Every person has an ideal, a hope, a dream,
which represents the soul. We must give to it
the warmth of love, the light of understanding and
the essence of encouragement.
~Colby Dorr Dam
I disembarked from the Martha’s Vineyard ferry in mid-afternoon amid suffocating humidity. Swept ashore by the sweaty tide of my fellow passengers, I felt like an extra in the opening shot from Jaws, filmed here in 1975. My friend Martha and I opted to trudge the few blocks to our digs at the Pequot Hotel, and, lugging suitcases behind us, I enviously eyed the beachgoers below splashing in the waves. Cutting through the green swath of Ocean Park with its charming white gazebo, and past lawns graced with well-choreographed wildflower gardens, we found the three-story inn, not an empty seat among the rocking chairs on its shady veranda.
After freshening up, we took in honky-tonk Circuit Avenue, Oak Bluff’s main drag. Lined with shops, restaurants and galleries, we discovered little alleys shooting off Circuit that led us to a secret world. In the magical light of late afternoon, we ventured down one of these lanes and into the Martha’s Vineyard’s Camp Meeting Association, a kaleidoscope of vibrant color combinations, contrasting angles and geometric patterns. I was looking forward to discovering the Association’s celebrated Illumination Night event.
The camp, a collection of concentric circles of teeny Victorian gingerbread houses in a rainbow palette, is a National Historic Landmark. Still, one can forgive a visitor’s perception of the campground as a movie set, or open air museum, or a delicate, seasonal dollhouse display.
The campground’s 315 miniature “painted ladies” feature Gothic archways, pointy steeples, tiny turrets, and cut-out designs in the shape of everything from tulips to geese. The closely-spaced cottages are painted in sherbet shades of lemon, pistachio, tangerine, and raspberry, with festively-painted lanterns strung from the near-touching rooflines, resembling delicious, dripping icing.
My interest in visiting the Campground had been sparked by the community’s tradition of adorning their pastel-painted cottages with Chinese and Japanese lanterns, many of them family heirlooms. The residents here have themselves long basked in the glow of these bright lights. In fact, since 1869, for at least one night a year, these campers take center stage. The Association first celebrated Illumination Night 142 years ago to welcome the then-governor of Massachusetts.
As Martha and I made the rounds, it was hard to tell who enjoyed the people-watching more, the residents or the visitors strolling through the grounds at this hour. We met homeowners who were perched on their porches, proud to tell visitors the history of their houses and the lanterns bejeweling them.
Ernie Mallory enjoyed a rum and coke on his front porch. Floating from the rafters was a platoon of miniature hot air balloons, each one a memento of balloon festivals around the world in which Ernie has participated. He saw his first hot air balloon on Martha’s Vineyard 25 years ago. His next birthday gift was a balloon ride, launching a hobby he retired from ten years ago at age 76. Ernie was celebrating Illumination Night with four generations of family and a mac-n-cheese dinner.
Danielle Kish has lived out one of her dreams here over the past 45 years. On her porch, with daughter Robin, and grandsons Will and John, she reminisced that she first came to the Camp in 1965 with her husband, a Methodist minister, as guests of another minister. She was so taken with the community, the next day, she marched over to the campground office and made a ‘low-ball offer,’ to which the official responded “you couldn’t build a garage for that.” Danielle said she could increase her offer only by $500 and left thinking that was the end of it. Days later, she came home and was told by her husband “Well, you got yourself a house–now we have to come up with the money.”
Daughter Robin said she arrived at the cottage for the first time when she was 11 years old, playing with a doll in the car as the family pulled up. Suddenly, three boys from next-door leapt over their porch railing to help the Kish’s unload the car. “I put that doll away in a hurry!” laughed Robin. Those Harris “boys” are still her neighbors today.
The wife and daughter of Harris “boy” Jim–Cheryl and Heather–were hard at work next door hanging lanterns on the tiny upstairs porch of the family cottage. Jim’s mother, of West Hartford, Connecticut, came to the campground for the first time at the invitation of her best friend in 1962, right after her husband died. She bought the cottage completely furnished for $3,600 with the insurance money. Cheryl said “Jim’s mother knew the boys had just lost their father, and she wanted them to have a special place to go every summer.”
Cheryl said the tradition for most campers is to hang the lanterns during the day of Illumination Night, have friends for drinks and appetizers during the “stroll” hours, and then take the decorations down around 11 p.m. She explained that because many of the lanterns are handmade and irreplaceable, she stores them away once the admiring crowds have thinned out.
Further down the street, Anne and Chris Hurd’s porch sported a hand-made lantern proudly proclaiming “Bunker House, established 1875.” The three-bedroom cottage has been in Anne’s family for 110 years. Her grandfather was born here, along with ten siblings. The Hurds come every year from California, where Anne was born.
She said, “I love it here. It’s like a fairy tale–the quaintness, the ‘magic’ that surrounds it, the unique situation of so many different people and their backgrounds.”
Chris Hurd asked me: “Has anyone told you about the religious aspect of the camp?’
I soon learned that despite its lighthearted looks, the community’s beginnings were serious business.