivard said. “All the tourist tax money was being spent on Edgartown proper itself. It wasn’t addressing situations associated with tourism: crime, sanitation, drinking water, roadways, and pathways. Edgartown didn’t have money coming in from whaling anymore, and they were trying to drag tourism down to Edgartown. That’s why they built the railroad.” Oak Bluffs, then called Cottage City, officially separated from Edgartown in 1880.

We circled around to where we began, and our small but congenial group reluctantly broke up after having had a wonderful tour.

 

Oak Bluffs walking tours occur every Wednesday until the end of August, meeting at 10 am at the Tourist Information Booth at the intersection Lake and Oak Bluffs Avenues. Call 774-310-0090 for more information or to arrange a private tour of Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, or Vineyard Haven.