Reprinted from the Visitors Guide courtesy of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce. www.mvy.com
In 1835 this community served as the site for annual summer camp meetings, when Methodist church groups found the groves and pastures of Martha’s Vineyard particularly well suited to all-day gospel sessions. Wesleyan Grove, as the Oak Bluffs Campgrounds was called, rode the crest of the religious revival movement. By the mid 1850’s the Sabbath meeting here were drawing congregations of 12,000 people. They came for the sunshine and sermonizing in hundreds of individual church groups.
Each group had its own communal tent where the contingent bedded down in straw purchased from local farmers. Services were held in a large central tent.
The communal tents gave way to “family tents”, which reluctant church authorities granted only to “suitable” families. But the vacationist urge could not be checked. Family tents turned into wooden cottages designed to look like tents. And the cottages multiplied, trying to outdo each other in brightly painted fantasies out gingerbread. A new all-steel Tabernacle structure replaced the big central tent in 1879. It stands today as a fine memento of the age of iron-work architecture.
Within 40 years of the first camp meeting here, there were crowds of 30,000 attending Illumination Night to mark the end of the summer season with stunning displays of Japanese lanterns and fireworks.
Wesleyan Grove struggled to hold its own against such secular attractions as ocean bathing, berry picking, walking in the woods, fishing, and croquet playing. There were efforts to ban peddlers, especially book peddlers. A high picket fence was built around the Campgrounds proper. By the 1870s, Wesleyan Grove had expanded into “Cottage City” and Cottage City had become the town of Oak Bluffs, with over 1,000 cottages.
Steam vessels from New York, Providence, Boston, and Portland continued to bring more enthusiastic devotees of the Oak Bluffs way of life. Horse cars were used to bring vacationers from the dock to the Tabernacle. The horse cars were later replaced by a steam railroad that ran all the way to Katama. One of the first passengers on the railroad was President Grant. The railroad gave way to an electric trolley from Vineyard Haven to the Oak Bluffs wharves, and the trolley eventually gave way to the automobile.
Oak Bluffs is also the home of the Flying Horses Carousel, the oldest continuously operating carousel in the country. Its horses were hand carved in New York City in 1876. This historic landmark is maintained by the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust. It is open daily during the summer, and on weekends in the spring and fall.