Beginning this week, an archaeological survey at the former site of the Baptist Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs is seeking connections to a historic Vineyard community.
Currently, Baptist Tabernacle Park, in Oak Bluffs’ East Chop neighborhood (formerly the Highlands), opens to a circular, grassy field, where concrete footing and flooring are still visible. These nondescript remains are what is left of the Baptist Tabernacle, once an octagonal wooden structure measuring 120 feet across.
The tabernacle site is being surveyed by Michigan State University anthropology Ph.D. candidate Jeffrey Burnett on behalf of the East Chop Association, a homeowner group and the park’s owner.
Construction on the church started in 1877, and it held its opening services in August 1878 for a crowd of about 2,000, with the help of 80 ministers.
The tabernacle was retired in the 1920s or ’30s, and demolished in roughly the late 1930s or the ’40s.
The tabernacle, the product of the Baptist Vineyard Association (founded in Boston in July 1875), is described in only a few published sources, including Vineyard Gazette articles from the tabernacle’s time, a short chapter in Gazette editor Henry Beetle Hough’s 1936 book, “Martha’s Vineyard: Summer Resort: 1835–1935,” and Chris Stoddard’s 1980 book, “A Centennial History of Cottage City.”
Burnett’s research has involved primary-source pamphlets from the archives of the American Baptist Association, as well as oral histories from the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
Burnett will be collecting additional oral histories from East Chop residents.
The work of Burnett and over half a dozen participants will produce a digital map of the site. Their physical work involves sophisticated equipment, such as GPS mapping, as well as the more rudimentary, including a metal stake for probing around the floor’s edge. The project will also describe the extent and age of the flooring, and describe the concrete footings, nails, glass, and other artifacts and debris.
A takeaway thus far is that the concrete of the supports is of higher quality than that of the flooring. “We know that they were using really high-quality concrete for the footings so they were stable, and then a much different concrete for the floor,” Burnett said. One theory he noted was that the floor could have been built after the footings, as a reaction to flooding risk.
Burnett will also record the exact location and orientation of the park, as well as pathways through and within it.
“The pathways could tell us about who was accessing the park in the past, what neighborhoods there were nearby,” he said. “So when we map them all and then put them with the historic records, we might be able to see, ‘Oh, this path goes to where nobody was living until this part in time’; ‘Oh, some of the first residents lived in that street, that’s why there’s a path here,’ and things like that.”
One important community connection noted by Burnett is a path leading to the parking lot of Shearer Cottage, the inn key in shaping Oak Bluffs’s historic African American identity: “We know that the Shearers came here for the revivals, for the camp meetings, and also attended them.”
One of the reasons for families such as Charles and Henrietta Shearer moving to Oak Bluffs, says Burnett, was attending such events.
For Burnett, himself from Raynham, the tabernacle project is a key addition to his experience as an anthropologist and archaeologist.
“The archaeology I’m interested in doing is in … the study of whole communities, how the people in them lived, how they interacted, and how those communities came to be and were shaped over time,” he said.