Oak Bluffs historic Campground still inspires

MVCMA board member Mike Maitland, left, new executive director C.J. Rivard, and program committee director Gretchen Rehak in front of the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs. – Sam Moore

At night in the late 1860s, as darkness fell over Oak Bluffs, religious devotees closed the gates of the seven-foot-tall fence that surrounded the Methodist Campground.

“At 10 and a half o’clock, as they called it, some guy would yell out, ‘We’re closing up,’ and the gate was closed,” historian Peter Jones said on a recent sunny Tuesday morning at the Campground.

But those gates were more about maintaining the religious atmosphere in the nighttime, not to keep others out, he explained.

“A lot of people think the fence was up to keep people out, but all day the gates were open,” Mr. Jones said. “The gates were closed so that they could have services all night long; each tent had its prayer time. Then they would wake up in the morning and open the gates back up.”

This summer the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association marks its 181st season, and the fence that once surrounded it became part of history long ago. The colorful gingerbread houses that replaced the original tents remain, though, a reminder of a simpler time and local carpenters’ old-fashioned hand tools.

The new executive director of the association, C.J. Rivard, said nowadays they’re about opening doors and sharing all they have to offer with the rest of the Island community. Ms. Rivard has only been at the helm of the MVCMA for a few months, but she said the Campground is where it all began.

“This is where Martha’s Vineyard tourism started,” she said. “I’ve always known about the Campground, and now I’m excited to be a part of it.

In the 1800s as the Campground expanded and more families began to come, small businesses sprang up around it. Although religion was the focus, as the years went by the camp meeting-goers began to enjoy the salt air and the socialization that came with staying in a small coastal town.

“Although it was originally a religious community, this structure, the Tabernacle, is a way to bring the community together,” Ms. Rivard said.

Summer activities at the Tabernacle run the gamut from morning yoga to a presentation by Pulitzer-prizewinning Island author and historian David McCullough to a concert by Arlo Guthrie and everything in between. Traditional events like the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School graduation ceremony in June, summer Sunday services, the Children’s Festival, the All-Island Art Show, the Community Sing every Wednesday, and Grand Illumination are also on the schedule.

New for summer 2016 are the free sunset concerts on the lawn every Friday beginning at 6 pm. Local musicians Nina Violet, Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish, Phil DaRosa and others are scheduled to perform.

“It’s been very well-received,” Ms. Rivard said. “It’s very much a family and community event; Offshore Ale brings their catering truck, kids are dancing, and I recognize a lot of local folks who may not ordinarily come to the Campground.”

There’s a greater emphasis on programming this year, with program committee director Gretchen Rehak heading up efforts to expand the number of events offered.

“The sunset concerts are on Fridays; it’s the end the of week, and you don’t have to worry about making dinner,” Ms. Rehak said. “Johnny Hoy and the other musicians have said they have wanted to play at the Tabernacle for years.” She said the Tabernacle has great acoustics.

Aside from the cultural, musical, and family events held at the Campground, there are still many faith-based activities on the calendar.

Mike Maitland heads up the spiritual life committee at the MVCMA, and said they are striving to offer the community Sunday speakers that appeal to many different faiths. Rabbi Caryn Broitman from the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center spoke at a recent Sunday service. The Rev. Drs. Gloria White Hammond and Ray Hammond visited from Boston, where they founded the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1988. Catholic priest Father Robert Joerger will lead a Sunday service as well. The spiritual life committee will sponsor an August 6 comedy special featuring inspirational author and speaker SQuire Rushnell and his wife, comedian Louise DuArt. Mr. Maitland said that the committee modifies the music used at services to reflect a more ecumenical style of worship. “We’re trying to magnify our similarities, not our differences,” he said.

While the Campground offers plenty of free events, others, like the Arlo Guthrie concert and Mr. Rushnell’s “Godwinks and Comedy” presentation, are ticketed events. Some of the proceeds from the paid performances that take place at the Campground are earmarked for the Tabernacle Restoration Fund. Built in 1879, the iron, stained glass, and wood structure requires regular maintenance, and the chairs and benches that are shaded by its roof are being restored as well.

C.J. Rivard, new executive director of the MVCMA, in front of the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs.C.J. Rivard, new executive director of the MVCMA, in front of the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs.

The MVCMA, designated a National Historic Landmark in 2005, also gets support from the land leases on the properties. Lease amounts are dependent upon the square footage of the lots, and there are some 315 cottages that make up the Campground.

“There are approximately 34 acres of land that constitute the Campground,” Ms. Rivard said. “There are residential leases and a few commercial leases.” The gift shop and museum also provide some support, she said. And there are the events that offset some of the costs of programs, groundskeeping, and other ongoing projects.

Ms. Rehak said that the Campground isn’t necessarily trying to make money. “We want everyone to be able to come to our events,” she said. “I want my kids and their kids to have the same experiences I had as a Campground kid. There’s no place like it.”

She noted that back in 1962, her grandparents and parents pooled their resources to purchase their family cottage at the Campground for $2,700.

Ms. Rehak smiled and said, “I’m third-generation, and I still remember getting yelled at for being too loud playing hide and seek.”

This summer’s offerings for children include family movies, the annual talent show, a ride on the pirate ship based in the Oak Bluffs Harbor, a Tanglewood Marionettes performance, a visit to the YMCA, and more. Some of the events are open to all children, others are for members only.

Mr. Maitland said the Campground is made up of a tightly knit group of families, some of whom have been coming for generations. He came to the Campground through his wife’s family, one of the original families to come to the summer camp meetings in the 1800s.

“I’m a newbie. I’ve only been here since 1976,” Mr. Maitland joked. He and his wife spend winters in Texas, but said they love summers at the Campground. Mr. Maitland said he likes to take pictures of the people taking pictures, and he said that sometimes during the Tuesday and Thursday walking tours, visitors think the people rocking on their porches are actors.

“I can’t describe it,” he said. “Friends on the porch talking; you never know how long you’ll be gone when you take a walk here. When my wife asks me how long I’ll be gone, I say, Oh, about six people.”

For more information about the history of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association and the events planned this summer, visit mvcma.org.