This Was Then: Welcome to Oak Bluff … Manitoba

The Island doesn’t have the only Oak Bluff(s).

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It’s a little unfair to ridicule tourists for asking directions to “Oaks Bluff.” There is an Oaks Bluff. About a 47-hour drive west of Woods Hole, Fair Oaks Bluff, located in a scenic park along the American River, overlooks Fair Oaks Bridge outside of Sacramento, Calif. Check it out! It gets five stars on Yelp. Looks really pretty.

There was once an “Oak Bluff” in Clay County, Ark., that dated back to at least the 1840s (when it was often called “Oak Bluffs”). It is today divided into the two townships of East Oak Bluff and West Oak Bluff and incorporated into the city of Rector, but it seems to be mostly just a historical name now. There’s another Oak Bluff, too, in Batesville, Ark., — less than 100 miles away. The Oak Bluff School operated here until 1947, and is today occupied by the Oak Bluff Community Recreation Center.

There have been other Oak Bluffs in the United States as well, all now apparently non-extant. Like the community hosting the Oak Bluff School in Oak township, Iowa (not far from Omaha, Neb.), in the 1890s. Or the Oak Bluff School and Oak Bluff Grocery in Pike County, Ala., during the 1860s and 70s.

Martha’s Vineyard’s “Oak Bluffs” only dates to about 1867, when the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company began selling lots adjoining the Campground. It would later become the town of Cottage City, before officially becoming Oak Bluffs again in 1907. (There’s another Cottage City, too: Cottage City, Md., formerly known as “The Highlands,” which is known for an unnerving incident in 1949 that became the basis of the novel and film, “The Exorcist.”)

There were at least two sprawling estates in the Deep South called “Oak Bluff Plantation” — one in Franklin, La., and another in Reidsville, Ga. There are some natural features named “Oak Bluff,” like the spectacular cliffs deep in the wilderness of the Porcupine Mountains in Ontonagon County, Mich., and another near Wolfeboro, N.H. There’s also Oak Bluff Park in a suburban neighborhood in Andover, Minn.

We don’t even have a monopoly on tourist destinations located on scenic islands with this name. You can rent a waterview cottage in Oaks Bluff (sometimes spelled “Oak Bluff” or “Oak’s Bluff”) on North Pender Island, one of the Southern Gulf Islands off of Vancouver, B.C.. It’s an 80-minute ferry ride from the mainland (about CAD $77 roundtrip plus passengers, off-season. Watch for orcas!)

But our most vibrant doppelgänger community is certainly Oak Bluff, Manitoba, only a 28-hour drive from Woods Hole, located just outside the city of Winnipeg. It has a population of just over a thousand, and in recent years was ranked the second fastest growing community in Manitoba. Situated in the Rural Municipality of Macdonald, Oak Bluff features the Enns Brothers farm equipment store, a hot tub showroom, the Oak Bluff Recreation Club (a skating rink), and “Oak Bluff’s favourite restaurant and lounge,” Roxy’s Diner, surrounded by an ocean of wheat fields seemingly devoid of either oaks or bluffs.

I approached Roxy Watson, owner of Roxy’s. She kindly put me in touch with a number of Oak Bluff residents to help us understand more about their community. Here’s what they told me:

“Oak Bluff is a quiet little town. It’s a great place to raise a family, and everybody likes to help others if there is a need,” writes Bob Enns of Oak Bluff. “Wheat is one of the main crops around here, also soybeans and corn and canola have become popular with the farmers here. I have lived here most of my life. Our family has operated a John Deere farm equipment dealership in Oak Bluff since 1964. Thanks for your interest in our town.”

“It’s a very quiet place,” adds Neal MacLanders of Oak Bluff. “We see our neighbors in spring and fall, in between hockey season and cabin season.”

“[Our family has] been here and farming in Oak Bluff going on five generations, alongside many other generational farming families in our community,” writes Oak Bluff resident Erin Erb. “We grow corn, canola, soybeans, oats, and wheat. Our neighbours grow similar crops as well as flax, barley, perennial ryegrass. We also have neighbours that have a generational dairy farm just east of town.”

“I have to tell you,” adds Erb, “we still sometimes get the odd link or photo referring to Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, when we Google local.”

So the next time somebody asks you for directions to Oak Bluff, be sure to send them up Highway 3 to Roxy’s. We should go visit, also. I hear she makes a mean Roxy Burger.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018.